General: America's Power Grid Vulnerable to Electronic Attack

Government, military, industry huddle to address growing EMP, other electronic threats

electric grid
Getty Images
May 3, 2019

A senior Air Force general is warning that America's electrical power grid is vulnerable to electronic attacks ranging from nuclear-produced electromagnetic pulse, to tactical electronic weapons from China or Russia, to geomagnetic storms—all of which can plunge the nation into darkness.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of the Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Texas, issued the warning in a telephone interview during a conference earlier this week that brought together experts to find ways to protect against what the military is calling the electromagnetic spectrum, or EMS, threat.

"The American people need to understand that we built western civilization on electricity and information," Kwast said. "Whether it's our 4G LTE and our cell phones, or whether it's our energy grid, electricity and information are the magic sauce for economic development, economic growth, and the vibrancy of our economy."

The infrastructure to support electrical power and information transmission were built without consideration of electronic or other types of attacks, he said.

"But we see evidence of China and Russia looking at that as a vulnerability in American society and we have to be mindful of that," the three-star general said.

Kwast was among some 300 experts who took part in an Air Force-hosted summit on electromagnetic spectrum threats at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama that ended Wednesday. The conference participants included some of the nation's most experienced government and private sector specialists on electronic threats, as well as international experts.

The conference was part of the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force that is aligned with President Trump's directive announced last month aimed at strengthening the nation against electromagnetic attacks or events.

As the conference was meeting, an electric power industry lobbying group published a report based on what it said was a three-year investigation of EMP. The report sought to minimize the potential impact of electromagnetic pulse attacks and solar flares.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) report stated that simulations of a 25 kiloton nuclear blast in near-earth space or the upper atmosphere would spread an EMP over an area of 3 million square miles.

The report, however, appeared to minimize the danger of EMP on the electric grid by concluding between 5 percent and 15 percent of digital relays used to control power transmission would be disrupted or damaged by the main burst called an E1 EMP.

"E1 EMP impacts alone were not found to cause immediate, interconnection-scale disruption or blackout of the power grid, but this finding is not conclusive due to uncertainties regarding how damaged [digital protective relays] might respond during an actual event, or how potential E1 EMP damage to generator controls and other systems such as automatic generation control (AGC), not included as a part of this study, might affect the long-term operation of the grid," the report said.

The report was criticized by some grid security advocates as "junk science" designed to oppose what the electric industry has said would be an expensive hardening of the electric grid.

"EPRI’s EMP report is obviously a last-ditch effort to derail the recent White House executive order on coordinating national resilience to electromagnetic pulses that would fast-track protecting the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures from EMP threats," said Peter Pry, an EMP expert who took part in a congressional commission on EMP threats.

The report is "not a scientifically legitimate alternative view on the EMP threat, is authored by non-experts who make false claims, and should be accorded no more credibility than the 'independent laboratory analyses' funded by the cigarette industry in the 1950s falsely claiming there is no causal link between smoking and lung cancer," Pry added.

The United States' three main electric power grids—in the east, west, and Texas—are vital to the functioning of American society and represent the most critical of the 16 critical infrastructures to be protected.

Kwast said the military has been seeking to harden its facilities and bases from electronic attacks but that more needs to be done.

"What we're doing is really digging into the technology and problem of the fact that we never really designed our energy grids and to potential adversaries that might want to weaponize the electromagnetic spectrum," Kwast said of this week's conference.

"Even though it may be resilient to lightning strikes it is not resilient to some of the other techniques."

A nuclear detonation in space is not the only danger.

"I know people get stuck in this mindset that it has to be a nuclear detonation in space to create this," Kwast said. "That's just not true. Our knowledge of the electromagnetic spectrum is becoming so sophisticated that we know that our adversaries can design tactical electromagnetic weapons that can target very tactical and specific things."

Electronic attacks can be "as simple as you zapping somebody's computer, or a base, or a local area." The advanced arms can also be a "very discriminating weapon that has no attribution, meaning you wouldn't know who did it. So that's a concern," Kwast added.

During this week's conferences several table-top war games and red-teaming exercises were held to assess the vulnerabilities and help identify solutions.

Much of the exercises are secret. "I would tell you that we are discovering strategies to take this vulnerability away and make sure our potential competition cannot use it as a weapon against America," Kwast said.

The electronic threat to command and control and other vital systems was outlined in a task force report last year that concluded "multiple adversaries are capable of executing a strategic attack that may black out major portions of a state’s grid."

High-technology electronic strikes could impact the communications systems of most U.S. military installations simultaneously.

"In terms of strategy, from an adversary’s standpoint, military installations represent the vulnerable underbelly of the defense enterprise," the report said. "In particular, if deliberate or natural EMS phenomena affect an installation’s command post, the capabilities of associated forces may be degraded or stopped."

Contrary to the industry-funded study, the Air Force report included a chart showing that a nuclear detonation over the United States would cause a catastrophic power outage affecting an estimated 318 million people for 30 days."

Nuclear power stations also are vulnerable to blackout causing EMP that could produce meltdowns and the release of radioactive material if electricity used to maintain cooling systems is disrupted for long periods. Most nuclear power plants are limited to around 16 hours of batter backup power.

On the EPRI report, Kwast said the Air Force welcomed the study but will "put under the scrutiny of the scientific method with engineers and scientists that have no potential advantage on the outcome and then we'll bring that evidence out."

The Air Force will produce a report on the conference within 60 days that will be presented to Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other leaders.