15 April 2018

Future Warfare: Protecting the Grid

By Tim Connors

The First Gulf War put American technological advantage on display against an adversary with no means to respond. Media images released throughout the campaign paid tribute to smart bombs, long-range rockets, and vastly improved ground, air and sea-based systems. America’s technological abilities were awe-inspiring. A quarter-century later, the United States continues to seek technological superiority. Laser weapons, artificial intelligence and unmanned systems—the very stuff of sci-fi movies—are within our grasp. Unfortunately, such advances do not provide the comfort level they previously did. Unlike the hapless Iraqi Army circa 1991, today’s potential threats and adversaries have the means to respond. Gulf War-era technological advantages like night vision and GPS are becoming commonplace. Advances in computer and information technology enable adversaries to develop new tactics in cyberspace. And nation states have invested in weapon systems and strategies that offset American advantages.

Geography, another traditional American advantage, no longer acts as a protective security barrier. Terror cells and cyber warriors have already shown they can penetrate our borders and deliver devastating blows. The Homeland is no longer a safe haven to build might and project power. Our factories, military bases, and infrastructure will high priority targets in a future war.

Consequently, energy generation and distribution assets, which impact all other critical infrastructure, will be prime, if not the prime, targets. Russia’s 2015 attack on Ukraine’s electrical grid in conjunction with its military operations in the east provides ample warning. It was not a standalone attack. Rather, it disrupted Ukrainian defensive efforts to gain a relative advantage. Nor was the effort sustained. Rather, it served as a warning of cross-domain (cyber to physical) threats the Russians can pose.

Imagine if Saddam’s troops had such capabilities in the 1990’s. He might have sought to use cyber attacks to disable generation facilities that powered critical ports and bases pushing out troops and supplies to the Gulf. Alternatively, he could have contemplated infiltrating terrorist cells to attack important parts of the power distribution system. A brownout in the Northeast nearly twenty years ago showed what damage an accidental failure in the right spot could do. A determined adversary with marginal intelligence and a plan could do much worse.

Sustained, targeted disruptions to our energy infrastructure would make us reactive in a future conflict. Nearly every daily convenience Americans depend upon—from doctor visits to banking transactions—assumes reliable energy. The government could become consumed with mitigating domestic challenges that result from energy disruptions. What’s more, energy reliability undergirds our ability to marshal and project force around the globe, command and control, and sustain logistical support to those forces.

Simply put, in future conflict, energy infrastructure must be thought of and protected like other highly valuable military assets. In February, the Department of Energy announced the creation of the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response. This new office will work on preparedness and response to natural and manmade threats to the energy grid, including cyber threats. 

“It’s an important step,” according to Jim Cunningham, executive director of the energy security nonprofit, Protect Our Power. “But we have a long way to go before we can rest easily.”

Indeed, as recognized in President Trump’s first National Security Strategy, a concerted national effort “[working] with allies and partners to protect global energy infrastructure from cyber and physical threats,” is required. Domestically, this undertaking begins with comprehensively assessing the vulnerabilities in our system. Identified shortcomings must be identified and place in order of priority as soon as possible. This step is especially important given America’s patchwork system of generators and distributors. We don’t know what we don’t know in many respects, and we should get to figuring it out.

The development of a national strategy for securing energy infrastructure based on this assessment must come next. Such a strategy should be supported through Congressional action that codifies oversight and regulatory authorities, while also providing funding for critical improvements to the grid.

Regulatory reform should also support a national energy strategy. When it comes to safety-related regulation, the United States can be proud of its system and its record of accomplishment. A similar set of standards for hardening the grid against modern threats and sharing threat related information can and should be produced.

Development of multiple public and private funding means, including tax-exempt government bonds, should also be developed in support of an energy strategy. The question of who pays must be overcome through innovation and multiple methods. We are in this together, a reality that should be reflected in a broad spreading of the financial burdens involved.

It’s time to move ahead with a candid assessment of our energy vulnerabilities that fosters the development of a strategy to protect America’s power system. The objectives of such a strategy must be supported through statutory, regulatory and financial means. Doing so will protect America writ large in future wars.

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