By Douglas Tucker
A changing operating environment has altered how the Department of the Air Force must approach mission assurance. Unprecedented variations to the global climate and increasingly severe weather events, as well as more prevalent asymmetric threats, create new challenges for continued mission assurance. Further, dependence on enabling systems like energy and water have grown in scale and complexity as missions become ever more technology-driven and interconnected.
With mission-critical assets distributed across multiple regions that are both on and off Air Force installations, a system disruption in one location can have cascading mission impacts—exposing the enterprise to unacceptable risk. To this end, testing the department’s enabling system capabilities before an actual unplanned disruption occurs is key for mission continuity. By conducting “pull-the-plug” Energy Resilience Readiness Exercises (ERREs), the Department of the Air Force simulates the impact of an event that cuts electrical power to an installation.
Building end-to-end energy resilience into its missions is critical for the Department of the Air Force to fly, fight, and win in air, space, and cyberspace. Whether faced with a natural disaster, cyberattack, or other acute threat, the objective is to be better prepared to respond, fight through, and recover from an energy disruption. ERREs help uncover hidden mission and infrastruture interdependencies, verify the functionality of backup systems and processes, and help prioritize future investments.
This makes ERREs one of the most valuable tools for testing mission assurance under a “blue sky” environment, when complications can be more easily mitigated. While table-top exercises can examine capabilities and response options in a simulated outage, ERREs allow for “real-world” identification of gaps and threats to energy resilience and mission assurance and can help inform direct investment opportunities. Importantly, ERREs provide the Department of the Air Force with an opportunity to address concerns in a controlled environment so that installations are prepared for and resilient under a “black sky” scenario.
Mitigating Risk. ERREs are base-wide blackouts conducted during periods of peak electrical demand. They aim to disconnect the installation from the commercial power grid, or other primary power source, for a minimum of 8 hours (12 hours recommended). Information about when the exercise will occur is on a “need to know basis” to preserve the integrity of the outage and ensure that people take action consistent with a real-world scenario.
These mission-focused exercises are approached with extensive planning and risk mitigation. Conducting an exercise at this scale involves a multi-month, multi-phase process to ensure smooth execution and mission continuity. Installations, with coordination assistance from the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety & Infrastructure (SAF/IEE), work with technical facilitators to communicate mission requirements, understand enabling systems, and determine potential infrastructure and mission vulnerabilities associated with a loss of primary power. The planning process requires significant engagement from the Inspector General’s Office, along with Civil Engineering and Communications. Through a series of stakeholder interviews, infrastructure site visits, and detailed risk mitigation planning validated by installation data, an exercise script is carefully constructed to test an energy resilience posture.
Additionally, prior to the ERRE’s execution, critical missions and sensitive equipment can be tested safely and securely in a “crawl, walk, run” approach through isolated testing as a pre-emptive mitigation measure. For many bases, the planning process alone is nearly as valuable as the exercise because it prompts often overlooked discussions about enabling systems, refueling, and continuity of operations between mission owners and other stakeholders.
Executing Operation. Once power on base is cut during the ERRE, mission owners and stakeholders are expected to operate through the outage as they would in a real-world scenario. They are encouraged to fully test their operational limits through concurrent mission exercises and the execution of their continuity of operations plans. The key takeaway is that an ERRE is not a public works exercise. During the outage, observers from across the installation and technical facilitator teams collect data on how the outage impacted missions and any infrastructure and procedural challenges.
After an ERRE is executed, technical facilitators prepare a report detailing the findings and highlighting stop-gaps, process issues, and technology investments needed to ensure missions are not compromised by a power disruption. Recommendations from the ERRE report provide substantial evidence for energy project submissions.
Since FY2020, the Department of the Air Force has successfully completed six ERREs, surpassing initial targets. This first group of exercises is already producing valuable information as to where the department can improve installation energy assurance.
For example, ERREs have revealed the need to either develop or reevaluate current power outage communications plans for missions. Across all sites assessed, communications were degraded by power disruption.
Most facilities have opted for voice over internet protocol (VoIP) systems over traditional hardwire phones. This poses a challenge if the facility either does not have backup power or the VoIP phones do not reside on the backup power. As a result, personnel used cellphones, which lack security and reliability, particularly in the case of cell tower failures. Exercise participants also observed that continuity of operations plans were often not viable during an outage because some functions that were relocated did not have the adequate power or communications infrastructure to meet mission requirements.
ERREs have underscored a number of opportunities to improve on-site infrastructure. Safety systems across some installations were underprepared for a power outage, resulting in degraded hospital capabilities and fire suppression systems. Additionally, the exercises have revealed issues with backup power generation at some facilities, including electrical misconfigurations and a lack of prioritization of critical loads.
The Department of the Air Force completed ERREs at six bases during FY2020/21: Hanscom AFB, Mass.; Vandenberg SFB, Calif.; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Eielson AFB, Alaska; Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; and Springfield-Beckley ANGB, Ohio. At least five more exercises are planned in FY2022, including Joint Base Charleston, S.C., and Robins AFB, Ga., along with three more installations to be determined. Looking ahead, the department plans to execute five ERREs per year through at least FY2027 to meet its Congressional mandate.
In addition to gaining insights through “real-world” experiences, ERREs are generating important discussions between infrastructure and mission stakeholders—helping identify gaps between requirements and capabilities to determine short-, medium-, and long-term projects that will improve resilience.
The Department of the Air Force also is working to incorporate EERE findings into its Installation Energy Plans (IEPs), which are being developed across the enterprise. IEPs are at the center of efforts to improve energy and water resilience. They provide an important decision-making structure to define energy mission requirements, incorporate long-term plans for energy resilience capabilities, and ensure reliable and available utilities and infrastructure for key missions.
The lessons learned from the initial ERREs will be translated into a department-specific framework on how the enterprise tests the resilience of enabling systems and its ability to operate through and recover from a long-duration power outage.
SAF/IEE is using ERRE results to verify the effectiveness of activities such as IEPs; inform energy, water and cybersecurity strategies; identify project solutions; and influence policy direction. Additionally, the office continues to develop and update guidance for installations as a planning and execution aid. This living document has proven valuable at Air Force Special Operations Command, for example, which independently executed a resilience exercise.
Ongoing use of ERREs will help the Department of the Air Force meet the challenges of a changing operating environment, ensure continued mission assurance, and ultimately, be more prepared to deliver power when and where it is needed to protect the nation, its values, and its interests.
Douglas Tucker is Director, Installation Energy Policy & Programs, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety & Infrastructure; firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article first published in the March-April 2022 issue of The Military Engineer.]