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Cyber War and the Siberian Pipeline Explosion

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Writer: Steve Melito

Thirty years ago this month, U.S. infrared satellites detected "a bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere", writes Thomas C. Reed in At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War (2004, Ballantine Books). A veteran of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, where his work included thermonuclear weapons physics, Reed served on the National Security Council (NSC) in the Regan White House and was a former Secretary of the Air Force under Presidents Ford and Carter.

The "bizarre event" that American satellites observed in October 1982 was "the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space," Reed writes. Estimated at one-seventh the magnitude of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II, the 1982 explosion vaporized part of the Soviet Union's Trans-Siberian Pipeline, a newly-built conduit for shipping natural gas to western Ukraine. From there, the gas that was supposed to earn the U.S.S.R. $8-billion a year could be transported to the Eastern Bloc, as well as to Central and Western Europe.
Spanning 2,800 miles and equipped with 42 compressor stations, the Trans-Siberian Pipeline was vulnerable – with or without components from U.S. companies, the sale of which were embargoed from 1980 to 1984. According to a Time magazine article from January 1984, the pipeline's first accident occurred on December 15, 1981, when a small fire at a compressor station destroyed some electronic monitoring devices and control panels.


Agent Farewell

The massive blast of October 1982 remained largely unreported until October 2010, when theNational Security Archive told the tale of Vladimir Vetrov, a KGB Colonel charged with stealing the secrets of Western technology. In 1981, Vetrov passed 4,000 pages of highly-classified documents about the Soviet Union's industrial espionage campaign to a French spy. French intelligence then shared this information with the CIA, which learned that the Soviets had infiltrated American laboratories, factories, and government agencies.
Vetrov, whom the CIA code-named "Farewell", thus sparked one of the most successful (at least that we know about) counter-intelligence efforts in U.S. Cold War history. As National Security Archive blogger Bernie Horowitz explains, the CIA began "doctoring" items on the Soviets' technological "wish list" with flaws that "rendered them ultimately useless or even hazardous". As Thomas C. Reed notes in At the Abyss, the Soviets were especially interested in "sophisticated control systems" to automate the valves, compressors, and other components in the Trans-Siberian Pipeline.
When the U.S. refused to sell software to the Soviets, a KGB operative tried to steal some code from a Canadian company. Vladimir Vetrov notified his handlers about this effort, and Western intelligence agents modified the software before its receipt in the Soviet Union. According to Reed explains, "the pipeline software that was to run the pumps, turbines, and valves was programmed to go haywire, after a decent interval, to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to the pipeline joints and welds."
The rest, as they say, is history. Or was it?

Foreign Policy Disputes

In the spring of 2012, Thomas Rid of Foreign Policy offered a “reality check” to readers still reeling from the 2010 publication of Cyber War, a book by former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke in which pipelines explode, trains derail, airplanes crash, and the electrical grid fails. Clarke’s book isn’t a work of fiction, of course, but a warning about a battlespace where cyber attacks cause real-world losses on American soil. Shortly after the publication of Clarke’s book, the U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC).
For Thomas Rid, however, the past is prologue and the evidence of cyber warfare is unremarkable. In dismissing the “dubious story” of the Trans-Siberian Pipeline Explosion, Rid cites the testimony of VasilyPchelinstsev, former KGB head of the Tyumen region, where the 1982 cyber attack allegedly occurred. Pchelinstev denies Thomas C. Reed’s At the Abyss account, but should we really expect a former KGB official to admit an intelligence failure at a time when Russia is re-asserting itself on the world stage? Moreover, should we doubt Reed’s Abyss account because the CIA’s Farewell Dossier does not confirm the occurrence of a 1982 pipeline explosion?
The best evidence would be images from U.S. infrared satellites, showing that “bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere.” If the National Security Archive continues to seek and obtain information from the
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite systems, future historians may someday have a definitive answer.

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