EXPLAINER: A deep dive into the risks to submarine cables, pipes

By JOHN LEICESTER
Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — Deep under water, the pipes and cables that carry the lifeblood of the modern world — power and information — are out of sight and largely out of mind. Until something goes catastrophically wrong.

The alleged sabotage this week of gas pipelines that linked Russia and Europe shows how vulnerable but weakly protected undersea infrastructure is to attack, with potentially disastrous repercussions for the global economy.

It is unclear who detonated explosions, powerful enough to be detected by earthquake monitors across the Baltic Sea, which European governments suspect were the cause of multiple punctures in Nord Stream pipelines. The leaks released torrents of foaming methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement, calling suspicions of pipeline sabotage “predictable and stupid”.

Analysts found this hard to believe, saying the Russian gas producer apparently had the most to gain from driving up market prices with such a strike and punishing Europe, creating fear and uncertainty, by retaliation for switching to other gas suppliers due to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Because underwater sabotage is harder to detect and easier to deny than more easily visible attacks on the ground and in the air, the explosions also seemed to fit the Russian military playbook for “hybrid warfare.” It is the use of a range of means – military, non-military and subterfuge – to destabilize, divide and pressure adversaries.

A look at the underwater infrastructure that military and economic analysts say needs enhanced protection:

WHAT’S BELOW?

Gas networks are just one part of the globe’s dense web of undersea pipes and cables that powers economies, keeps homes warm and connects billions of people.

According to TeleGeography, which tracks and maps vital communications networks, more than 1.3 million kilometers (807,800 miles) of fiber optic cables – more than enough to stretch to and from the moon – run through oceans and seas.

The cables are usually the width of a garden hose. But 97% of global communications, including trillions of dollars in financial transactions, pass through it every day.

Without them, modern life could suddenly freeze, economies collapse and governments would struggle to communicate with each other and their troops, British lawmaker Rishi Sunak warned in a 2017 report, laying out the risks before becoming the head of the British Treasury.

Electric cables also pass under water. Lithuania alleged in 2015 that a Russian navy ship had repeatedly tried to obstruct the laying of an undersea power cable linking the country to Sweden. Lithuania’s energy minister reportedly said he viewed Russia’s actions as “hostile”.

HOW VULNERABLE ARE THEY?

The pipeline explosions have shown that it is possible to strike seabed infrastructure and escape seemingly undetected, even in the crowded Baltic Sea. Relatively shallow, with lots of shipping traffic and unexploded bombs on its soil from both World Wars, the sea is considered a challenge to navigate undetected.

Even the Kremlin agreed that it seemed unlikely to be the work of amateurs.

“It looks like a terrorist attack, probably carried out at the state level,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.

Dozens of ruptures each year of undersea communication cables, often caused by fishing vessels and anchors, testify to their fragility. Their locations on the seabed are not secret, they are not securely protected by international law, and it does not take vast expertise or resources to damage them, according to Sunak’s report.

“Our infrastructure is fragile,” said Torben Ørting Jørgensen, a retired admiral in the Danish navy. The Baltic gas leaks “have sharpened our attention to such vulnerabilities as the internet, electrical cables or gas pipes”, he said.

Internet giants such as Amazon, Facebook’s parent company Meta, Google and Microsoft were among those driving the cable spread, with stakes in a growing number of undersea cables. . This avoids having to spend taxpayers’ money to install the networks. But because private companies don’t think about national security as broadly as governments, they haven’t been aware of the “aggressive new threat” to cables from places like Russia, according to Sunak’s report.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

After the Cold War, nations in the NATO military alliance reduced their anti-submarine warfare forces, cutting defense budgets and deeming the Russian threat lessened.

“The ability of many Western nations to reliably detect, track, deter and counter Russian underwater activity has atrophied,” said a 2016 study, “Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe,” led by Kathleen Hicks, now No. 2 in the US Department of Defense.

Retired French Vice-Admiral Michel Olhagaray, former director of France’s center for advanced military studies, says Western nations “have allowed themselves to fall asleep” and must now embark on better cable protection and underwater pipes that Russia has identified as vital. and vulnerable.

They “certainly fell behind,” Olhagaray said of Western defenses against submarine attacks.

“The seabed is a much more important and obvious area” than space exploration, he added. “Rather than going to Mars, we should better protect the infrastructure.”

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AP reporters Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Kelvin Chan in London contributed.

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