Widespread power disruption scenarios are forcing the Air and Space Forces to re-imagine critical threats. A storm bearing down on an Air Force base brings wind, rain, lightning, and the possibility of rolling blackouts, but backup generators may not be enough to keep operations going. Add a cyberattack on the electrical grid or nearby oil and gas pipelines, and the path to recovery could take weeks—or longer.
Such nightmare scenarios keep Michael Wu up at night. “A determined adversary … would want to time those [cyber] attacks when you’re already recovering from what’s going to be a more tumultuous and different strategic environment,” said Wu, a senior Air Force adviser for energy resilience under the previous administration
In such a situation, the Air Force and Space Force’s capabilities would face severe challenges. Without power, how can a digital service operate? Without electricity, can an advanced sensor network be as comprehensive as it needs to be?
“If you look at the core missions the Air Force executes, they are absolutely tied to uninterrupted access to electricity,” said Wu. “Whether that’s space, whether that’s unmanned aircraft, whether that’s any of our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities—those are missions that are tied to uninterrupted access [to power] … on domestic installations that are supporting operations worldwide.”
Several times in the course of the past few years, that access to uninterrupted power has been challenged, both by increasingly severe weather and bad actors in cyberspace. Experts are hoping these incidents will be a wake-up call for the Air Force and the public in general to make sure their power systems are resilient enough to bounce back from crises.
ENERGY IN A MODERNIZED AIR FORCE
“Every Department of the Air Force mission starts and ends on an installation,” wrote Mark A. Correll, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for environment, safety, and infrastructure, in May 19 testimony to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on military construction. “Installations are weapon systems.”
If you look at the core missions the Air [and Space] Force executes, they are absolutely tied to uninterrupted access to electricity.
Michael Wu, former senior Air Force adviser for energy resilience
As new technologies emerge and the Department of the Air Force modernizes, more and more missions can—or must be—accomplished or supported from bases within the U.S., especially for a service like the Space Force.
“Nowadays, [with] intel, data-driven operations, UAVs—the installations in the United States and the global infrastructure that supports the forward deployed soldiers and Airmen and the planes and the infrastructure are actually operational assets, not strategic,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. John G. Ferrari, now a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “They are part of the warfight—for better or worse.”
As part of the warfight, installation’s strengths and vulnerabilities are amplified, especially in the context of a modernizing Air Force. One key vulnerability is USAF’s reliance on electricity.
“We are just simply more and more connected as a society,” Wu said. “And those connection points create new alliances and dependencies on electricity—in particular, communications networks, but on critical infrastructure generally.”
Disrupt any one of those connection points in a particular Air Force mission, and it “can have cascading impacts on other parts of the mission that may be miles away,” the service’s Installation Energy Strategic Plan, released in January 2021, acknowledged. And the threats to those connection points are becoming both more frequent and more potent, experts say.
In particular, severe weather events, which scientists believe are becoming more frequent due to climate change, have wreaked havoc and caused billions of dollars in damages as of late. There was the near-total destruction of Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., by Hurricane Michael in 2018, the massive floods at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., in 2019, and most recently, Winter Storm Uri in early 2021, which impacted 28 Department of the Air Force installations across the U.S., including several that experienced interruptions to power or water service.
One of the bases affected during the winter storm was Minot Air Force Base, N.D. In his written testimony to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Correll said that the storm caused a portion of the base’s missile field to lose power and rely on backup generators to operate. It’s not the first time Minot’s nuclear silos have been impacted by weather—severe flooding in 2011 prevented access to seven launch facilities.
Such events take money, manpower, and time to recover, and missions can be affected as equipment is damaged or units must relocate.
The threat of severe weather and climate change is particularly acute in certain areas, said David R. Haines, Senior Fellow for Climate Security at the American Security Project.
“Those [bases] that are most at risk tend to be those who are out West, where there is potential damage from wildfires and droughts, and those that are on the coast, where they can be damaged by rising sea levels, floods—including sunny day flooding—and, obviously, hurricanes,” Haines said. “Talking about Tyndall, that’s probably the poster child for climate damage—$3 billion worth of damage.”
As required in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Air Force conducted initial assessments of the threats posed by severe weather and other natural disasters at more than 90 installations, said Secretary of the Air Force spokeswoman Sarah Fiocco. As part of those assessments, the Air Force categorized the individual risk level from each climate threat to each base.
“Roughly 10 percent of the hazards identified as risks were categorized as Extremely High or High, 25 percent as Medium, and the remainder as Low,” Fiocco said.
Those assessments have already made an impact. The Air Force acting assistant secretary for energy, installations, and environment, Jennifer L. Miller, told a congressional panel in July that rebuilding plans at Offutt and Tyndall have been adjusted to account for the threats, and moving forward, each base will update its master plans with the results of the assessment within a planned five-year cycle.
Nature isn’t the only threat, however. As the military has developed the capacity to strike globally from its home bases, adversaries and bad actors have gained the ability to reachback via the internet.
“We’ve now spent 70 years building the infrastructure [in the U.S.] under the assumption that nothing can happen to it,” said Ferrari, who served as a branch chief for contingency operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “And in many ways, our belief in that northern, southern, eastern, and western moats, if you will, is our Maginot line. It gives you the illusion of defense, and we haven’t realized that really, the borders, they don’t matter anymore.”
France’s Maginot Line was built as a bulwark against German aggression after World War I and was expected to be unbreachable. A generation later, Germans invaded by another route, and France surrendered in days.
When the Colonial Pipeline was shut down earlier this year by a ransomware attack that caused fuel shortages and panic up and down the East Coast, the Defense Department got a glimpse of what that risk looks like. While there was no impact on the military’s mission capability at the time, Ferrari said it showed the risk of an “existential threat,” especially when combined with other attacks or crises.
“If somebody’s going to the trouble of taking out your electric grid, and hey, by the way, there’s no electricity, and the fuel pumps, the pipelines don’t work, and you can’t move fuel, and now you’ve got Colonial Pipeline and now you don’t have fuel, so how long are your generators going to last?” Ferrari said. “The outcome becomes exponentially worse when you’re dealing with both of those at the same time.”
In 2016, then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James issued Air Force Policy Directive 90-17, establishing a “framework for energy and water resources management.” James made it Air Force policy that every installation should be able to “power any infrastructure identified as critical to the performance of mission essential functions independent of the utility grid” for at least seven days or until the mission could be relocated.
Five years later, the office for Energy, Installations, and Environment released its Installation Energy Strategic Plan, acknowledging that many of its planning scenarios were based on energy outages lasting one to seven days.
However, in the context of increasingly severe and potentially long-term threats, especially ones that can build off one another, experts and officials are expanding their time frames.
“Folks who are operationally planning in the Air Force and who are aware of, and really cognizant of, the potential risks and threats that the Air Force and the rest of our nation face, I think, are thinking on the weeks and possibly months scale,” said Wu, who now runs Converge Strategies, aimed at promoting energy security with military and civilian partners. “Because that’s real.”
Air Force Instruction 10-208 Continuity of Operations (COOP), issued in 2018, establishes guidelines for continuity of operations plans and requires command-wide COOP programs to consider the possibility of primary power outages lasting “seven, 30, or greater than 90 days.”
In the context of a few hours or days, diesel-powered generators are a viable backup option; but for long-term outages, fuel can become scarce.
“Backing up critical facilities with diesel generators is simply not up to the challenge in the long term of the widespread power disruption scenarios that we’re now considering,” Wu said.
Indeed, the service’s Installation Energy Strategic Plan does account for the possibility of more long-term disruptions. Both natural disasters and cyber attacks are listed as potential causes for outages that could last for upward of three months. In such scenarios, other courses of action will have to be employed.
As part of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the Secretary of Defense to ensure by fiscal 2030 that 99.9 percent of the energy load required for critical missions on installations be available.
Within that mandate, though, was no one particular way to accomplish that goal that the department will have to follow. That’s as it should be, experts agreed.
“It’s definitely got to be more tailored,” Haines said, “which is, I believe, why the NDAA put the stipulation in that says you need to make your own energy on the base, but they didn’t say, ‘Here’s how you have to make it,’ because in different places you’re gonna have different advantages.”
As an example, Ferrari cited Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in Southern California which has harnessed methane gas from a nearby landfill to install a microgrid that allows the base to operate even when blackouts strike the area.
Microgrids—small energy systems connected to the larger utility grid but capable of disconnecting and running on their own when needed—are a key part of the energy resilience puzzle, many believe. A number of Air Force installations have already either installed microgrid controls to their energy systems or have plans to do so.
Another potential solution is small modular reactors (SMR)—nuclear power plants reduced in size to be more compact, less costly, potentially even portable. President J. Donald Trump issued an executive order in the final days of his term directing the Defense Department to promote SMR research and development for national defense, and Miller told a congressional panel that she has “great interest” in the idea.
“We’re just getting underway on the pilot program but we’re excited to see what capabilities that provides us for our CONUS installations and then the potential to have those be mobile for other locations,” Miller said.
Solar and wind power remain options as well for some bases. In 2018, Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., then an Air Force installation, unveiled a solar array that generates 35 percent of the base’s power supply. Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., also has a solar array that powers 25 percent of the base. At such bases, storing excess energy in batteries could be an area of development in the future, Wu said.
No matter the course of action, all Air Force energy and water projects must incorporate cybersecurity considerations, as part of Air Force Instruction 90-1701, issued December 2020.
OUTSIDE THE FENCE LINE
Many of the proposed solutions and ideas for energy resiliency involve some level of energy independence, where bases can disconnect from the larger utility grid and rely on their own energy.
But in doing so, experts and officials say, bases can’t afford to totally disconnect from the grid, even if it does have vulnerabilities and a less standardized approach to cybersecurity.
“We’re talking about electricity here, but electricity is extremely interdependent with other critical infrastructure sectors,” Wu said. “Electricity and natural gas systems are extremely interdependent. The electricity and water and wastewater systems are extremely interdependent. So it’s not enough to make a microgrid that allows you to maintain access to electricity within the confines of the fence line. We do need to think about the critical infrastructure that feeds our installations in the defensive communities we have.”
Purely from a logistical perspective, every Air Force installation is currently connected to the grid in some way, Fiocco said. What the Air Force has been able to do is ensure those connections work for both the base and the community.
During Winter Storm Uri, Air Force bases in Oklahoma were able to run their own backup plants to reduce the strain on the public grid. Moving forward, Correll told a congressional panel in May, the service wants to deepen that relationship between base and community even more.
“When there are these kinds of outages, we don’t want to be the shining beacon on the hill. We want to work with the community,” Correll said. “So as we’re developing our [solar], our wind and our other types of microgrid-supported distributed generation, we’re looking for a capability to go two-directional with that, such that if the community needs power, we can push it from our installations to the community, but if we need power, they can push it back to us.”
‘LONG WAY TO GO’
On Nov. 19, 2020, the lights went out at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. For more than 12 hours, nearly every building on the base was affected by the blackout.
But the loss of power wasn’t the result of a storm or a ransomware attack. It was an Energy Resilience Readiness Exercise (ERRE)—one of several the Air Force has conducted on bases in the past year or so to test itself.
ERREs, sometimes called “black start” exercises, involve pulling the plug on entire bases and seeing how units, commanders, and backup systems respond. The results are then incorporated into Installation Energy Plans.
“We can do all the tabletop exercises in the world, but when you actually pull the plug, the question is, what actually goes on,” then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert A. McMahon told a congressional panel back in 2019.
McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst was the third Air Force base to undergo an ERRE since the service started conducting them, along with then-Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. Two more exercises are currently scheduled at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
Such exercises have helped Air Force leaders “determine where we have some installation energy vulnerabilities and water vulnerabilities that then lead to where we invest our resources and prioritize our resources to get after those vulnerabilities,” Miller told Congress. And outside observers like Wu pointed to them as signs of progress in the Air Force’s path to energy resilience.
But while there have been positive developments, Wu said, “there’s a long way to go.” In particular, he cited the need for the service to more rapidly and aggressively acquire and test new technologies.
Securing the funding for projects aimed at resiliency will likely fall under the purview of military construction, an area that “is typically the bill payer for higher priorities within the department,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) noted in the May 19 hearing.
As long as the issue remains a priority for leadership, though, Haines expressed optimism for progress.
“I think as long as the military is looking at this issue clearly and coming up with what it’s going to cost and how difficult it’s going to be to implement things like energy security and resiliency to issues like flooding and wildfires, then we’re on a good path,” Haines said. “Just got to make sure the next few years, we keep pushing in the right direction.”