In March, the White House announced new sanctions being placed on Russia as a result of a number of malicious cyber warfare efforts directed at the United States. Among these efforts were the commonly discussed election meddling that dominates most political discourse regarding Russia in American politics today, but an arguably far greater threat was also discussed in both Trump’s and the Treasury’s documents regarding these sanctions: the fact that Russia had successfully infiltrated America’s power grid.
“The Administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin in a release at the time. The statement went on to provide a laundry list of methods of tactics employed by the Russians, including on site and open-source reconnaissance and complex network based efforts. However, much of their success still came from e-mail manipulation and “phishing” schemes, aimed at gaining access to networks by compromising people, rather than the secure systems themselves.
The result, according to the American government, was the successful infiltration of multiple infrastructure systems, including the commercial energy grid, though the Treasury went on to claim that any Russian access has since been terminated.
“We were able to identify where they were located within those business systems and remove them from those business systems,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The threat foreign control over the American power grid could pose to the nation’s populous is difficult to overstate. In fact, experts have estimated that as much as 90% of the American population would die within two years following a nationwide electromagnetic pulse attack knocking out the power. America relies on power for much more than comfort — everything from agriculture to medicine requires power for every step of production and delivery — and all of it would be gone.
In such an apocalyptic scenario, many Americans would look to the nation’s defense apparatus for help. The military, trained to conduct operations in austere environments, would almost certainly be able to maintain functionality in a blackout thanks to assets hardened against such an attack and internal power production capabilities — at least your average American would assume. In fact, America’s military installations, law enforcement and intelligence apparatus is almost entirely reliant on commercially sourced external power, just like the rest of us.
That means a Russian attack that included shutting down America’s power grid would also mean shutting down the vast majority of America’s defensive capabilities.
A ten year old report filed by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board said at the time, “military installations are almost completely dependent on a fragile and vulnerable commercial power grid, placing critical military and homeland defense missions at unacceptable risk of extended outage.”
While backup power sources like on-site generators and solar panels were already implemented, the report went on to say that “backup power at military installations is based on assumptions of a more resilient grid than exists and much shorter outages than may occur.”
In short, the report said that America’s military infrastructure is prepared for a power outage, as long as it doesn’t last for longer than the fuel stores most bases have on hand to run their generators. Troubling as that realization may be, what’s even more troubling is the understanding that this warning has fallen on deaf ears, with no significant undertaking being mounted in the intervening years to harden the power grid around American bases or to source sufficient electricity from within the confines of a base’s territory. Raytheon has been championing a campaign to provide bases around the country with solar and wind power sources, but this campaign has been seen primarily as a “green” initiative rather than a strategic necessity. In fact, it’s hard to find any defense officials talking about the vulnerability America’s military reliance on commercial power represents without the conversation quickly reverting back to claims about meeting renewable energy goals.
And if you think Russia using a cyber attack to shut down a nation’s power grid sounds a bit too much like science fiction, it’s important to note that large swaths of Ukraine’s power grid were shut down via cyber campaigns during Russia’s military annexation of Crimea, and while those cyber attacks have not yet been formally placed at Russia’s feet, the evidence to suggest that it was Russia’s doing seems to be mounting.
Knocking out the entire American power grid, of course, would be a massive cyber undertaking — with more than 3,300 separate utility providers spread out across a geographically massive expanse of territory, it would be difficult to interfere with them all, but one recent study of America’s electrical vulnerability showed than interfering with just nine transformers in specific places around the country could result in wide-spread outages that could be crippling for the majority of America.
Last November, months before the United States acknowledged Russia’s infiltration of the American power grid, Lucian Niemeyer, assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment, was championing an effort to shore up the the Pentagon’s electrical infrastructure, but even he admitted that a real solution was years away at best.
“We’re here to find out what the most efficient and effective way we can get toward providing resilient power, [and] to provide redundant power to be able to allow us to continue to operate in case something happens to the grid,” Niemeyer said, “it’s not something that can happen in a year.”
According to him, the solution must be two-fold: first, the American power grid must be hardened to cyber attack, and second, the American military needs to invest in electrical redundancies aimed at keeping the lights on during an attack. That will require a base-by-base analysis of power consumption needs and resources available to meet them.
“We’re not trying to apply a template, we’re just saying, ‘what does this base really need and what’s the most effective and efficient way to support those critical needs?’” He said of his proposal.
Thus far, this endeavor has moved ahead at a slow pace, with most funding allocated to ongoing combat operations and the development of new defense technologies and platforms like the F-35 and the USS Gerald R. Ford.
Which begs the question, how effective will advanced weapons systems be if the domestic command infrastructure of the United States is swallowed up by darkness?
Hopefully we won’t have to find out.
Image courtesy of the Dept. of Defense