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We must act now to protect the electric grid from drones

The recent attacks on substations in North Carolina and Washington State highlight the fact that the electric system remains a target for physical attack. But intensifying Russian attacks on Ukraine’s grid highlight another threat to U.S. electric infrastructure: the potential use of armed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly called drones, to strike substations and other critical assets.

Nation-states and terrorists, foreign and domestic, have access to increasingly sophisticated UAS to conduct such attacks. By attacking from above, adversaries can obviate the value of hardened fences and other physical defenses that electric utilities deploy. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has directed the North American Electric Reliability Corporation to review the adequacy of its physical security standards. But increasing fences or ballistic barriers to protect substations against high-powered rifles is useless against threats from the air. Solutions also need to protect equipment — which includes 70,000 transmission and distribution substations — from aerial attack. Utilities, regulators and their partners should begin long-lead development of viable, cost-effective defense options. In particular, they should leverage the progress that National Laboratories and the Department of Defense (DOD) are making in counter-UAS (C-UAS) technologies and systems.

Yet, the most difficult challenges to UAS defense lie in the realm of policy. Current statutory constraints, including criminal laws such as the Aircraft Sabotage Act (18 U.S.C § 32) impose major limits on the ability of utilities to defend substations and other assets against armed UAS, no matter how severe the consequences of those attacks may be. Laws and regulations administered by the Federal Communications Commission prohibit, among other actions, jamming equipment. Utilities should work with their partners to seek revisions to these policies, especially with regard to the use of jamming and other non-kinetic defenses to prevent adversaries from achieving their goals.

The Russian campaign against Ukraine highlights key features of this threat, but also illuminates how attacks against the U.S. grid are likely to differ. For example, Russia has a well-planned campaign to destroy the electric infrastructure of Ukraine by launching very large UAS from its own territory and using its own infrastructure to maintain, launch and operate drones for cross-border strikes.

Potential U.S. adversaries will lack comparable advantages of proximity to their own territories. But that proximity will not be necessary with smaller but well-armed drones launched from within the United States to simultaneously attack multiple substations. Such an attack could be designed to cause significant destruction, with devastating impacts that go far beyond what we have seen previously. In fact, given the potential for destroying substantial high-value equipment over a broad geographic area, physical attacks by UAS have the potential to cause more, and longer, disruptions to the electric system than do cyberattacks. It does not take much imagination to see that sophisticated commercial UAS can be a threat to the U.S. electric grid.

One possible solution would be to retrofit substations by enclosing some or all of the equipment. But this solution poses engineering challenges and is expensive and time consuming. Given the number of substations and the potential costs of hardening those substations, policymakers may need to start looking at active defenses, both non-kinetic (such as jamming) and kinetic (such as lasers and microwave, as well as net guns). The military is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on research, development and procurement of C-UAS technologies, including jamming and directed-energy weapons.

A well-developed plan must include a review of present laws and recommend changes that will allow for protection of critical infrastructure, including active defenses. The Biden administration has recognized the need to analyze and recommend changes to federal legislation to counter UAS threats.

We need coordinated action by the Department of Energy (DOE), working with the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council and utilities, to expeditiously review the UAS threat, review mitigating technologies, and recommend passive and active defense measures against the threat. Because DOD is working on C-UAS technologies and has funding to test various methods for detecting and disabling UAS that threaten U.S. forces and infrastructure, DOE should rely heavily on this work to expedite protection of the grid, especially the most important substations. 

We have seen Russia use UAS effectively to destroy major parts of the electric grid in Ukraine. Like the earlier Russian cyberattacks against Ukraine’s electric grid, we have a preview of a threat for major destruction of portions of the U.S. electric grid — not just from UAS physical attacks but also combined with continual cyberattacks. The time to act is now, not after a UAS attack has devastated multiple U.S. substations and created blackouts far more severe and disruptive than those recently.

Steve Naumann is chief technical adviser for Protect Our Power, an independent organization focused on the urgent need to make our electric grid more secure and resilient. Naumann retired from Exelon Corporation as the executive in charge of transmission and reliability policy, having worked for Exelon and its subsidiary utility, Commonwealth Edison, for more than 40 years.

Tags drones electric grid energy infrastructure National security unmanned aircraft systems

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