by Austin Bay
November 15, 2023
In September 2022, explosive charges damaged three of the four Russian-built Nord Stream Baltic Sea natural gas pipelines connecting Russia to Western Europe. The Washington Post recently reported that Ukrainian special forces conducted the sabotage attack. Why? The pipeline gives Russia economic and political leverage over energy-hungry Europeans, Ukraine's allies.
Reasonable theory -- if you trust The Washington Post's classified sources. However, responsibility for the attack isn't this column's concern. What the attack demonstrated interests me: offshore infrastructure, transoceanic infrastructure and even seaports are very vulnerable to relatively simple types of disruptive and destructive sabotage by well-trained operatives.
Unless the target is deep, the attacker doesn't need a sub or expensive suicide robot. For shallow sea targets, special operations personnel, committed terrorists or high-tech criminals suffice.
For that matter, blackmailing crooks in a fishing boat don't need a smart torpedo -- dragging an anchor can cause millions in damage and billions in losses until the targeted structure is repaired.
In the last decade I've written several columns addressing threats to commercial shipping (e.g., pirates), offshore industrial infrastructure (drilling platforms, pipelines, etc.), fishing and ocean resource development (including mining), and freedom of navigation. As a collective category they are "maritime security" issues.
Disruptive threats to the nonmilitary endeavors I listed have negative economic consequences that usually have negative political effects as lives are lost and prices spike. Denying freedom of navigation directly impacts military security -- just ask the U.S. Navy.
Deep below the waves runs the undersea cable spine of the global internet -- digital information pipelines carrying everything from bank transactions to live sports events to personal email. Currently between 95% and 99% of all transoceanic data traffic transits undersea cables. The fiber-optic cables are far more efficient than satellites, have less latency (delay) and can carry more bytes. Some can transmit 400 terabits of data per second.
These capabilities aren't cheap. I've read that a London-New York cable can cost well over $300 million to manufacture and install. They require specialized cable-laying ships.
Mid-ocean, cables lie deep on the seabed. But as the cables approach shore the sea becomes shallower and ship traffic increases.
Cables have "landing sites" where they connect to the landlubber internet. The landing sites (aka cable landing stations) are internet seaports -- and therefore they are targets.
For example, 26 different submarine cables connect at Singapore. Singapore, on the Straits of Malacca, is a shipping chokepoint. It is also a digital information chokepoint.
Now review what I wrote about the blackmailing crook with a bottom-scraping anchor.
The bad actor with anchor isn't theoretical, nor necessarily a crook. According to DefenseOne.com, Finland recently reported a mainland Chinese vessel "cut several communications cables and a gas cable, apparently after dragging its anchor through them. While China is cooperating with Finland, Finnish police have not ruled out that the cutting was intentional."
What a coincidence. The Diplomat reported that in February 2023, Chinese ships damaged the subsea cables connecting Taiwan to the smaller island of Matsu (northeast of Taiwan).
Fair question for everyone concerned with physical and information security: Is communist China experimenting with plausibly deniable information disruption attacks that can have severe economic consequences?
We already have reason to hold communist China suspect. Strong evidence indicts Chinese tech giant Huawei as an intelligence asset for Beijing. It's why the U.S. has sanctioned Huawei's 5G technology. According to business media, the U.S. has stopped Huawei from participating in undersea cable projects on at least three occasions. Why? Espionage is the big reason.
Undersea cable warfare isn't new. In 2008 I reviewed Jonathan Winkler's "Nexus: Strategic Communication and American Security in WWI." The book provides a lesson in the evolutionary nature of technological change. The late 19th century's international telegraph undersea cable system was the first global internet.
When World War I erupted, the British literally "hacked" (cut) and tapped German undersea cables. This produced an intelligence edge and gave Britain imposing economic and political advantages.