With Electrical Grids Under Assault, U.S. And Ukraine Seek Scarce Transmission Gear

Russia, eager to break Ukraine’s power grid, is subjecting Ukrainian electrical substations to a withering array of missile and drone strikes. A simultaneous rise in physical attacks on U.S. electrical substations risks advancing Russian war aims by crimping the already tight global supply of transformers and other key electrical grid subcomponents.

Assaults on America’s sprawling electrical infrastructure are on the increase—at least 19 attacks have occurred since September alone. With electrical transmission equipment supplies at critical lows, American utilities are scrambling to prepare for more attacks—and trying to boost their supply of electrical transmission parts just as Ukraine is hunting for the very same electrical supplies.

The limited global supply of electrical distribution equipment is a well-known global bottleneck. Electrical utilities have been struggling with electrical distribution equipment supply chain issues for years. Transformers—oil-filled structures that step voltage up or down—have been in critically short supply due to strong demand, and the COVID-19 pandemic, labor constraints and shipping issues haven’t helped. Russia’s invasion, and Ukraine’s scramble to recover from Russian attacks on critical electrical infrastructure, has already pushed transformer inventories to record lows and radically increased transformer prices worldwide.

Continued attacks on electrical grids far away from the Ukraine battlefield could push the already-stressed electrical distribution equipment market into disarray, making it even harder for Ukraine to keep the lights on.

For Russia, Power Disruption Is A Strategic Priority

While those responsible for the latest wave of U.S. power grid attacks are largely unknown, Russia has made no secret that it considers electricity generation and distribution to be a target, and has signaled for months that power and electrical generation was a primary facet of Russian strategy.

In October, in response to complaints about Russian attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that “any critical infrastructure in transport, energy or communication infrastructure is under threat—regardless of what part of the world it is located, by whom it is controlled, laid in the seabed or on land.”

Aside from direct attacks on energy infrastructure in Ukraine, disrupting power grids in other countries offers a logical step to advance Russian war aims.

Russia has a lot of options to disrupt electrical networks. Direct Russian attacks on foreign electrical infrastructure, while extremely risky, is certainly not beyond the capability of the Russian government. European governments already suspect that Russia is behind the explosion of of two Nord Stream pipelines under the Baltic Sea. And Russians have been caught repeatedly throughout Europe, flying drones over critical European energy infrastructure.

Anything is possible. With the European Parliament declaring Russia a state sponsor of terrorism in November, and with European officials linking Russian military intelligence to high-profile European assassinations and bombings of ammunition dumps and depots—a record of terroristic violence throughout Europe that started in 2006 with the gruesome use of radioactive polonium to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko in the U.K.—Russia’s campaign to break Ukraine’s power grid could well extend beyond the battlefield, into Europe and, potentially, into America.

Indirect attacks on energy infrastructure, allowing Russia plausible deniability, are hard to carry out, but they have already occurred in Europe. An hour before the Russian invasion began, collateral damage from an uncontrolled Russian cyber attack disabled thousands of German wind turbines.

But Russia’s most viable means of disrupting electrical grids may well come from encouraging or facilitating attacks by others. In the U.S,, observers note that a mix of white supremacists, accelerationists, and other murky criminal elements known to take cues from Russia have been expressing particular interest in attacking U.S. power infrastructure, and are wondering what is converting long-held terroristic ideations into action at this particular time.

Russia has a record of helping dispersed and otherwise disorganized networks coalesce around an activity or a cause. For example, cyber criminals with suspected links to the Russian government have repeatedly attacked energy infrastructure. As early as 2017, researchers at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies identified several ties between Russian-government associated cybercriminals and electrical grid attacks.

Coordination is possible. In the run-up to the Russian invasion, some European governments wondered if an increase in cyber attacks on the European power sector was orchestrated by Russian intelligence. But, regardless of motivation, nobody doubts Russian criminals have-and are currently-targeting electrical and power infrastructure in Europe and elsewhere. Russian-based cyber criminals orchestrated the Colonial Pipeline fiasco, disrupting fuel distribution up the East Coast. And other Russian cyber criminals have continued attacking European power companies, hitting one of Germany’s largest power distribution companies as recently as October.

The Russian cyber underworld is a murky place, and defining attribution for any cyber attack is a challenge. But investigators are certain Russian cyber criminals have, at times, been linked to Russian intelligence and have worked together. Past collaborations have been both lengthy and recent. A 2021 report from Analyst1, a threat intelligence company, described how two Russian intelligence directorates and ransomware gangs worked “together to compromise U.S. government affiliated organizations between October and December 2020,” pointing out close personal relationships between individuals in the criminal organizations and the Russian Federal Security Service as well as identifying interesting parallels between Russian state malware and malware employed by the Russian cybercriminals.

If the breakdown of Ukraine’s power infrastructure is a critical facet of Russian strategy, then it is logical to question to what extremes Russia would go to carry it out.

American Extremists Are Obsessed With The Electrical Grid—And Linked To Russia

Just as the Russian government is associated with cyber criminal networks, observers believe the Russian government has developed similar ties to an array of extremist movements—attracting adherents associated with a longer-term, five-year rise in domestic attacks on the U.S. electrical grid.

Again, the extremist underworld is a murky place. But, again, investigators have repeatedly identified Russian links to American adherents of white supremacy and accelerationism. The U.S. State Department designated a Russian group known for offering training to the organizers of the infamous Charlottesville, Virginia white power riots as a terrorist organization. And U.S. intelligence experts even wonder if the founder the white supremacy group “The Base”—a U.S. citizen who now lives in Russia—was a long-time Russian agent.

If Russia has been interested in pushing susceptible Americans into attacking the power grid, the extremist community is certainly primed for it. Talk of disrupting the U.S. power grid has rattled around in U.S.-based white supremacist and accelerationist groups for decades.

But noting nefarious may be going on. Extremists may simply reflect Russian rhetoric and strategic interests. Just as Russia eyed Ukraine and began really tinkering with the idea of using energy as a weapon, white supremacist plots targeting U.S. energy systems “dramatically increased in frequency.” Researchers at George Washington University found that, between 2016 and 2022, 13 white supremacists were prosecuted for energy system attacks, with 11 of the attack planners charged after 2020. Concomitantly, attacks and incidents on U.S. electrical critical infrastructure increased, as U.S. attackers apparently began to act on long-simmering terrorist ideations.

It would be easy for Russia to enable domestic extremists to carry out more effective attacks. In 2020, researchers warned that a 14-page handbook calling for attacks on the power grid was being passed around extremist circles on Telegram—an instant messaging system popular in Russia. After the handbook emerged, detailing low-tech means to disrupt the electrical grid, both the frequency and the effectiveness rate of attacks on U.S. electrical transmission infrastructure increased—with thousands of people loosing power.

For Russia, encouraging widespread attacks on overseas electrical transmission infrastructure would be an easy way to exacerbate a global supply shortage in key components needed to ensure a resilient power grid. Even the threat of doing so contracts the global market, making each transformer Russia bombs in Ukraine far harder to fix.

Given U.S. concerns that extremist attackers are following mysterious and murky online cues to shoot up U.S. electrical substations, utilities are scrutinizing their inventories and worrying about their stockpiles of spare parts. Without well-thought out resiliency plans to pre-deploy recovery resources, attacked substations are not easy for utilities to fix. Power outages need to be fixed fast, but electrical equipment is bulky, hard to store, tough to transport and takes time to install. A December 3 shooting attack on two electrical substations in Moore County, North Carolina, left some 40,000 customers in the dark for days. A complex, multi-site attack on Christmas Day cut power to more than 14,000 in Washington State. Even unsuccessful attacks chip away at the resiliency of the grid, raising the stakes for the utility that is targeted.

The number and complexity of attacks and/or “suspect events” at U.S. electric facilities are concerning. USA Today reported that, “since September, attacks or potential attacks have been reported at at least 18 additional substations and one power plant in Florida, Oregon, Washington and the Carolinas.”

According to a security specialist, the substation attacks in the Northwest included “setting the control houses on fire, forced entry and sabotage of intricate electrical control systems, causing short circuits by tossing chains across the overhead buswork, and ballistic attack with small caliber firearms.”

Unhardened transformers are particularly vulnerable to gunfire. As insulating oil leaks from a shot-up transformer, the subsequent rise in temperature can break the transformer, sometimes sparking a catastrophic explosion-catnip for prospective terrorists eager to make some kind of a statement.

Supply Chain Disruption Can Enhance Battlefield Effects

For electrical utilities, transformers are a particular concern. The transformer market in the United States has been tight for more than a decade.

Today, suppliers need two to three years of lead time to replace big transformers (generally transformers are oil-filled structures used to step voltage down or up), and, while transformers do break down, U.S. electrical utilities generally don’t carry a large inventory of replacements.

But America’s already modest stockpiles of backup electrical transmission gear are getting critically low. One utility company in the northwest noted in June that while they try to keep a supply of 60 mid-sized transformers on hand “at all times,” their inventory had dropped “well below” 20, the minimum required for resilient operations.

The supply of larger transformers is in a similar state. Orders that typically took between 6-12 weeks to fulfill in 2020, now have lead times of 52-86 weeks.

Prices have headed into the stratosphere. By mid 2022, 25kVA pad-mounted transformer prices “rose nearly 400% from 2020 per-unit pricing, and 50kVA unit pricing jumped 900% since 2020.”

The tightening supply is a recipe for a conflict between friends. As U.S. electrical utilities scramble for spare transformers and struggle to protect the more than 6,400 power plants and 55,000 electrical substations that backstop America’s electrical grid, Ukraine is begging for help and spare parts. And, unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s top priority are transformers—the exact same equipment America’s electrical utilities need.

The U.S. has certainly scrambled to help, but further attacks may limit the amount of help America can offer. On November 29, just days before the power grid attacks in North Carolina, the U.S. State Department announced $53 million in electrical aid, including “distribution transformers, circuit breakers, surge arresters, disconnectors, vehicles and other key equipment.” Aside from the fact that American electrical utilities will be bidding against Ukraine for replacement transformers and transmission gear, it is easy to envision a scenario where U.S. citizens, sitting in the dark after a domestic attack, start wondering why the U.S. is prioritizing electrical assistance for Ukraine.

On a global level, all the components are in place for a catastrophic run on electrical transmission supplies. In the U.S., rationing might even be required if more U.S. attacks encourage more U.S. utilities scramble for more spare parts. Panic can be contagious, and, if other countries start following the U.S. lead, a lack of electrical supplies could be a real blow to the global economy.

The path ahead is clear. U.S. authorities must move far faster to investigate—and catch—any future attackers. In addition, America will have to move quickly to ensure utilities are up to code and, in some cases, working to “harden” vulnerable parts of the Nation’s dispersed electrical transmission infrastructure. Behind the scenes, the U.S. must take other steps to both deter extremists and to ensure Russia’s efforts to subdue Ukraine are limited to the immediate battlefield.

Efforts to interfere or otherwise compromise the global supply of electrical grid components are unacceptable. Using the vagaries of a fragile global supply chain to exacerbate battlefield aims makes for a tempting strategy, but it is operationally hard to carry out. Nation-state practitioners can suffer unanticipated blow-back, ending up suffering unexpected diplomatic and economic damage. And, in a war, two can play the same game—Ukraine is perfectly capable of targeting Russia’s power grid too.

Caution is warranted. But the bottom line is this: however tempting it might be for Russia to exacerbate the impact of their attacks on Ukraine’s power grid, foreign attacks on the U.S. power grid—even indirect ones—are warlike acts, that, if detected, will demand a response.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/craighooper/2023/01/04/with-electrical-grids-under-assault-us-and-ukraine-seek-scarce-transmission-gear/