UK Defense Chief Warns of Threat to Subsea Cables

Illustration of the world's subsea telecom cable network (file image)

Published Dec 15, 2017 9:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a new report published by the UK's Policy Exchange, member of parliament Rishi Sunak and his staff laid out a growing threat to Britain's commerce from hostile states' subsea warfare capabilities. The UK is a global hub for finance and other professional services, and its role in international commerce is made possible by a globe-spanning network of subsea cables. 213 submarine cable systems carry 97 percent of the world's telecommunications and $10 trillion a day in financial transactions. These critical lines are "both isolated and publicly available," Sunak wrote – making them uniquely susceptible to eavesdropping or attack. 

"Undersea cables are the indispensable infrastructure of our time, essential to our modern life and digital economy, yet they are inadequately protected and highly vulnerable to attack at sea and on land, from both hostile states and terrorists," Sunak concluded. 

In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute this week, UK chief of defense staff Air Chief Marshall Sir Stuart Peach warned that Russia's growing investments in irregular warfare and subsea technology pose a threat to those cables, and by way of extension, a threat to the UK's way of life. "Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living?" he warned.

Stuart said that NATO has made the protection of cables a key priority "in response to the threat posed by the modernization of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships." Stuart added that this is a critical task for NATO because Russia "continues to perfect both unconventional capabilities and information warfare."

Russia's navy has increased its patrols off the UK and in the so-called Greenland, Iceland and the UK (GIUK) gap – a Cold War term for the waters that Russian subs must pass through to gain access to the North Atlantic. The region was relatively quiet through the 1990s and early 2000s, but the Royal Navy now calls on the assistance of its NATO allies to keep track of all the Russian submarines passing through. 

Defense expert Keir Giles told the BBC that in the event of a conflict with Russia, disruption of telecom infrastructure is a distinct possibility. "What Russia learned from Crimea is that in order to take over communications for a target area you don't need expensive cyber weapons, you don't need noisy and disruptive techniques like denial of service attacks. All you need is physical access to the communications infrastructure," said Giles. "They are probing the vulnerabilities of civilian communications infrastructure . . . They've been looking everywhere."