Underwater cables are a major challenge. Cutting off a country’s communications does not seem very difficult considering the various incidents already recorded. But protecting such vital infrastructures is very difficult and costly. Seabed Warfare, this is the kind of threat Western countries will need to deal with in a very near future.
In recent years, many events have fueled the idea that an insidious submarine war could start soon. Indeed, the increase in the number of incidents on submarine infrastructures as well as the presentation of sea-bed-intervention submarines and Underwater Unarmed Vehicles (UUVs) are strong arguments accrediting this thesis.
In November 2021 and January 2022, two Norwegian agencies reported incidents on underwater cables. In the first case, a scientific cable was torn off and displaced. The segments have not been fully retrieved yet. In the second case, a communication cable was cut, altering the resilience level of the telecommunication service which it supported.
A report by the International Cable Protection Committee states that out of 2,500 events registered between 1959 and 2006, 66% of cable damage was caused by human activity (anchoring and fishing), 13% by natural events and 21% remains of unknown origin (based on data from Tyco Telecommunications (US) Inc.).
These different examples highlight the great vulnerability of submarine cables, whether they are used for data transport, power supply or scientific purposes, and the difficulty in establishing responsibilities. Today, roughly 99% of the world’s data traffic travels through submarine cables.
The most powerful countries already in the game
Moreover, these cables are vulnerable to sabotaging, or spying .The United States created a new means of action during the Spanish-American War of 1898, by cutting several maritime telecommunication cables, isolating Spain from its areas of operation, and thus gaining an important strategic advantage. In the sixties, the United States resumed spying on the submarine cables communications, and it seems that these operations are still going on today.
Other major nations are involved in this business: Russia and China’s deep-sea capacities and activities leave little doubt as to their objectives. Whether it is the Russian Losharik submarine or the Chinese HSU-001, these two countries are demonstrating their will to carry out actions in the deep sea, to assert their interests or hinder their rivals.
Since 2015 at least, NATO and the United States have shown concern about the activities (potentially cable mapping) carried out by the Russian ship Yandra as well as the Russian submarine fleet. NATO seems to fear that these units could foreshadow destabilizing actions, to undermine the interests of NATO and its partners. However, protecting 1.3 million kilometers of cables represents an unprecedented challenge for nations.
To prepare for this future type of action, several Western countries have taken actions. In 2016, the US Navy published an updated version of Undersea Warfare S&T Strategic, detailing scientific and technical objectives to align R&D with the needs in the field. In the United Kingdom, the First Sea Lord announced in his 2020 New Year’s speech that two Ocean Surveillance ships would be built “to help with data collection and protect critical national infrastructure and undersea cables.”
In February 2022, the French Minister of Defence presented her country’s Seabed warfare strategy. The French plan is quite interesting, giving insights on the different strategic competitors in the field, the ambitions of Paris as well as a roadmap to achieve these objectives. Though it is long-term global plan, it does not detail the means that will be implemented to prevent and counter acts of sabotage or espionage.
In a nutshell, cutting off a country’s communications does not seem very difficult considering the various incidents already recorded. On the other hand, protecting such vital infrastructures as underwater cables is very difficult and costly. In a post-covid context, which has weakened many countries, one may wonder whether the various Western strategies will be funded up to their ambitions. One thing is certain however: to do nothing to protect underwater cables is not an option!