The recent winter storm that crashed Texas’s electric grid brought untold suffering to tens of millions within the state. That calamity is but a small taste of the potential suffering that could be visited upon hundreds of millions by power breakdowns deliberately caused by imported equipment within the grid itself.
Secret “back doors” in transformers and generators imported from such adversaries as China and Russia could enable those countries to shut down the entire national electric grid, throwing the entire country into chaos.
Recognizing this threat, the Trump administration issued Executive Order 13929, declaring a national emergency with respect to the nation’s electric grid and prohibiting the acquisition or installation of “any bulk-power electric equipment designed, developed, manufactured, or supplied, by persons owned by, controlled by, or subject to the jurisdiction of such foreign adversaries.” In addition to China and Russia, the order identified North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela as “foreign adversaries.”
The order was a shrewd and timely response to a growing threat. Unfortunately, that Executive Order has now been suspended.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials had seized a Chinese-built transformer they suspected had been secret capabilities that could allow distant adversaries to monitor or even disable it. Cybersecurity expert Joseph Weiss told the Journal that officials had found “electronics that should not have been part of the transformer (i.e., hardware back doors) that could secretly allow the Chinese to gain effective control of the transformers.” Weiss added that as far back as 2001, China was caught trying to hack into a U.S. grid in California. He further contends that the Russians have been “in” the U.S. grid since 2014.
Losing control of the grid through remote computer access may not be the only problem, according to Tommy Waller, director of infrastructure security at the Center for Security Policy and the director of the Secure the Grid coalition of energy infrastructure experts. He worries about sensors, actuators and drives installed in imported equipment—even if they are not connected to the Internet. Such hardware, he notes, could be designed to sabotage the grid by sending bogus readings.
It is widely understood that a major power grid collapse could become the single most deadly event in U.S. history. It could deprive tens of millions of Americans of the basic elements necessary to sustain life. Those living in large cities would be particularly vulnerable.
So, while the suspension of the executive order is just for ninety days, Wallers wonders why it has been suspended at all. Leaving the grid vulnerable, he argues, could open “the floodgate to grid infrastructure” by countries hostile to America.
The U.S. electric power industry did express concern that the executive order could seriously interfere with the procurement of needed equipment, which can take a long time to design and manufacture if established albeit risky supply lines are cut off. The Department of Energy (DOE) responded that the order was “one of several steps taken to greatly diminish the ability of our foreign adversaries to target our critical electric infrastructure.” The DOE also generally noted the action is just one of a “phased approach” based on reducing risk.
“The Department will continue to balance the need to protect the security, integrity, and reliability of bulk-power system electric equipment used in the United States with the potential for supply chain disruptions to result from any such actions being taken,” it said.
The DOE further noted that the threat to the grid is anything but hypothetical. Rather, it has “reason to believe, that the People’s Republic of China is equipped and actively planning to undermine the Nation’s bulk power system.”
In its rationale for the order, the DOE states that it has “determined that certain electric equipment or programmable components subject to China’s ownership, control, or influence, constitute an undue risk to the security of the BPS and to U.S. national security.”
The prohibition order stated that the 250-ton Chinese-built transformer seized last year had “a military rationale for its disruption capabilities” and was “targeting operational systems that can be undermined as a way to degrade an opponent’s capabilities or to coerce an opponent’s decision-making or political will.”
One way Beijing intends to wage modern warfare is through what it calls “system destruction warfare”—crippling an opponent at the outset of conflict by deploying sophisticated electronic warfare, counter-space, and cyber-capabilities to disrupt what are known as C4ISR networks (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). This, the prohibition order notes, could obviously block U.S. military logistics required to “defend the homeland, support Allies and partners, and protect key U.S. national security interests.”
Such attacks are most likely during crises abroad, where Chinese military planning envisions launching early cyberattacks against the electric power grids around critical U.S. defense facilities to prevent the deployment of military forces and spark mass domestic turmoil.
A former secretary of the Navy, J. William Middendorf II is the author of The Great Nightfall: How we win the new Cold War.