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Sabotage has been in the headlines since the recent Nord Stream incident under the Baltic Sea, but is not the only threat to the undersea critical infrastructure that countries and organizations around the world rely upon. Peter Power looks at the threats and suggests some actions for improving resilience.

Stuart Peach is not a household name. You would be forgiven for not knowing who he is and what he predicted three years ago when he was Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff. Not only were his words at a London conference prophetic, but for the second in command of the Royal Air Force to specifically request urgent funding for the Royal Navy was in itself a novelty. 

Air Chief Marshall Sir Peach decided to go public on key intelligence that for some time had been of great concern to NATO. For many people it was a threat belonging more to James Bond than reality: Russia had several submarines especially equipped to cut through deep underwater cables and so plunge us back into the dark age of telecommunications as networks between countries would largely cease. They also had the capacity to blow up far larger and better protected deep ocean gas pipelines.

Peach made his comments during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a military think tank, and they certainly made the press, but few then believed Putin would actually slice through the great arteries of commerce and energy that crisscross ocean floors.

Then Ukraine happened. It now seems clear that Russia not only has the hardware and intent to commit dramatic acts of sabotage above ground, but also beneath the waves. So how vulnerable are we?

Our use of subsea cables started with a protected submarine wire for telegraphy connecting England and France in 1850, thanks to a wealthy English merchant family named Brett. What was then an enterprising novelty has expanded dramatically to now underpin a bewildering level if critical activities that are hidden and we therefore take them for granted. In comparison with satellites, subsea cables provide high capacity, cost-effective, and reliable connections that are crucial for our daily lives. There is even an organization dedicated to their protection: The International Cable Protection Committee , although their effectiveness is uncertain.

According to the Center for Strategic and Internal Studies there are now approximately 530 under ocean cables worldwide covering 1.3 million kilometres (half a million miles). Sometimes described as the ‘world’s information super-highways’, these cables carry over 95 percent of international data. $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions are dependent on them.

Of course, Putin would never admit to flexing his Poseidon muscles and he was expected to point to deep water trawlers as the culprit, or even the US Government.  However, for the purpose of gaining intelligence it is thought that he might prefer discrete espionage to first try and tap into these cables (some are no thicker than a garden hose) rather than sever them, noting governments depend heavily on this infrastructure for their own communications.

Equally, the prospect of holding transatlantic financial commerce hostage by attaching a valve to turn off data flow and demanding money to reconnect must be appealing for an enterprising terrorist group, or far more likely, a state actor who happens to be in urgent need of cash and uses a third party to front such criminal acts. However, electricity cables and especially gas pipelines pose a different target.

Close to the UK, North Sea oil platforms all feed into a network of undersea conduits. In addition, gas to the UK from Norway, accounting for a fifth of peak gas demand, reaches the UK from a pipe up to 360 meters under the waves. Then there are 2500 offshore wind turbines, capable of generating the equivalent of four nuclear power stations, with slightly thicker cables, after which gas pipes are considerably larger – but not it seems, too large for a submarine attack to rupture them.

A series of deep underwater explosions have recently severed two gas pipelines running through international waters that connect Germany with Russia. These pipelines, the Nord Stream 1 and 2, had been turned off or were never fully operational since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, but still held tons of idled pressurized natural gas which has now spewed up into the Baltic Sea. So what action is urgently needed to increase the resilience of these vast under the ocean lifelines?

  • First, set up a well-funded transnational monitoring and recovery capability that is connected with NATO to develop surveillance ships or autonomous undersea drones etc.  The Royal Navy is already developing a new Multi Role Ocean Surveillance ship (MROSS) to help protect the UK against such hostile actors and grow understanding of the maritime threat. With any luck, it will be launched in 2024.
  • Second, beef up business continuity management in its widest sense that combines both public and private sectors in case of major breaks, as well as NATO. Frequent exercises should use scenarios where multi hits occur as a simultaneous attack that quickly overwhelms a first response. Just the planning process will be of much help to those who own these submarine arteries to identify specific points of risk and develop international points of contact to improve net resilience.

The author

Peter Power FIRM FBCI BA is Vice Chairman of the Resilience Association. Contact him at peter.power@resilienceassociation.org


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