And how to make it more resistant to drones and missile strikes

Simon BennettAs an academic who teaches risk management to an international student audience, I sometimes reflect on whether what I teach is relevant to solving real-world problems such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, global warming, pandemic risk and regional conflict.

Regarding the latter problem, specifically the 2022 Russia-Ukraine War, I can say with confidence that it is.

Ukrainians face a long, cold winter because of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure (CNI). Russia is using the same tactic against Ukraine in 2022 as the Nazis used against Great Britain in 1940 and 1941. Fortunately, risk management theory, specifically Professor Charles Perrow’s theory of coupling, offers Ukraine a means of defeating the Russian onslaught.

According to Professor Perrow, coupling is one of the defining metrics of a technological system (for example, a vehicle production plant or a power generation and distribution system).

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A technological system can either be tightly coupled or loosely coupled. Coupling refers to the degree of interactivity, within a given timeframe, between discrete components and sub-systems.

A system whose components and sub-systems are highly/frequently interactive is said to be tightly coupled. A system whose components and sub-systems are minimally/infrequently interactive is said to be loosely coupled. The more interactive a system, the more rapidly a shock will propagate through it, degrading performance or, in extreme cases, stopping the system altogether.

Shocks can originate from within – for example, a component failure or act of sabotage – or from without – for example, a lightning strike, earthquake, flood, improvised explosive device or missile strike.

Perrow’s theory is helpful in understanding why Ukraine’s power generation and distribution system is so vulnerable to Russian CNI drone and cruise missile strikes.

Ukraine’s power grid is a tightly-coupled, monolithic system made up of components and sub-systems that are highly and frequently interactive. Consequently, a single missile or drone strike causes significant disruption, with the externally-arising shock causing failures that, thanks to tight coupling, cascade rapidly through the system.

How might Ukraine better defend its power generation and distribution system from externally-arising shocks? Ukraine must create a more loosely-coupled system with multiple breaks or buffers within. This approach would create multiple power generation and distribution grids. Scaling down and fragmentation, by creating a more loosely-coupled system, would make the whole more resistant to externally-arising shocks, such as cruise missile or drone strikes.

To summarise:

  • There is an inverse relationship between coupling and resilience. The more tightly coupled a system, the less resilient it is. The less tightly coupled a system, the more resilient it is.
  • There is a positive relationship between granularity and resilience. More of the former delivers more of the latter. If we apply this rule to the supply of domestic electricity, it suggests that electricity should be produced and distributed at the smallest possible scale, for example, within towns or, indeed, villages. This is especially important in a total war situation where the enemy seeks to undermine morale, disrupt war production and, indeed, freeze or starve a civilian population by destroying CNI. The means of producing electricity could include burning locally-available fuels such as coal, peat or wood in municipal micro power stations, supplemented by renewables such as wind, solar, hydro and tide. The resulting granularity would improve system resilience.

Interestingly, reports are beginning to emerge from Ukraine of small businesses purchasing mobile petrol or diesel-powered generators to ensure continuity of supply. In doing so, Ukraine’s commercial class is helping to create a more loosely-coupled and, therefore, more resilient electricity generation and supply system. As mentioned above, the more granular a system, the more resilient it is to internal (endogenous) and external (exogenous) shocks.

As the saying goes, small is beautiful. A small generator can be used both to power a lighting system directly and to charge batteries for use when the generator is out of action.

Taking the above argument to its logical conclusion, countries sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight – for example, the U.S., UK, Spain, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – must supply Ukraine with not only surface-to-air missile systems and field guns, but also with micro-generating capacity in the form of tens of thousands of stand-alone petrol or diesel-powered electricity generators.

Such simple and reliable machinery would help address the increasingly pressing problem of rolling blackouts caused by the destruction of electricity substations and power lines.

War-winning technologies can either be high or low-tech. Consider, for example, Allied troops’ use of bicycles in the days following the June 6th, 1944 D-Day invasion (airborne troops jumped out of Dakota aircraft with folding bicycles strapped to their backs) and the Viet Kong and North Vietnamese Army’s use of mantraps, bamboo-covered pits and spikes against U.S. soldiers in the jungles of South Vietnam.

The past holds important lessons for today’s politicians and commanders.

Dr. Simon Bennett directs the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester. He’s interested in the organizational, social, economic and political origins of risk. He has worked with the Royal Air Force and U.K. National Police Air Service on human-factors issues. His latest book, Safety in Aviation and Astronautics: A Socio-technical Approach, was published by Routledge in 2022.

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