British defense officials have added their voice to those of others highlighting the threat posed by the capabilities of the Russian military and intelligence entities to the soft underside of the global telecom infrastructure: undersea cables. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, chief of defense staff in the U.K., highlighted how the need to protect the undersea infrastructure is a priority, the BBC reported.
Peach joins retired U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, who wrote in the foreword of the Policy Exchange Report, “Undersea Cables – Indispensable, Insecure” that “it is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world’s economy.”
Undersea Cables: Why Should We Care?
Stavridis wrote, “We’ve allowed this vital infrastructure to grow increasingly vulnerable and this should worry us all.”
The report also noted that 97 percent of the global economy is supported by the infrastructure that relies on undersea cables, accounting for $10 trillion via 15 million daily financial transactions.
Threats to Undersea Cables
Every year we read of a ship dragging an anchor and cutting an undersea cable. The U.K. alone saw three major undersea cables cut in late 2016 when a ship dragged its anchor across the English Channel’s seabed. Similarly, in 2012, multiple cable breaks occurred in the Gulf of Aden that affected three separate undersea cable systems, again attributed to a cargo ship dragging an anchor along the seabed. In both the 2016 and 2012 instances, communication degradation occurred immediately for affected telecom operators.
Peach noted how Russia’s willingness to utilize unconventional asymmetric warfare and its investment in submarine capability is sufficient evidence for the U.K. This captures the sentiment within the Policy Exchange report, that a “bellicose Russian naval presence” has led to a significant rise in the activity level as evidenced by a continual flow of incidents:
- Sweden: Several mysterious sub-sightings have occurred, including one in 2014 that scrambled the Swedish navy to find a submarine in Swedish waters.
- United Kingdom: A Russian submarine was detected near the Faslane base (home to the U.K.’s Trident submarines) in 2015.
- Finland: The Finnish navy dropped depth charges on unidentified subsurface vessel (not a submarine, but perhaps an unmanned underwater vehicle [UUV]) that entered its waters in 2015.
- Crimea: Russia isolated all communications into and out of Crimea during the annexation of the Ukrainian territory, demonstrating its strategy of attacking infrastructure as a prelude to deploying troops.
- Arctic: Russia is sending robotic submarines to the Arctic Ocean amid the reopening of multiple Arctic military basis, as Russia outdistances all countries in deploying resources to the Arctic ocean.
- Russia: New midget submarines, P-650 models, are being deployed to Russian Navy Special Operations Forces.
Russia’s evolution of UUVs is well-documented, and as the Policy Exchange report notes, Russia currently has surface ships that have autonomous UUVs capable of performing complex tasks involving undersea cables.
But is Russia alone? Not in the least. Iran successfully deployed such a vessel in 2012, according to the Iranian media.
The threat isn’t just cutting the undersea cable, but also tapping into those cables.
The U.S. Navy successfully tapped a Soviet undersea cable in Operation Ivy Bells; the year was 1971. The tap device—a mere 20 feet long with a weight of six tons—was built by Bell Labs and was successfully deployed by the USS Halibut to tap the Soviet Naval communications between Soviet Pacific Fleet Naval base at Petropavlovsk and the mainland. The device now sits in a museum in Moscow, as its existence was revealed in 1980 by NSA employee Ronald Pelton, who, on the verge of bankruptcy, sold the last item of value he possessed: the secrets of his employer, NSA, to the Soviet Union.
Whether it is from Russia, Iran or some other country, the threat to undersea communications cables is real, and they will continue to be vulnerable to attack/disruption/tapping for the foreseeable future. The world of UUVs will also continue to evolve, and we can expect to see an ever-increasing number of dust-ups, such as the one in 2016 when a Chinese Naval vessel seized a U.S. Navy UUV while it was being retrieved from the South China Sea.