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Hidden but critical infrastructures: submarine cables and pipelines

Sabotage has been in the headlines since the recent Nord Stream incident under the Baltic Sea, but is not the only threat to the critical underwater infrastructure that countries and organizations around the world rely on. Peter Power examines threats and suggests actions to improve resilience.

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

Air Chief Marshal Sir Peach has decided to release key intelligence that has been of great concern to NATO for some time. For many, it was more of a James Bond threat than reality: Russia had several submarines specially equipped to cut deep undersea cables and thus plunge us back into the dark age of telecommunications then networks between countries would largely cease. They also had the ability to blow up much larger and better protected 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 headlines, but few people thought then that Putin would actually cross the main arteries of the world. commerce and energy that criss-cross the seabed.

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

Our use of submarine cables began with a protected submarine cable for telegraphy linking England and France in 1850, courtesy of a wealthy English merchant family named Brett. What was then an enterprising novelty has greatly expanded to now underpin a bewildering level of critical activity that is hidden and therefore taken for granted. Compared to satellites, submarine cables offer high capacity, economical 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 Center for Strategic and Internal Studies there are now about 530 submarine cables in the world spanning 1.3 million kilometers (half a million miles). Sometimes described as the “global information highways”, these cables carry more than 95% of international data. $10 trillion in daily financial transactions depend on it.

Of course, Putin would never admit to flexing his Poseidon muscles and was expected to point to the deep-sea trawlers as the culprit, or even the US government. However, in an effort to gain intelligence, it is believed that he might prefer covert spying to first try to tap into these cables (some are no thicker than a garden hose) rather than cut, noting that governments rely heavily on this infrastructure for their own benefit. communications.

Likewise, the prospect of hijacking the transatlantic financial trade by attaching a valve to turn off the data stream and demanding money to reconnect must be attractive to an enterprising terrorist group, or far more likely, a state actor. who urgently needs money. and uses a third party to deal with such criminal acts. However, electrical cables and especially gas pipelines represent a different target.

Near the UK, the North Sea oil rigs all feed into a network of submarine conduits. Additionally, gas to the UK from Norway, which accounts for a fifth of peak gas demand, reaches the UK from a pipe up to 360 meters below the waves. Then there are 2500 offshore wind turbines, capable of generating the equivalent of four nuclear power plants, with slightly thicker cables, after which the gas pipes are considerably larger – but not, it seems, too large for that a submarine attack breaks them.

A series of deep underwater explosions recently ruptured two gas pipelines crossing international waters that connect Germany to Russia. These pipelines, Nord Stream 1 and 2, had been shut down or never fully operational since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, but still contained tons of inactive pressurized natural gas that has now been dumped in the Baltic Sea. So what action is urgently needed to increase the resilience of these vast underwater lifelines?

  • First, establish a well-funded transnational surveillance and recovery capability that is connected to NATO to develop surveillance vessels or autonomous underwater drones, etc. The Royal Navy is already developing a new Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Vessel (MROSS) to help protect the UK against these hostile actors and increase understanding of the maritime threat. Hopefully it will launch in 2024.
  • Second, to strengthen business continuity management in its broadest sense, involving the public and private sectors in the event of a major disruption, as well as NATO. Frequent drills should use scenarios where multiple hits occur as a simultaneous attack that quickly overwhelms a first response. The planning process alone will be of great help to those who own these submarine arteries to identify specific points of risk and develop international points of contact to improve the resilience of the network.

The author

Peter Power FIRM FBCI BA is Vice President of the Resilience Association. Contact him at [email protected]