Why hi-tech undersea cables are the real threat to national security

·10 min read
Cables are a tempting target – for a start, they are magnificently unguarded
Cables are a tempting target – for a start, they are magnificently unguarded

When the volcanic island of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted a week ago, the explosion was so powerful that it ripped the tiny speck of land asunder. Where before had stood one island, now stand two. A vast ash cloud rose miles into the sky. Tsunamis raced across the ocean, smashing into coastlines as far away as the east of Russia. Yet the devastation closer at hand, in the Tongan capital Nuku‘alofa, just 40 miles south, is still unclear.

In part that is due to a catastrophe hidden under the sea. Close to the volcano, concealed under the depths, lie two critical cables connecting Tonga to Fiji and the outside world. In the blink of an eye, they were severed.

The result is that, in a world grown used to instant, high-definition communications, Tonga has been completely cut off. Now the archipelago nation’s 100,000 people must pin their hopes on the arrival of the cable layer CS Reliance, one of the few ships in the world capable of carrying out repairs. At the time of writing, it remains moored in Papua New Guinea, 2,600 miles away.

It’s no wonder that, reflecting upon the astonishing reliance of his island nation on undersea cables a few years ago, an ambitious young politician produced a report detailing extensive concerns about what would happen should such cables ever be cut. “The most severe scenario… of connectivity loss is potentially catastrophic,” he noted. But even relatively limited damage “has the potential to cause significant economic disruption and damage military communications”.

That politician, however, was not Tongan Prime Minister, Siaosi Sovaleni, who this week described the volcano as “an unprecedented disaster”. It was Rishi Sunak, now Chancellor of the Exchequer. And the island nation he thought so vulnerable was our own, Britain.

It is hard to imagine a less volcanic part of the world than Britain. There hasn’t been a smouldering caldera in these parts for 50 million years. And even if there were, Britain is not just connected to the rest of humanity by a single submarine cable, as Tonga is. Some 436 cables, the size of a garden hose, each containing up to 200 glass filaments as thin as a human hair, wrapped in steel armour, insulation and a plastic coat, are in service around the world, spinning a fibre-optic web more than 800,000 miles long, down which data is poured at the speed of light. Together they, not satellites, keep the world connected. “Well over 99 per cent of international telecommunications happens through fibre-optic cables, not satellites,” says Tim Stronge, an analyst with the consultancy Telegeography.

Almost 60 cables link Britain to the globe. Some are short, like the 80-mile CeltixConnect cable to Ireland. Others, like the Tata TGN-Atlantic, which departs from Highbridge, a market town on the Somerset Levels, and washes up in New Jersey, are more than 8,000 miles long. Even that is short by comparison with the 12,400-mile Asia America Gateway cable, which traverses the floor of the Pacific from California to the Philippines, and thence to China, Malaysia and the rest of South East Asia.

Years ago Rishi Sunak warned: ‘The most severe scenario… of connectivity loss is potentially catastrophic’ - Getty
Years ago Rishi Sunak warned: ‘The most severe scenario… of connectivity loss is potentially catastrophic’ - Getty

Such an abundance of cables might make Sunak’s concerns, compiled for the think tank Policy Exchange five years ago, when he was merely a humble MP, seem exaggerated. But while we might not have volcanoes, we too are an island. And that makes us vulnerable. Moreover, Britain is home to one of the world’s pre-eminent financial centres, reliant on instant data. Even more significantly, unlike Tonga, we have powerful enemies.

In a world in which warfare is increasingly conducted on the grey margins, where cyber attacks and sabotage are deniable, even while causing crippling damage, cables are a tempting target. For a start, they are magnificently unguarded, rolling up nondescript parts of our shoreline into unremarkable outbuildings, on beaches and in car parks. A report by the UK Centre for Protected Infrastructure described such cable landing stations as “poor in terms of physical security… an obvious risk”.

At sea their remoteness makes them impossible to monitor and guard. Not that Russia, or China, are always interested in severing our links. Sometimes, from their point of view, it is better to tap into them, to harvest the precious information they bear.

Nor is it just data cables on which our island nation depends. We rely, too, on a growing network of electricity ‘interconnectors’, which plug us into other countries’ national grids. There will soon be six, linking us to France, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark – enough to supply 25 per cent of our electricity requirements. Increasingly, our energy supply will also rely on subsea cables linking the mainland to offshore wind farms, where 2,297 turbines in 40 projects already generate 13 per cent of our total electricity.

Yet while these cables, sometimes as thick as tree trunks, are far sturdier than fibre-optic cables, they are not immune to faults. In 2015 the Basslink power cable from mainland Australia to Tasmania failed. It took six months to repair. Interconnectors also expose Britain to other risks. Only this week, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng refused planning permission for a new interconnector to France after former defence secretary, Penny Mordaunt said relying on the French – “who have already said they will turn off the power, [and] will use future energy supply as a bargaining chip” in disputes – presented a threat to national security. In all, it signals a reliance, for information and for power, on lonely spools of metal and glass winding across the seabed.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Britain and Tonga, however, is just how bad things could get were our cables to be cut. For a start, the financial system would probably collapse. The US Federal Reserve estimates that more than $10 trillion dollars are transmitted via undersea cables every day. The SWIFT system, which moves money between 11,000 financial institutions in millions of transactions each day, is dependent on cables. As Sunak puts it: “In such a highly interdependent world, the shockwaves resulting from a major cable disruption at a leading financial centre such as London… are potentially catastrophic. If an adversary were to succeed in executing a successful attack against Britain’s undersea cable infrastructure the result would be financial disaster on an unprecedented scale.”

The shockwaves would not merely be economic. Earlier this month, the incoming head of the UK’s armed forces, Admiral Tony Radakin, said that Russian activity could “put at risk and potentially exploit the world’s real information system, which is undersea cables that go all around the world”. Targeting them, he suggested, might be considered an “act of war”.

It is obvious why. The most advanced militaries rely on them. In 2008, three cables linking Italy and Egypt were accidentally cut (100-150 are severed each year, according to Telegeography, the vast majority due to fishing equipment, or dragging anchors). Suddenly, data connectivity between Europe and the Middle East plummeted. At the time, Britain and America had more than 200,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq and relied on submarine cable networks for 95 per cent of their strategic communications, including the use of drones, critical for surveillance and counter-terror strikes. According to Lieutenant Colonel Donald Fielded of the 50th US Communications Squadron, while engineers struggled to repair the cables, daily sorties fell from the hundreds to “tens”.

“These are definitely critical infrastructure, both for finance and military activity,” says Bert Chapman, professor at Purdue University and author of the report Undersea Cables: The Ultimate Geopolitical Chokepoint. “Any attack on them could have a potentially decapitating effect.”

Many governments are wising up to the threat. Turkey is deploying six German-built subs in the sensitive waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, and will conduct surveillance on the network of cables its old adversary Greece is stringing to Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. Indeed, Egypt is strangely critical. Alexandria is the confluence of half a dozen critical long-distance cables – a junction box housing some 80 per cent of Europe-to-Asia communication. One of them is the SeaMeWe-4 internet cable, which runs 12,000 miles from Marseille to Singapore. In 2013, eight years after it started operating, it was attacked by three scuba divers, who were arrested by the Egyptian Navy. The men appeared to be diving for scrap metal, but their brazen lack of sophistication only served to ram home how vulnerable such cables are.

Russia’s Yantar ‘survey ship’ was tracked last summer around transatlantic cables off the coast of Ireland - Alamy
Russia’s Yantar ‘survey ship’ was tracked last summer around transatlantic cables off the coast of Ireland - Alamy

Geopolitical cable wars, however, are usually waged at a far more sophisticated level.

Xi Jinping has said China intends to extend its influence through Asia with a “digital Silk Road”; meanwhile Nato and Russian vessels are constantly probing each others’ cable defences. Russia does so through its so-called Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, which runs vessels such as Yantar, a ‘survey ship’ equipped with two deep-diving subs and undersea drones, known as Remote Operated Vehicles, thought capable of cutting or tapping cables. Yantar first came to attention in 2015 when she was seen loitering around cables near the US base of Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Last summer she was tracked as she took up a position around transatlantic cables off the coast of Ireland. A month later she was in the English Channel.

“Yantar… often operates on our continental seabed,” Admiral Sir Philip Jones, then First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, said in 2018. “And we know it has the capacity to get at those cables.”

Yet snipping or snooping is just one method of attack. Hacking into the software managing them, known as network management systems (NMS), is another, and could potentially allow hackers to direct disruption at one target or country while leaving others unmolested. Another weakness are so-called choke points – unassuming places such as Wall Township, a town of 25,000 in New Jersey, where five major cables come ashore.

Almost since their inception, on July 29 1858, when HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara met in the middle of the Atlantic to lay a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland that allowed Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan to exchange short trans-oceanic telegrams in a mere 18 hours, these huge communications spools have been cut, blown up or even nibbled by sharks. One of the first British acts of the Great War was to cut five German subsea cables and intercept their traffic. Ultimately, that allowed the decryption of the Zimmerman Telegram, which drew America into the war. During the Cold War, America carried out a number of daring raids on supposedly secure Soviet cables, allowing the CIA to listen in to manoeuvres at Petropavlovsk, the USSR’s pacific nuclear submarine base.

Today, global dependence on cables has exploded. New cables, like the 2018 Marea, which crosses the Atlantic, can carry hundreds of trillions of bits of binary data per second. Yet even if an aggressor was caught red-handed, they are poorly protected by international law, and targeting them would almost certainly come into the “grey zone” that falls short of outright acts of war.

The global map of subsea connections, then, is like a geopolitical dartboard, complete with high and low value targets. In the South Pacific Ocean, lonely Tonga’s is the latter, its single cable leaving it exposed purely to volcanoes. But Britain is a unique hub, like an Allied operator, sprouting a tangle of vital communication cords to America, Europe, Africa and Asia. It may just be the bullseye.

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