Last year, US authorities reported a series of incidents involving unidentified drones buzzing US infrastructure and military assets. However, none of the past reported cases were known to involve direct attacks on facilities or equipment.
A modified drone that crashed near a Pennsylvania power substation in July 2020 was “likely being used…to specifically target energy infrastructure,” a law enforcement bulletin by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center has revealed.
The memo, obtained by ABC News and CNN, said that authorities still do not know what individual or group may have been operating the drone, which crashed on a roof close to the substation. No details were provided on which power facility was targeted, and no damage was reported. The memo did not specify the cause of the crash.
The drone was said to have been modified, and fitted with a tether supporting a length of copper wire –apparently meant to short-circuit the high-voltage equipment at the substation by coming into contact with it, potentially leading to plant shutdown and possible combustion. The UAV used was a DJI Mavic 2, a consumer-grade quadrocopter commonly sold for about $1,600 US online. The drone’s camera, memory card, and serial number labels had been removed.
The bulletin, which aims to ‘raise awareness’ with law enforcement, state, and local officials about the threats unmanned aerial vehicles could potentially pose to critical infrastructure, was issued on 28 October and followed a review of security incidents involving drones over a four year period.
The memo was accompanied by a satellite photo showing the substation and the drone’s recovery location, with an analysis of local power facilities in the state indicating that the substation and building adjacent to it are situated near the old Hershey chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Using some OSINT tools I found the site of the unidentified electrical substation which was targeted in a first of its kind attack on the US power grid by a drone last year. @PierreTABC broke the story yesterday by revealing an internal intelligence bulletin describing the attack pic.twitter.com/bGx3YSCFSS— IntelWalrus (@IntelWalrus) November 5, 2021
The incident was the first reported use of a drone to target the US electrical power grid.
However, the Pentagon is known to have vast experience with the use of graphite bombs, also known as ‘blackout bombs’ – a cluster bomb weapon used specifically to target energy grids. The bombs, which disperse soda can-sized canisters by tiny parachutes over electrical substations, contain spools of highly conductive carbon webbing, which drapes over lines, causing circuit overloads and plant shutdowns. The bombs were widely deployed by the US in the First Gulf War against Iraq, and by NATO against Yugoslavia in 1999. In the latter instance, after Yugoslav engineers repeatedly restored power within a day after the attacks, NATO began using conventional bombs and missiles to attack powerlines and transformer stations, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the Balkan country.
Graphite Bomb dropped by US Airforce against Serbia in 1999, disabling 70% of the Serbia's power grid.— Artiljerac 🇧🇷🇺🇸🤠 (@YeeHawTactical) April 3, 2021
As most long distance power lines are not insulated. A graphite bomb drops strands of conductive graphite across multiple lines which creates a short circuit. pic.twitter.com/HA9TryhaTs
According to a recent Freedom of Information Act request by the Scientific Coalition for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Studies, some 24 US nuclear reactors and fuel storage sites were subjected to 57 drone incursions between 2015 and 2019. Last year, the group reported that a tiny armada of between four and six unmarked UAVs flew over the Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona –America’s largest nuclear power plant, in September 2019, with plant security proving unable to stop them and authorities uncertain as to who was operating them or why.
Earlier this year, Sputnik reported on the mysterious deployment of drones by an unknown actor or entity to conduct nighttime flights over US Navy destroyers near a sensitive military training range in California’s Channel Islands.
FOIA documents revealed that as many as six unidentified craft at a time were chased after and maneuvered around the warships in July 2019, with the incidents sparking probes by the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the FBI. Media were troubled at the time by the fact that the drones could lock onto and catch up with the fast-moving warships in the dead of night and despite poor visibility.
Small drones are known to have been used repeatedly by guerilla fighters in Third World battlegrounds, being deployed in the civil war in Libya, and by Yemen’s Houthi militia against the Saudi-led coalition. In 2019, an armada of Houthi drones severely damaged a pair of Saudi oil production facilities, temporarily knocking out as much as half of the kingdom’s oil output.