NATO seeks ways of protecting undersea cables from Russian attacks

Russian submarine in Danish waters, Denmark, 21 July 2017 . [EPA/SARAH CHRISTINE NOERGFAARD]

NATO defence ministers on Thursday (22 October) discussed the protection of critical infrastructure such as submarine cables under the Atlantic, amid growing concerns those could be cut or tapped.

Military officials have in recent years noted increased Russian undersea activity and raised the possibility that Moscow could seek to damage cable networks during a potential conflict.

Attacks of this kind could be part of hybrid warfare, a mixture of open and covert acts of war.

NATO’s military leadership has warned that the Russian navy is aggressively probing undersea communications cable networks. One of the scenarios circulating at NATO is that Russian submarines could attempt to cut Atlantic submarine cables.

Since 97% of communications between the US and Europe flows through these cables, the consequences would be significant if they were destroyed or bugged.

For that purpose, NATO members received a new assessment of Russian threats to the security of undersea cables and critical infrastructure, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after Thursday’s meeting.

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A NATO official confirmed that the discussion paper on better protection of submarine cables in the Atlantic was confidential and couldn’t give more details about its contents.

Stoltenberg didn’t address Russia specifically but did say allies are taking a closer look at undersea network security.

Most of these systems are responsible for the transmission of data and communications for both civilian and military uses. The cables transmit the vast majority of global communication data, something international markets rely on heavily, Stoltenberg said.

But as the array of cables are privately owned, their locations are publicly known, which “makes them potentially vulnerable,” Stoltenberg said.

Cables can be tapped at sea, although according to experts this is still relatively difficult to do.

In recent years, however, Russia and China have developed capabilities in these areas.

NATO claims it has reacted to those development since a long time by doing more naval exercises and patrols at sea. Member countries are also investing in modern abilities to combat submarines from the air.

“I think it is important to address this because it is important to understand that most of these cables are privately owned and it’s publicly known where they are,” Stoltenberg said, adding that this also “makes them potentially vulnerable”.

To minimise those risks, NATO has put new tools in place to protect undersea infrastructure and monitor potential threats, Stoltenberg said.

“We have also established a new NATO Atlantic Command in Norfolk, and one of the new tasks of this new North Atlantic command is also to look into how to protect, how to monitor threats against undersea infrastructure,” Stoltenberg said.

The command in Norfolk (JFCNF) led by Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis is situated at the location of the second US fleet and complements a newly created command in Ulm (JSEC) in Baden-Württemberg.

The latter had already reached the first stage of operational readiness a year ago and is responsible for the transport of troops and materials in Europe.

Both commands are meant to be fully operational by September 2021.

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(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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