In 2014, we asked, “What can a mere rifle do?” in reference to a standoff attack on a Pacific Gas and Electric power substation in Metcalf, California.
The answer, in that case, was to blow the transformers to hell and gone, and bug out. To date, there has been no arrest in the case; at one time, a DHS official suggested it was an inside job. There have been subsequent attacks, despite attempts to upgrade security; indeed, once, criminals cut through a fence and made off with equipment that was on site — for security upgrades.
Now, there’s been a new rifle attack on a station, in rural Utah. It appears to have been less sophisticated and less persistent than the California attack, but more effective — the attacker or attackers blew the station off the grid with as few as three rifle shots.
On Sunday, somebody went to the remote substation located between Kanab and Page, Arizona, and fired at least three rounds with a high-powered rifle into the main transformer, knocking out power to an estimated 13,000 customers in Kanab, Big Water, Orderville, Glendale, Hatch and surrounding towns in Garfield County.
“Just from the looks of it, it looked more criminal than vandalism because they knew exactly where to shoot it and they shot it multiple times in the same spot,” Brown said. “For somebody to know exactly where that substation is and how to hit it exactly like he did, (it) seems like he’d have to have knowledge of that.”
Countermeasures that can be used in cases like this are limited. In California, the power company deployed cameras, but they’re investigative, not preventive, technology; and constructed blinds that block sight of the most vulnerable transformers, but they’re concealment, not cover. In Utah, the power company has asked for tips, and done something even less practical than the Californians:
A portable transformer was brought to the substation to restore power. The portable substation is now being monitored by an on-site security guard 24 hours a day.
Exercise for the reader:
- How does a guard protect the site?
- How can you strike the site even with the guard in place?
- How can you get the guard out of place? How can you deny him the response force that would otherwise come when he calls?
- Do you think it’s likely that the guard will be there 24/7/365 x forever? (Hint: me neither)
- What does guarding this site do for the security of every other substation in the grid?
- How many sites can they lose before they run out of portable transformers?
- How many sites can they guard effectively against an intelligent enemy?
As far as the California approach is concerned, well, how long will those screens last when they’re in the way of routine maintenance? And, how much of a deterrent will they be to an actual sniper who can calculate an aiming point if he’s so inclined?
We’ve done the math on transformer production and delivery. (A former contract shop studied this exact problem for a government agency, long before the Metcalf attack). Let’s just say you really, really don’t want someone with some CARVER skills and experience deciding to play silly buggers with your power grid.
And, for the UW theorists among us: this three-shot Sunday attack that caused thousands of homes, businesses and government offices to lose power is most probably an example of:
- Kids acting out;
- An actual enemy’s shakedown run to test feasibility of this approach;
- An actual enemy’s confidence target prepatory to a serious campaign against the grid;
- An actual enemy’s perturbation of the system, to enable him to study the response;
- A follow-up to the 2013 transformer attack by the same guy(s). Serial killer(s) of transformers?
Finally, the problem with “security” is that it comes down to a mall cop sitting night-in night-out at a bank of computer screens. As the Wall Street Journal noted about the 2013 attack on Metcalf station, in an article on the 2015 one:
During last year’s attack, Metcalf’s perimeter alarms were activated as bullets nicked the fence. Workers at a PG&E security center ignored early warning signs of trouble.
Want El Al security? You have to spend El Al money and hire El Al level of people.
Hat to Matt in IL in the comments to an earlier post.