Last September, the news broke that three explosions had occurred at the Nord Stream 1 (NS1) and Nord Stream 2 (NS2) natural gas pipelines rendering three of the four pines inoperable while it released vast quantities of methane into the Baltic Sea. As a result of the incident, none of the four pipes – which run under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany to provide Western Europe with natural gas – are currently operational.
As of this February, there is no conclusive evidence of who carried out the sabotage despite three separate investigations by Denmark, Germany, and Sweden.
The Nord Stream, at 760 miles (1,224 km) is the longest undersea pipeline. It is hardly the only one, as about 10% of the overall production of oil and gas – around 5 million barrels of oil and gas per day – travels via “subsea infrastructure.” That figure is projected to increase to 35 billion by 2050 if future projects go forward. Europe in particular now has several large-scale subsea projects planned.
Such pipelines are just one part of the undersea infrastructure that NATO officials have warned could be vulnerable to attack. Yet, it isn’t just the flow of gas and oil that is a concern.
The bulk of the world’s communication also travels under the sea.
The Undersea Internet Cables
Much attention today is given to the number of satellites currently in orbit, and the United States Space Force was even created to help ensure that the domain of space and the objects circling the Earth are protected. Though it is important that communications satellites are protected, the inconvenient truth is that what flows under the sea is actually significantly greater than what is beamed down from the heavens.
Around 99% of all transoceanic data traffic actually travels via undersea cables. That includes Internet communications, phone calls, and text messaging. There are several factors, but the route is actually far faster than satellite transmissions, by up to eight-fold.
Undersea cables also have an edge by about 100 years. While the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in October 1957, the first transatlantic cable was laid almost 100 years earlier. It was in July 1858 that a 4,000 km (2,500 mile) long, 1.5 centimeter (0.6 inch) wide cable linked Europe to North America.
The first message was sent in August of that year by the UK’s Queen Victoria to U.S. President James Buchanan. It was followed by a parade through the streets of New York – yet, by most accounts, the parade was shorter than the time it took to send the message. In fact, the initial message, sent in Morse code, took 17 hours to deliver – roughly 2 minutes and 5 seconds per letter!
Even worse, the cable failed less than a month later.
However, the issues were slowly resolved, and by the end of the 19th century, 40 words a minute could be transmitted via the cables. Today, the Marea cable that operates between Bilbao, Spain, and Virginia has a transmission speed of up to 160 terabits per second – roughly 16 million times faster than the average home Internet connection.
Moreover, there are 380 underwater cables in operation around the world, spanning a length greater than 1.2 million km (745,645 miles).
Given how much communication flows through the cables, it is easy to understand how these could be a target in wartime. In fact, following the start of the First World War in August 1914, one of the first acts by the British was to cut Germany’s undersea telegraph cables. Berlin was left with just one cable, and even that was essentially under British control. Any message sent through it was intercepted and read by the British.
The loss of cables has already been felt this century, following the 2006 magnitude 7.0 earthquake off Taiwan, which severed eight cables in multiple places. That disrupted much of the Internet traffic to and from China, and it eventually took 11 cable ships a total of 49 days to complete the repairs.
NATO’s New Warnings
In October 2020, NATO members received a confidential report that expressed the risks posed to undersea cables – described as the world’s information super-highways. The concerns have only increased since last year’s incident involving the undersea pipelines.
Earlier this month, David Cattler, NATO’s assistant secretary general for intelligence and security, warned that Russia may be “activity mapping” the infrastructure of Ukraine’s allies both on land and on the seabed. Cattler suggested there is a “significant risk” that Russia could target the undersea cables as well as the pipelines.
“We see a significant risk that critical infrastructure in Europe and potentially North America could be targeted by Russia as part of its war on Ukraine,” Cattler told reporters.
“The Russians are more active than we’ve seen them in years in this domain,” Cattler added. “Their patrols in the Atlantic and throughout the Atlantic are most of the time at a higher level than we’ve seen in recent years.”
Cell Set Up
As a result of the Nord Stream incident, NATO established a new “cell” at its Brussels headquarters, where it will coordinate efforts to protect the undersea infrastructure.
“We understand … the clear and present danger our critical undersea infrastructure faces,” said Hans-Werner Wiermann, the cell’s head, during a press briefing in early May. “What is clear is that increasing the security of [this] infrastructure underpins NATO’s deterrence and defense – its core task – and the security and prosperity of our societies. The threat is real, and NATO is stepping up.”
Wiermann added that NATO will step up its efforts to enhance the security of critical infrastructure, and that has already included an increased number of ships patrolling the North and Baltic Seas.
“We aim to harness NATO as a platform to enhance information sharing, exchange good practices, and identify innovative technologies that can help us further boost the security of critical undersea infrastructure,” said Wiermann.
The NATO cell has said it will seek to add another layer of surveillance that can help identify suspicious behavior close to or above the infrastructure, while it will strive to have actionable intelligence for maritime commanders to allow them to respond in the most efficient and targeted way.
“It’s a continued evolution from a threat perspective – in technology and operations, the sorts of platforms and capabilities that [adversaries] will bring to bear, and [at] increasing pace,” said Cattler. “Just as the pace of the technological development in fielding the critical infrastructure increases, so do the potential adversary technical and operational developments to try to hold that infrastructure at risk.”
NATO will help protect what we rarely see – the infrastructure under the sea.