April 24, 2024

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The scariest new threat for Russia is underwater, not in space

The scariest new threat for Russia is underwater, not in space

Written by James Stavridis

Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned that the United States is “sleepwalking toward an international crisis” by ignoring Russia's intention to place nuclear weapons in space and using electromagnetic pulses to disable satellites that support intelligence, navigation and combat capabilities. He is right to be concerned that this threat poses a serious challenge to the West – even though it has not yet taken practical form. But there is an even more vulnerable vulnerability that threatens global trade, global military readiness and supply chains, and the Internet itself: the extremely vulnerable network of submarine cables that form the backbone of global connectivity.

How big is the threat to submarine cables and what should we do about it?

In a report published earlier this week by the UK's highly respected non-partisan Policy Exchange, the weaknesses were made frighteningly clear. The new report, which I supported and recommended to US officials, is a follow-up to a 2017 analysis co-authored by current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The new report sets the facts straight: Globally, more than $10 trillion worth of financial transactions, business payments and transactions take place every day. dollar. More than 95% of the world's communications are carried out over a network of about 500 cables crossing the seven seas. As a 2017 report stated, “Undersea cables come ashore in a few remote coastal locations…and often have minimal protection. Most Americans believe the Internet is powered by satellites in space. Wrong—it's A relatively small amount of cable on the seabed supports the system.”

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As former head of the UK Ministry of Defence, Admiral Stuart William Beach, said in the introduction to the new report, “Moscow has already begun to view subsea infrastructure in the Atlantic as a vulnerability to our national security.” He goes on to note that “China is working to strengthen its undersea defenses as part of its broader ambition to become a major military power.” Other countries, including Iran and North Korea, are improving their undersea military capabilities in ways that could threaten this critical infrastructure.

A decade ago, I was more concerned about terrorism. As NATO military commander, I was leading assessments of whether Al Qaeda and similar organizations were capable of disrupting the global economy by attacking cables, and our focus was on the ground side of this issue. We thought it unlikely that terrorist groups would be able to attack the seabed.

But today, with the return of dangerous great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia, the entire structure of the system is at risk. In particular, Russian submarines (and some of their “research” surface ships that are actually spy ships) may have the ability to descend into very deep sections of cable and disable them — either by destroying them or manipulating the data. (In my novel, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, Russia fishes undersea cables at a critical moment in the ongoing war between the United States and China.)

The first thing we need to do is realize how vulnerable these underwater communications systems are. In the West, we need to do more research that examines the details of vulnerabilities and understands where the vulnerabilities are located. A quick look at the system map in the UK report quickly shows a range of these points (such as between huge economies like the US and EU or the US and Japan), giving an idea of ​​where adversaries could strike. The war at the bottom is coming.

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We also need to enhance the technology we apply to protect cables. While they are fairly well insulated with layers of different protective coverings, they can be further protected with new types of materials. Likewise, we must put in place secret “dark wires”, which are not used on a daily basis but can be activated in the event of an attack on the main network.

We must also explore data compression strategies that will allow greater use of space alternatives over time. With innovative transportation systems, it will be possible to use long-range aerial systems, and airships could play a role. The point is that we need to explore alternatives.

On both the offensive and defensive levels, we must invest in the war from the bottom up. This means we need to improve our undersea systems, including nuclear submarines and new classes of unmanned undersea vehicles that can engage enemy ships. We must also work to strengthen deterrence, as we will be able to put important cables of China and Russia at risk. This should be done in full cooperation with our partners: NATO, Japan, South Korea and other advanced maritime nations. We must also collectively undertake more advanced mapping of the seafloor, of which only 20% has been mapped at high resolution.

Finally, as with nuclear weapons and general naval operations, there is a potential role for arms control measures. Given how important these systems are to the overall global economy, it is possible that the United States and China could establish protocols that prohibit interference with cable networks. Perhaps there is more room for a settlement on this front than there is for a settlement regarding nuclear weapons, given China's expanding arsenal.

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One unfortunate consequence of Russia's withdrawal from the global trading system (rightly so, given the illegal invasion of Ukraine) is that there is much less incentive for Moscow to back down. But perhaps, over time, it will become possible to impose global pressure to protect the systems that allow trade to flourish even on pariah states like Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

As I wrote in a 2017 report, “It is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the global economy.” Even as we learn more about Russia's intentions and future capabilities in space, we must keep in mind that we have current vulnerabilities in undersea space that must be addressed.