By Marcus McNabb
American Electric Power Operator: “What do you have on the Sammis-Star, do you know?”
Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland Power Pool Operator: I’m sorry? Sammis-Star, okay, I’m showing 960 on it and it’s highlighted in blue. Tell me what that means on your machine.”
AEP Operator: “Blue? Normal. Well, it’s going to be in blue, I mean – that’s what’s on it?”
PJM Operator: “960, that’s what it says.”
AEP Operator: “That circuit just tripped. South Canton-Star.”
PJM Operator: “Did it?”
AEP Operator: “It tripped and re-closed…”
AEP Operator: “We need to get down there now so they can cut the top of the hour. Is there anything on it? What’s the flowgate, do you know?”
PJM Operator: “Yeah, I got it in front of me. It is…it is 2935.”
AEP Operator: “Yeah…2935. I need 350 cut on that.”
PJM Operator: “Whew, man.”
AEP Operator: “Well, I don’t know why. It popped up all of a sudden like that…that thing just popped up so fast.”
PJM Operator: “And… 1,196 on South Canton. Can you verify these? And 960 on – South Canton-Star 1,196, Sammis-Star 960?”
AEP Operator: “They might be right, I’m…”
PJM Operator: “They were highlighted in blue, I guess I thought maybe that was supposed to be telling me something.”
“Technical Analysis of the August 14, 2003, Blackout: What Happened, Why, and What Did We Learn?”
North American Energy Reliability Council
The preceding phone call is a snapshot into the events that unfolded in August 2003 in the northeastern US, resulting in one of the most widespread outages in the modern US electric grid. The final report attributed the outage to a failure by key organizations to assess and understand the inadequacies of automated monitoring systems, resulting in inadequate situational awareness and ultimately a failure to provide effective real-time support. Given a similar situation in a military context, the conclusions could easily be exactly the same. This illustrates the danger of an over-dependency on automated systems without an appropriate understanding of its weaknesses and redundancies in the event the automated system fails.
Fourteen years after this event, we stand on the precipice of several major shifts in technology that are likely to change the way we interact with our world, and in military terms potentially change the character of warfare. Some examples are the related concepts of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and human-machine teaming.
The preceding historical example serves as a cautionary tale. In our rush to integrate the latest technological advances into our warfighting capabilities, we must understand the inadequacies and weaknesses of such systems. Even if we cannot perfectly address these concerns, we must at least ask the right questions concerning these technologies. Again using AI as the example, such questions may be: How will we know if the AI is degraded? Do we have the human capital and expertise to remain combat effective if we lose AI?
These considerations are pivotal if we are to stake our future on these new technologies. Next week, we will take a deeper look at several of these potential technological shifts, collectively viewed as “Fifth Generation Warfare”, exploring the questions that must be addressed to realize these changes as combat effective as well as dispelling myths about these changes.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.