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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Air Force Secretary: Enemies Could Target U.S. Electrical Grid
Air Force Secretary: Enemies Could Target U.S. Electrical Grid
By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Deborah Lee James

Adversaries could target U.S. military energy sources as a means to disrupt cyber operations, the secretary of the Air Force said Aug. 4.

“If someone were to stop the electricity to a certain base it could very much affect our cyber activities and activities beyond cyber,” said Deborah Lee James during remarks at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “That is why we are so focused on … energy assurance. We say, ‘Mission assurance through energy assurance.’”

Reliable sources of energy are critical to the success of cyber missions, she said. “Think of it in the case of aircraft — our aircraft can’t run without jet fuel. Well, jet fuel … [is to an aircraft what] electricity is to cyber.”

In March, James announced the establishment of the office of energy assurance within the Air Force that is tasked with researching alternative sources of energy that can be generated on bases.

“It’s really a recognition of the new world order, and it’s a recognition that several of our … core missions are really, really dependent on access to energy,” she said.

James recently traveled to Europe where she met with various nations’ leaders. Two countries, Ukraine and Estonia, encapsulated the criticality of robust cyber defenses, she said.
“In case anybody doubts that cyber is an important issue these days, go tell it to the Ukrainian and Estonian people because talking with their governments, they have both gone through over the last several years major cyber attacks. We believe these attacks have been malicious and deliberate,” she said.

Ukraine at one point had its entire electrical grid brought down by a cyber attack, she said. In Estonia, a cyber breach targeted its e-governance and e-commerce infrastructure, which had a “paralyzing effect” on the country.

“This is real and that’s one form of a cyber attack. Another could be against our energy infrastructure,” she said.

Some of the biggest “cheerleaders” for increased energy assurance are four-star generals, James said. “Why? Because they recognize the threats around the world could change.

“We are in the most complex, uncertain and rapidly changing threat environment … that I have seen in my 35 years of working on national security issues,” she said. “We never seem to predict correctly what’s going to happen next.”

For example, just three years ago the United States was still partnering with Russia. That all changed after the country invaded Crimea in 2014, she said. She called Russia’s recent tactics “worrisome.”

“They’re continuing to stir up trouble in Ukraine. They’re investing and testing in space and nuclear in ways that are worrisome to us. They’re in Syria,” she said.

The Air Force intends to double down on energy assurance, she said. The service intends to emulate work the Army has already done in this space, she added. “We’re taking a page out of the Army’s playbook,” she said.

Miranda Ballentine, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for installations, environment and energy, said assurance to electricity is also critical for missions involving unmanned aircraft.

Remotely piloted aircraft, as the Air Force calls them, depend on ground-based pilots to guide them. The connection between the pilots — who are often continents away — and the unmanned system, however, rely on steady power on the ground.

“If there is a disruption of electrons on the ground at any point along that … kill chain, it can lose the connection between the pilot and the aircraft and lose the opportunity to conduct the mission,” she said. “The same goes for space. The same goes for cyber.”

Photo: Air Force


Re: Air Force Secretary: Enemies Could Target U.S. Electrical Grid

Where are the responsibilities and authorities issues being addressed on this topic?  If critical infrastructure of all types is deemed essential to the armed forces, then is it reasonable for the military to assume responsibility for its protection?  Are there limits to what civilian owned and operated systems the military should protect? Where are the red lines?
Jack Clarke at 8/9/2016 7:40 AM

Re: Air Force Secretary: Enemies Could Target U.S. Electrical Grid

It has always been a threat because it could be natural disaster from Mother Nature who drops power lines to some kids flying a drone. A dozen people in a large city could in theory cut power to that city just by taking out substations transformers.
When it comes to the Internet some person sitting in his house in theory could shut down a nuclear power plant.
Which seems a little strange that a nuclear power plant would have its internal computers connected to an out side telephone line.
Maybe it would be better that if anyone needs to see how the plant is going to physically be in the plant, not sit at home onthere computer.
Richard Cornell at 8/9/2016 11:24 AM

Re: Air Force Secretary: Enemies Could Target U.S. Electrical Grid

the first practical act should be to bury the electric cable underground thereby eliminating a high percentage of the natural disaster risk and the intended sabotage risk. Superconducting wire is a "pipe dream".....let's use it now !!!
Terry Paul at 8/9/2016 12:28 PM

Re: Air Force Secretary: Enemies Could Target U.S. Electrical Grid

It is unfortunate how much of our preparedness is based on reacting to completed acts. I sincerely hope threats to our power grid are addressed without delay.
Darren Chaker at 8/12/2016 1:01 AM

Re: Air Force Secretary: Enemies Could Target U.S. Electrical Grid

This is Back to the Future.  There used to be generating plants and sewage treatment plants on base/post. But we divested them due to cost and upkeep concerns, and to use more of the local support. Some decisions/lessons are costly to undue. 
Jeff Brock at 8/12/2016 3:51 PM

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