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How Ukraine is keeping the power grid running amidst war with Russia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From wars in Ukraine to the Mideast, modern militaries rely on GPS to guide missile strikes and drones. They're also messing with GPS signals to confuse their enemy. And it's not just warfighters who are impacted by electronic warfare. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin tells us more.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Last spring, Joe Marshall was digging into a hearty meal at the Sundance Steakhouse (ph) in Palo Alto, Calif., when inspiration struck.

JOE MARSHALL: The whole thing was just one bit of dumb luck stacked on top of another. You know what I mean? Like...

MCLAUGHLIN: Marshall is a cybersecurity expert at Cisco, a top U.S. technology company. He was at that Sundance Steakhouse with a visiting delegation of Ukrainian energy officials. They were all with the government's main electric utility, Ukrenergo.

MARSHALL: So it was the entire Ukrenergo delegation, and they were literally just in town.

MCLAUGHLIN: It had been over two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Ukraine's power grid was being attacked relentlessly by bombs and cyberattacks alike. But those weren't the only problems with keeping the lights on.

MARSHALL: And they were just going through a litany of issues. And of course, the kinetic strikes were high on the list and, also, just indiscriminate bombing as well, right? And sort of sandwiched in between all of that, one of the executives said, you know, we can't even get reliable GPS time because of jamming and interference.

MCLAUGHLIN: Hold it right there. GPS - the thing we use to get driving directions - what could that have to do with the power lines? I spoke to Sergey Galagan, Ukrenergo's chief information officer, to get to the bottom of it.

SERGEY GALAGAN: The metering device just stopped sending right information.

MCLAUGHLIN: The metering device wasn't sending the right information. It's a complicated system, but here's how it works, Galagan says. Ukraine's power grid has a bunch of monitoring devices that help it know how much power to send and where at all times. They have to be synchronized. Linking them to GPS helps accomplish that. Losing that connection can mess everything up. To explain, Joe Marshall takes us back to high school.

MARSHALL: The metaphor I like to use is a marching band, right? But this Marching band is, you know, 25,000 kilometers long. The tubas cannot see the woodwinds. The trumpets cannot see the clarinets. But we need to make sure that everyone is stepping at the same time over an incredibly long distance. And, well, we probably need a clock to do that.

MCLAUGHLIN: Unfortunately, for this gigantic marching band which represents the Ukrainian power system, GPS jamming and interference is a major part of modern warfare. Both Russia and Ukraine do it. They use giant radio dishes to send out noisy signals to block the tracking technology. They do it to prevent their enemy from precisely targeting missiles and from piloting drones over the border. The fact that the power grid also relies on GPS - it's another casualty of war.

GALAGAN: So we are dealing with a thousand different problems and obstacles.

MCLAUGHLIN: Electronic warfare was one of many of Ukraine's problems, says Galagan. Sometimes they'd have to go outside and fix a bombed-out fiber-optic cable. Even at the office, they're ducking into underground shelters as missile sirens erupt, sometimes four or five times a day.

But GPS jamming disrupting the flow of power - this was one problem Joe Marshall became obsessed with. First, he suggested Ukraine buy a bunch of atomic clocks. They're a lot more resilient to interference, but they're also really expensive.

MARSHALL: I sort of did what I call the American hand-wave, right? Go buy the most expensive thing to fix your problem.

MCLAUGHLIN: He would have to be more creative and find something that was good enough and cheap enough to do the job in a war zone. Luckily, another team at Cisco had already developed what's called an industrial Ethernet switch.

MARSHALL: So inside of our industrial Ethernet switches, we have something called an oven-controlled crystal oscillator. The acronym is OCXO.

MCLAUGHLIN: Let's unpack that one a little bit. Put simply, inside most clocks are tiny little crystals, like quartz - pass an electric current through them, and they vibrate at a consistent rate. A crystal oscillator - bingo, you've got time. But if those crystals get too hot or cold or get damaged somehow, they don't work as well.

MARSHALL: And it turns out that our internal oscillators were already built to be ruggedized, right? And so it was - the answer was really sitting right in front of us the whole time.

MCLAUGHLIN: Within weeks, Marshall and his colleagues were working on prototypes.

MARSHALL: Some of our government partners were like, look, we've got a humanitarian aid flight already leaving. Get this to me in five days. You can hitch a ride with your prototypes. And one of the best days of my life was - it works.

MCLAUGHLIN: Within six months, the devices were embedded in Ukraine's grid.

GALAGAN: And it works right now.

MCLAUGHLIN: The whole problem demanded a lot of ingenuity. Here's Sergey Galagan again.

GALAGAN: Oh, yeah. We are pretty creative. So we do need, let's say, nonstandard solutions because, in other case, we lose the war.

MCLAUGHLIN: Otherwise they lose the war. It's life and death for Ukraine. But their discovery reveals a larger problem - overreliance on technology like GPS. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration - or the FAA - says GPS jamming in major conflicts is on the rise in places like Ukraine and Israel. That poses a major flight safety risk to commercial planes, they say.

And it gets worse. GPS jamming is one thing, but adversaries can also spoof GPS signals - make it seem like a plane or boat is somewhere completely different than where it actually is.

MARSHALL: That is a much more difficult problem to solve.

MCLAUGHLIN: Knowing Joe Marshall, he probably won't let that problem go either.

MARSHALL: It might be my next challenge. Who - at this point, who the heck knows?

MCLAUGHLIN: Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.
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