The First Gulf War put American technological advantage on display against an adversary with no means to respond. Media images released throughout the campaign paid tribute to smart bombs, long-range rockets, and vastly improved ground, air and sea-based systems. America’s technological abilities were awe-inspiring.
A quarter-century later, the United States continues to seek technological superiority. Laser weapons, artificial intelligence and unmanned systems—the very stuff of sci-fi movies—are within our grasp. Unfortunately, such advances do not provide the comfort level they previously did.
Unlike the hapless Iraqi Army circa 1991, today’s potential threats and adversaries have the means to respond. Gulf War-era technological advantages like night vision and GPS are becoming commonplace. Advances in computer and information technology enable adversaries to develop new tactics in cyberspace. And nation states have invested in weapon systems and strategies that offset American advantages.
Consequently, energy generation and distribution assets, which impact all other critical infrastructure, will be prime, if not the prime, targets. Russia’s 2015 attack on Ukraine’s electrical grid in conjunction with its military operations in the east provides ample warning. It was not a standalone attack. Rather, it disrupted Ukrainian defensive efforts to gain a relative advantage. Nor was the effort sustained. Rather, it served as a warning of cross-domain (cyber to physical) threats the Russians can pose.
Sustained, targeted disruptions to our energy infrastructure would make us reactive in a future conflict. Nearly every daily convenience Americans depend upon—from doctor visits to banking transactions—assumes reliable energy. The government could become consumed with mitigating domestic challenges that result from energy disruptions. What’s more, energy reliability undergirds our ability to marshal and project force around the globe, command and control, and sustain logistical support to those forces.
Simply put, in future conflict, energy infrastructure must be thought of and protected like other highly valuable military assets. In February, the Department of Energy announced the creation of the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response. This new office will work on preparedness and response to natural and manmade threats to the energy grid, including cyber threats.
Indeed, as recognized in President Trump’s first National Security Strategy, a concerted national effort “[working] with allies and partners to protect global energy infrastructure from cyber and physical threats,” is required.