Energy assurance is critical to Air Force missions
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Imagine that you’re looking at the camera feed of an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft—commonly known as a “drone,” but which we in the Air Force call an “RPA”—flying somewhere in the Middle East and tracking a known member of an international terrorist organization. This aircraft is controlled by a pilot at an Air Force Base in the United States. The pilot is maneuvering the aircraft and inching towards the button that will release a Hellfire missile and, as our warfighters say, “do good things to bad people.”

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Between the aircraft and the pilot sit dozens of connection nodes: from relay stations beaming gigabytes to satellites and across oceans to intelligence facilities, all moving information to decision makers at the speed of light. Suddenly, at one of those relay stations, routine maintenance interrupts power to the satellite dishes. The pilot’s screen flickers and the feed is lost.  The target gets away and is able to continue plotting against the United States and our allies.

 

This is not an academic thought experiment; it actually happened.Our military relies on a network infrastructure that requires uninterrupted access to electricity, and we face increasing vulnerabilities if we do not change the way we power our missions. In the Air Force, we call this “Mission Assurance through Energy Assurance.” Investing in our future and improving our access to energy ensures that we can accomplish our missions under any circumstances.

We have a saying in the Air Force: “we fight from our bases.” Even more than the other services, our fixed installations are the source of our fighting power. Early in our history, we owned and operated our own power plants, but, over decades, we have shifted to buying power from the commercial power grid. This has helped the bottom line, but it has left us more reliant on our increasingly fragile and vulnerable electric grid.

With recent news full of assertions and rumors regarding the security of our electric grid, the incoming Trump administration will have the opportunity to invest in critical infrastructure. Doing so is imperative for our military and our national security.

In recent years, as warfare has become more global and network-centric, the Air Force has increased its investments in intelligence, cyber, and space missions that require uninterrupted access to electricity. Airmen operate the Global Positioning System for the U.S. military and three billion civilian users worldwide. An outage that disrupts GPS would be felt broadly and could cause real damage. These possible scenarios have made us realize that our access to electricity is as important to our core missions as jet fuel is to our fighters.

We are also seeing more threats to the commercial power grid than ever before. Determined adversaries are actively targeting our domestic critical infrastructure, like our electric utilities, from a range of directions. The Department of Homeland Security has identified a seven-fold increase in cyber incursions to critical infrastructure in just the past five years. Last December, Ukraine suffered the first publicly acknowledged cyber attack to disable a major power grid, and took months to recover. These intentional attacks only exacerbate the vulnerabilities of a grid already threatened by natural disasters and aging infrastructure.

Air Force leaders and mission operators are extremely concerned about these vulnerabilities, and are taking steps at every level. We are investing in energy solutions that achieve cost-effective power supply, cleaner energy sources, and resilient power for any contingency. Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, for example, will soon have a microgrid that uses solar and wind energy to power critical facilities.

We are working to scale up these kinds of solutions. Earlier this year we founded the Air Force Office of Energy Assurance, which will drive large-scale energy assurance projects. By working with partners in the energy and finance sectors, we can leverage private capital investment to strengthen and renew our infrastructure. Through public-private partnerships and dynamic business models, we can replicate and scale these projects across the Air Force enterprise.

Through all this discussion of technologies, partnerships, and scaling, we must never forget what’s most important: ensuring our warfighters have power when they need it most. To achieve that goal, we must invest in our energy infrastructure just like our weapons systems and platforms. As a new administration takes responsibility for our military and national security, we must prioritize the assured access to energy that keeps us safe.

Miranda A. A. Ballentine is the assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment, and energy. The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or of the Department of the Air Force.


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