Something fishy is going on under the sea. Suspicion has grown that bad actors are involved in a different kind of wetwork — one that is terminating underwater fiber-optic cables rather than enemies marked for death. As international conflicts intensify, the United States must raise its vigilance in safeguarding the essential communications network crisscrossing the world’s oceans.
In recent weeks, an undersea cable linking the Faroe Islands to mainland Scotland by way of the Shetland and Orkney islands was cut in two separate incidents, crippling the North Atlantic archipelago’s internet access. Earlier this year, sea-based cables connecting the city of Marseille to Lyon, Milan and Barcelona were purposely cut, the cable’s operator reported. Breaks have also occurred in a cable linking a satellite ground station on outlying Norwegian isles to the mainland and to one linking underwater sensors that monitor submarine activity in the same vicinity.
There are nearly 500 submarine cables stretching three-quarters of a million miles beneath the planet’s oceans. Together, they form a network carrying 95% of the world’s voice and data communications.
Inadvertent disruptions occur when fishing nets and anchors cast by trawlers become entangled in the submarine cables. The recent rash of incidents in northern waters, though, have come at a time when Russia’s war on neighboring Ukraine has put it at odds with the European community. Given the obvious act of sabotage that ruptured the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines carrying Russian natural gas beneath the Baltic Sea to energy-needy Europeans, the vulnerability of communications cables is no less apparent.
Suspicions grow that Russian fishing vessels are purposely targeting the undersea network. “To those who claim the cuts of the Shetland cables are done by trawlers then the answer is very likely to be yes — but trawlers doing it on purpose and not by mistake,” Hans Tino Hansen, CEO of the threat analysis firm Risk Intelligence, told High North News.
Whether the incidents are intentional or accidental, Russia is known to possess submersible vehicles capable of cutting cables as a means of crippling an adversary’s communications. And given Taiwan’s reliance on undersea communications cables in fending off China’s threat to absorb the island, conduit security should be front and center for the United States.
In its role as protector of the high seas, the U.S. Navy operates one ship capable of laying and repairing cable — the 40-year-old USNS Zeus. A September Congressional Research Service report points out that the Navy has two commercial vessels under standby contract in case of national emergency. It questions whether U.S. capacity to keep up with repairs is sufficient in the current era of mounting international aggression.
The report recommends a more robust role for the Department of Homeland Security. Directed in 2015 to work with the private sector to enhance security of land-based communications systems, Congress could task DHS with “enhancing security and resiliency of undersea cables.”
Common sense dictates that additional safeguards are in order to protect the critical web of fiber-optic cables from fishy behavior under the sea.