w/e 28th October 2022
First there was the presumed sabotage on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, to which nobody has owned up to yet by the way, although Russia is strongly suspected. Then there was the disruption to undersea cables to Shetland which shut everything down, including bank ATMs which meant that for a short while IOUs became the currency of those islands. This time the reason seems to have been more innocent, probably caused by fishing gear or a dragging anchor.
Nonetheless, incidents such as these have focused attention on the security of undersea pipelines and cables worldwide. Subsea infrastructure is generally buried in trenches where possible, but some types of seabed make this more difficult and it is less common for communications cables. It is estimated that there might be more than 530 active or planned submarine telecoms cables around the world. Extending to more than 1.3 million kilometres, they carry ninety-five per cent of the world’s internet traffic.
Most people have no real idea how many thousands of miles of pipeline and cables are under the seas around the UK. These are the oil and gas pipelines, offshore wind farm power export cables, international electricity and gas interconnectors, and internet and communications cables that allow Britain to do much of its business.
Determined attackers are very likely to get through. The effects of a successful attack will differ. Pipelines and subsea electricity cables are few in number. If one is blown up, gas, oil or electricity cannot easily be rerouted through another. In addition, many offshore oil, gas, and windfarm installations are unmanned; anyone with a boat can sail along and board a complex industrial control centre where half an hour smashing equipment would take months to repair.
Whatever way you look at it, the subsea domain is a huge area and extremely hard to monitor properly using conventional means. In the UK we have far fewer surface ships, submarines, and maritime patrol aircraft than we once had. In this context, it is reassuring that the UK has now committed to procuring two specialist ships – the so-called “Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ships” – to protect the UK’s critical underwater infrastructure.
All of this assumes, of course, that the most likely attacks will be via submarines. But AUVs (autonomous undersea vehicles)can be launched from any cargo ship or fishing vessel. And recent events in Ukraine show the impact that armed or “kamikaze” drones can have on the course of military operations on land.
Imagine a “cargo” ship carrying several containers of racked drones being let off in the middle of the North Sea to attack oil rigs and wind farm transformer towers. Clearly we will have to pay more attention to this relatively new perceived threat, and it is probably best approached in conjunction with our NATO allies. In this we should be mindful of the talents and experience contained in the UK civilian subsea industry, a world leader in such matters. There is little point in the MoD and Royal Navy reinventing what already exists.
Nord Stream and the Shetland disruption have given us early warnings of the dangers to our critical infrastructures under the ocean. We ignore them at our peril.
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