The North Sea and its submarine challenge
The North Sea is a strategic place, especially for its richness. The richness of its fishy waters, but also for the richness of its seabed with the submarine cables.
There are many submarine cables in the North Sea region and many Western countries depend on them. Incidents already happened. They have highlighted the fragility of the undersea infrastructures and the energy dependence has been emphasized.
Although damage to submarine cables are common, the hypothesis of sabotage often hangs over the incident. Several suspicious Russian civilian ships have been spotted in the North Sea and monitored by various European intelligence agencies.
To address the issue of energy dependence and foreign threats, European leaders, led by France and Germany, have come together to find an answer. National authorities have a responsibility to ensure that cable routes are sufficiently redundant and diverse to ensure overall resilience.
The hazards threatening the submarine cables in the North Sea
There are many submarine cables in the North Sea region and many Western countries depend on them. Cutting them would limit internet connectivity, especially across the Atlantic. The energy market could suffer significant damage if undersea power cables are sabotaged or damaged. One option might also be to harm communications or take down countries’ power systems to cause chaos.
Apart from the material risks, there are other threats looming over the submarine cables. Foreign countries could tapped its to record, copy and steal data. They could therefore be used for espionage purposes.
There are three ways to spy on undersea cables : by placing backdoors during the cable manufacturing process, targeting onshore landing stations and facilities connecting cables to terrestrial networks, or tapping cables at sea. The last option is more difficult but less traceable and one of the most effective.
Incidents on submarine cables have already occurred recently
An incident already happened in the South of Svalbard last year. On January 2022, the Svalbard Undersea Cable System was cut. It was a twin submarine fiberoptic communication cable connecting Longyearbyen with Andøya north of Harstad in northern Norway. The damage let the Faroe and Shetlands Islands without internet access. The incident happened a month after the sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipeline.
The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline was a trigger for the Western public. The weakness of the undersea infrastructure has been highlighted and energy dependence has been emphasized. As the Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said “The offshore windmills, but also the cables and the pipes on the ground, are prone to sabotage or espionage,”. The Ukrainian War draws attention to the European dependence on Russian energy.
Although damage to submarine cables are common, the hypothesis of sabotage often hangs over the incident.
The Shadow War, the threat of Russian spy ships
Several Russian civilian ships have been spotted in the North Sea and monitored by various European intelligence agencies. They are disguised as research vessels or fishing trawlers. These ships are sailing on maritime routes near gas or oil fields, near wind farms and power plants, as well as in the vicinity of military training areas – including during NATO training exercises.
The Admiral Vladimirsky would be one of them. Officially dispatched for oceanographic research, the reality might be quite different as revealed by the documentary “The Shadow War” produced by public broadcasters from Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway. The Admiral Vladimirsky is shown conducting a mapping of the seabed in the international waters of the North Sea. The ship is of particular concern for her interest and proximity to western wind farms.
Legally, nothing prohibits Russia from making these observations. The concern lies mainly in the use that could be made of the collected information.
Some see behind this mapping preparations for a possible war between NATO and Russia. Moscow would identify the vulnerabilities of energy infrastructures for sabotaging purposes.
The response to the challenges raised by submarine cables
To address this problem of energy dependence, European leaders, led by France and Germany, have come together to find an answer. Renewable energies, more specifically wind turbines, could meet the challenges of security and sustainability. Cleaner than fossil fuels and more difficult to sabotage than pipelines, wind turbines seem to be, indeed, the answer to European concerns. They covet to produce around 300GW between now and 2050.
Protecting Europe’s seabed infrastructure is a current concern. In the past, being underwater was a protection in itself. Today, with technological advances, the risks are greater. Threats can now be hybrid: physical or cyber and the stakes are high.
Cables are subject to cyberattacks that can cause malfunctions or hardware incidents. Furthermore, whether it is a ship’s anchor or intentional sabotage, the risks are numerous.
Europe relies above all on its ability to react in the event of sabotage. Rapid repair limits the consequences of a cable rupture and the paralysis of companies and the continent.
The resilience of the Old Continent, a must have
The acquisition of drones and underwater robots would allow to Europe to acquire strategic autonomy. Whether to act, protect or repair, having access to the seabed up to 6,000 meters deep is a goal. With more than 1.3 million kilometers, submarine cables invisible but essential elements of Western life.
Submarine cables, as telecommunication and energy infrastructures, are part of the vital systems on which Western society depends.
According to UNODC, more than $10,000 billion in financial transactions transit daily through undersea cables.
The creation of an international authority to protect the submarine cables
The International Cable Protection Committee was created in 1958 “to improve the security of undersea cables by providing a forum in which relevant technical, legal and environmental information can be exchanged.”
the ICPC is for now only an industry forum for cable owners and some governments. The more allied governments join the institution, the more legitimacy it gains.
Even if submarine cables are private property, governments still have the duty to monitor them. National authorities also have a responsibility to ensure that cable routes are sufficiently redundant and diverse. They must ensure overall resilience and avoid security breaches.