During a Christmas lecture at the Royal United Services Institute, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach warned against Russian disinformation campaigns as well as disruption of fibre optic cables.
Undersea cables come ashore in just a few remote, coastal locations. These landing sites are critical national infrastructure but often have minimal protection, making them vulnerable to terrorism or state attack. A foiled Al-Qaeda plot to destroy a key London internet exchange in 2007 illustrates the credibility of the threat.
“There is a new risk to our life, which is the vulnerability of the cables that criss-cross the seas. Imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living. Therefore we must continue to develop our maritime forces, with our allies, to match Russian fleet modernisation.
In eastern Ukraine, two brigades of Ukrainian armed forces were wiped out in a few minutes by Russian modernised land-based systems. In the air, UK Typhoons have intercepted Russia aircraft operating very close to UK airspace, led a deployment to the Black Sea coast to provide air policing and air support to Romania and other Nato allies in the region and, flexibly, provided air support to Nato in Estonia.
We are genuinely playing a leading role in Nato and it is essential to our security that we sustain our posture as Russia modernises its forces and flexes its military muscles — not just in Syria — and has a higher risk appetite to achieve its national interest. We need to innovate. We need now to take big bets on what might work. This needs to be done in months and not years.”
Think tank ‘Policy Exchange’ say that 97% of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions are transmitted not by satellites in the skies, but by cables lying deep beneath the ocean.
“Undersea cables are the indispensable infrastructure of our time, essential to our modern life and digital economy, yet they are inadequately protected and highly vulnerable to attack at sea and on land, from both hostile states and terrorists.”
The report recommends that:
- The next Strategic Defence and Security Review should specifically address threats to Britain’s security from attacks on our undersea cable infrastructure
- The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure should quickly review and improve security at UK landing sites where cables come ashore
- Britain and NATO must ensure their maritime resources are adequate to deal with this new threat to our security
- The government should work with private communications companies to install more backup ‘dark cables’ and improve monitoring at sea
- We should follow the example of Australia and New Zealand and establish Cable Protection Zones around our highest value communications corridors
- The UK must lead efforts to develop a new international treaty to protect undersea cables
This report has been endorsed by Admiral James Stavridis, US Navy (Ret), former NATO Supreme Allied Commander; Robert Hannigan, former Security Adviser to the Prime Minister and Director of GCHQ until earlier this year; and General Lord Houghton, former UK Chief of Defence Staff, who stepped down in 2016.