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Could undersea cables be the next casualty of hybrid warfare?

The UK, Italy and France are all investing in new ships and infrastructure to protect the internet from Russian aggression. Critics argue they’re overreacting.

By Greg Noone

The Akademik Boris Petrov is officially listed as a research vessel. About 75 metres long and moored, at the time of writing, in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the ship’s official purpose is to survey the ocean depths. Others believe its role is more nefarious. Labelled a ‘spy ship’ by several UK tabloids, the vessel’s brilliant white silhouette has been variously described as skulking away from the Shetland Islands just after its undersea internet cable connection to the rest of the world was severed, and being forced out of the Netherlands’ territorial waters by that country’s coastguard under suspicion of mapping the underwater infrastructure syphoning natural gas and internet traffic in and out of Western Europe.

To clarify, the Akademik Boris Petrov has not been officially labelled as a Russian spy vessel by any government, and neither has it been conclusively linked to acts of sabotage or espionage as they pertain to undersea internet cables. But Western capitals are worried. Last year’s mysterious bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipeline highlighted for many Nato member states just how vulnerable underwater infrastructure is to sabotage by hostile nations, not least the web of internet cables currently strung across the sea floor. It was with this threat in mind that both France and Italy announced increased investment in undersea drones and surveillance infrastructure, and the UK touted its imminent launch of two so-called ‘Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ships’ to investigate and deter sabotage.

Is Russia a threat to undersea cables?

Keir Giles welcomes this focus on the threat posed by Russia and other nations to the international undersea cable network. An expert in Russian information war strategies at Chatham House, Giles sees the threat of sabotage against undersea internet cables as another possible vector of aggression by Moscow against Nato member states. The capabilities of the former, he says, are “well-developed…not just to locate and interfere with cables, but also to tap into them for espionage purposes”.

Giles acknowledges that there haven’t been, to date, any documented cases of deliberate acts of sabotage against undersea internet cables (“Or, perhaps we should say, there haven’t been many incidents that have been publicised,” he says). Such actions, however, are part and parcel of Russia’s tactical playbook during times of heightened geopolitical tensions with rival nations, or periods of outright conflict. During its recent invasion of Ukraine, for example, the Russian military flattened several of that country’s national data centres with missiles (fortunately, third parties had exfiltrated Kyiv’s files into the cloud just days beforehand.) Giles also points to examples of similar Russian actions in Estonia and during the annexation of Crimea.

“Countries like Latvia and Sweden actually include in their crisis response booklets, distributed to all of the population, a big red warning notice saying, ‘If you get information in a time of crisis or invasion that we are surrendering, ignore it,’” says Giles, “‘because they have seen Russia practising delivering information to people that they’ve cut off from other sources of knowledge in that way.’”

Neither is Russia alone in contemplating sabotage against undersea internet cables. While China possesses intelligence advantages in other areas, such as its dominance in the manufacture of IoT devices that some have alleged are open to monitoring by that country’s intelligence services, the People’s Republic also seems to possess a keen interest in harnessing the defencelessness of underwater cabling – particularly as it pertains to isolating its purported renegade province, Taiwan. Analysts have noted, for example, the suspiciously high volume of accidental breakages in the cables connecting Taiwan with the Matsu Islands, though its telecoms authorities stressed that there was no evidence of deliberate sabotage in these cases.

However, espionage, rather than sabotage, is the greater concern in the Indo-Pacific, explains Samuel Bashfield, a defence researcher with the Australia India Institute. “Due to the interconnectedness of Indo-Pacific cables, especially those connecting Taiwan, any attempt at sabotaging cables connecting Taiwan could affect China’s connectedness,” says Bashfield. But concerns about sabotage are still justified, in his opinion. “Should tensions escalate, cables will become a valid target in the Indo-Pacific – just as telegraph cables were in the First World War.”

subsea internet cable
An undersea internet cable lurking in the depths. Foreign policy analysts argue that these conduits, the effective backbone of the global internet, are in danger of being sabotaged by hostile powers. (Photo by JesperG/Shutterstock)

How to repair an undersea cable

It’s not yet midday and John Wrottesley is waving a ten-inch long baton of black and yellow cable in front of his webcam like some kind of cyberpunk police sergeant. Possessing a circumference of around 28mm – little thicker than your average climbing rope – the demonstration by the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) project manager illustrates how slender and unimportant undersea internet cables must appear on the ocean bed, relative to their importance in global telecommunications.

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In the waters of Western Europe, explains Wrottesley, these cables often fall victim to what he calls ‘external aggression’. That’s not a reference to Russian undersea shenanigans, he’s quick to clarify, but general human error: cables being dragged and snapped by anchors like elastic bands, say, or being snared in fishing nets. There can be 40 such cases per year, says Wrottesley, but fortunately the simplicity of an undersea internet cable’s design – essentially a very long length of fibre-optic strands sheathed in steel armour – means they’re fairly easily repaired in a couple of days by dedicated vessels splicing new sections into the gnarled and broken conduit.   

In the meantime, internet services in countries on either side of that cable continue largely uninterrupted (unless, of course, you happen to live in the Shetland Islands, or Tonga.) The system of undersea cables in European waters is now so resilient, explains Wrottesley, that most traffic can be bypassed down other routes if one of them is cut. Slowing down a country’s internet system would therefore require sabotage on a very large scale, he argues, similar to when Taiwan had the immense bad luck in seeing eight separate cables cut by a typhoon and then an earthquake in 2009. “If you’re looking to cause that sort of disruption,” he says, there are “easier ways to do it than attacking a submarine cable”.

All that makes an incident of sabotage seem less a prelude to economic catastrophe than an opportunity to excite the crew of a cable repair ship with the prospect of an away day in the North Sea. Giles concedes the point. Perversely, though, that could increase the willingness of states like Russia to engage in such skullduggery, as a low-effort, low-consequences way to respond to perceived slights from rival nations – say, for example, the delivery of a new advanced weapons system to Ukraine. Such actions, explains Giles, would “deliver a message to the destination country that Russia can cause damage if it wishes to, even if it’s no more than petty vandalism.”

Does it make sense, then, for the UK’s Ministry of Defence to invest millions in two new ‘motherships’ intended to deter such acts? Nicole Starosielski thinks the money should have been spent elsewhere. A professor at New York University and the author of The Undersea Network, the ur-text on underwater internet cabling, Starosielski believes that governments should focus instead on fishing vessels rather than foreign powers. “Disruption is a norm rather than an exception,” she says. “The focus should be on the disruptions that are already occurring, that are often unintentional.”

Wrottesley is inclined to agree, referring back to the robust repair and monitoring regime run by the same companies that laid down these cables in the first place (firms represented, it should be said, by the ICPC.) Even so, he says, swirling rumours of sabotage beneath the waves only highlights how important it is to maintain the resilience of the undersea internet cable network. Wrottesley hopes, in time, that governments’ newfound focus on cable security will translate into new and effective measures to reduce accidental damage to that network. As such, he says, “the fact that countries are interested, and taking notice of submarine cables, has got to be a good thing”.

Read more: How the Russia-Ukraine war has changed cybercrime

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