America’s national defense has many components. Some of the lesser known pieces are utilities—the nearly 2,000 electric, water, wastewater, and natural gas systems that help the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) accomplish its mission. When these systems fail, military operations can be disrupted, and national defense can become a bit weaker.
In recent years, these systems have failed thousands of times, according to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which examined a representative sample of 453 DoD-owned utilities. The survey found that 4,393 instances of disruption occurred in fiscal years 2009 through 2015, resulting in a financial impact of $29 million.
These disruptions take many forms. At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, operations were shut down for an entire week after a power line exploded. The power line had been installed in 1945, and was past its expected service life, base officials explained to GAO researchers. After the shutdown, the facility ran on generator power for the next three weeks while repairs to the line were completed.
At Naval Auxiliary Landing Field San Clemente Island in California, seven utility poles caught fire and caused an eight-hour islandwide electrical disruption. The fire occurred because the poles’ insulators, which are used to attach lines to the pole so that the electricity will not flow through the pole itself, were corroded and covered with salt, dust, and debris, the report found. This debris formed a conductive layer on the insulator that created an electricity flashpoint that resulted in a fire.
And there are disruptions due to weather. At Naval Weapons Station Earle in New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge in 2012 destroyed utility infrastructure, disrupting potable and wastewater service and resulting in almost $26 million in estimated repair costs.
Of those 4,393 disruptions, 1,942 involved water utility systems, 1,838 involved electric utility systems, 343 involved wastewater systems, and 270 involved natural gas utility systems. The Air Force suffered the most frequent disruptions, with 2,036. Next came the Navy (1,487), the Army (784), and the Marines (86).
The equipment failures that led to the disruptions were often caused by one of three main factors, the study found: the equipment was operating beyond its intended lifespan; the equipment was within its lifespan, but still in generally poor condition; or the equipment’s performance suffered because it had not been properly maintained.
This finding points to a fundamental challenge for DoD and other federal agencies: real-world budget constraints mean that DoD does not have the funding to upgrade every single system that has outdated equipment. Building resilience under such circumstances is not easy, and it sometimes requires a strategic plan with an achievable baseline goal, says Jason Black, director of analytic insights for Huntington National Bank and a utility policy expert who is also a former U.S. military officer.
A strategic plan with a goal of sustaining round-the-clock operations every day of the year would be difficult to achieve. A more realistic plan, however, could allow for some disruptions, with a goal of limiting them. For example, the goal could be to limit disruptions to 10 times a year, with each disruption lasting no more than an hour, Black says.
In striving for this goal, the plan may sketch out how older and more vulnerable utilities would be supported by back-up systems or localized generators, and other special configurations that would be needed to deal with different scenarios. “It’s one thing if a whole base goes out. It’s another thing if just one maintenance facility goes out,” Black says.
This type of strategic resilience plan could be designed across DoD’s entire fleet of utilities. Some systems only play a crucial role a few times a year, when certain situations are occurring. System resources can also be pooled; if there are four airfields located in one state, it might not be necessary for disruptions on one field to be immediately rectified. “It doesn’t have to be the case that every base has to be sustained all the time,” Black says. “In some cases, it may be cheaper and easier to move people.”
Instead of simply being reactive and replacing equipment as it breaks, officials could also incorporate utility equipment updates into the strategic plan, to best support operational goals. Incorporating an equipment plan can also serve as an incentive for investment when funding is limited: it illustrates how small investments in certain key systems will put operations in a better position over time, Black says.
However, a strategic resilience plan must be based on good information about where disruptions are occurring, their frequencies and patterns, and other data that could be analyzed. In this area, DoD is falling down, the GAO found. Specifically, 151 out of 364 survey respondents in GAO’s study said they did not have information on utility disruptions during the 2009–2015 time period of the study.
The reason for this lack of information, GAO found, is that the military services are inconsistent in issuing guidance on collecting and retaining utility disruption data. The study found that the Air Force and Marine Corps did not have current guidance on tracking utility disruption information; the Army had some guidance, but it was not available at all installations.
“Without guidance directing installations to collect information about all types of utility disruptions, service officials may not have the information needed to make informed decisions or to compete effectively for limited repair funds,” the study found. The exception among the services was the Navy, which had recently issued new guidance, auguring well for future data collection within that service, the study found.
Given this, the GAO recommended that the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps take steps to consistently collect disruption information, and issue better guidance on doing so. DoD concurred with these recommendations.
Finally, Black says there is another tool that DoD may use to boost its utility resilience–partnerships with the private sector. Here, DoD has some advantages at its disposal; some of its sites include significant amounts of land, and they have more zoning and use flexibility because they are government owned. Given these resources, DoD may be able to partner with private sector companies on utility projects, ranging from wind turbines to solar panels. “They may have the room, and they may not have zoning concerns,” Black says.
Shared resources could also be leveraged in such partnerships, he adds. For example, a generator could be built on a DoD site that would power the local area, but could also be used as a backup in case of power failure at the DoD facility.