The events of recent days in Ukraine have been a wake-up call for all of us.
We’ve enjoyed thirty years in a Europe where the idea of nation-states going to war with each other has seemed almost unimaginable. It is a dream shattered into tiny pieces on the streets of Kyiv and Kharkiv. It is time to reappraise the threats which face us, not just in terms of identifying those nations which are a danger to us, but also where our greatest vulnerabilities lie.
The author, Emma Lewell-Buck, is the Member of Parliament for South Shields and has been a member of the Defence Committee from March 2020. This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
In the early hours of 5 August 1914, a cable ship carried out the first hostile act by British forces only a few hours after war on Germany was declared. The vessel cut five German overseas underwater cables, which passed from Emden through the English Channel to Vigo, Tenerife, the Azores and the USA.
At a stroke, Germany was cut off from the world beyond Europe. Left with no alternative means of contacting their global embassies, the Germans sent signals which were intercepted and read by British codebreakers. Cable cutting continued to be used as a weapon on all sides through both world wars.
The impact in 1914 was tiny compared to that which such an act would have today. More than 95% of all transoceanic digital communication, voice and data, is carried by cable. This includes military, diplomatic, commercial, financial and personal communications of all kinds. The remainder is transmitted by satellite, particularly to those harder-to-reach areas of the world where cabling is problematic. To date there are 1.2 million kms of such cables on sea floors around the world – all generally about the width of a garden hose and all distinctly vulnerable.
The seriousness of the issue was exposed by the recent disaster to hit Tonga which severed its submarine links to the world, dramatically hampering rescue efforts. It’s estimated that it will take four weeks to affect a repair. Imagine if Britain’s cables were cut, leaving the country isolated for such a long period. How severe the damage to our economy would be is almost too awful to contemplate, but contemplate it we must. Only weeks ago, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the incoming chief of the defence staff, warned of the danger, citing what he describes as the “phenomenal” increase of Russian submarine activity over the past two decades.
Cables don’t have to be cut to be weaponised. Between 1971 and 1981, the Americans successfully tapped into links between the Russian naval base at Petropavlovsk to service headquarters in Vladivostok, accessing a wealth of vital communications in the process. Arch-leaker, Edward Snowden claimed both the NSA and GCHQ conduct such tapping operations routinely today. The vulnerability is clear; with 1.2 million kms of potential breach points to choose from, the network is ripe for interception and interference. There is some doubt over whether fibreoptic cables can be tapped unnoticed on the basis that any attempt to eavesdrop would result in a noticeable drop in signal intensity. But then again, if the technology does exist in Moscow, Washington or Beijing, we would have no way of knowing.
Electronic traffic not conveyed under the world’s oceans is carried by satellite. The vulnerability of objects, even in a low earth orbit (LEO), 2000 kms above our heads, is also hard to understate. The US Defence Intelligence Agency report, Challenges to Security in Space, points out that both China and Russia reorganised their militaries from 2015, specifically because they, “view counterspace capabilities as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness.”
So what does this mean for foreign and defence policy now? Taiwan provides a worrying signpost. Strategists suggest cutting Taipei’s links to the outside world in this way would be the first step in a Chinese invasion. By the time the world realised what was going on it could well be too late to react. And what of Britain? How well prepared are we in this country to counter such a threat? The answer is, not very, or else voices like Admiral Radakin’s would not be raising such warnings about either theatre. The fact that the Ministry of Defence was the only spending department to face financial cuts in the last Budget suggests it’s a situation which isn’t going to improve any time soon. Even if it did, Britain could never hope to match the Russian navy in terms of numbers of submarines or surface warships in the vicinity of the cables, still less in space, so we have to look at a different approach.
Time for new laws
The good thing about our reliance on cables, is that our potential adversaries are equally dependent upon this technology, and, logic would suggest, equally concerned about the risk posed to them by a hostile power. Britain should be urging the world to consider treaties for the protection of undersea cables, making attacks upon them illegal. There is a track record in international relations for such agreements when there is enough mutual fear. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) limiting the spread of nuclear weapons since 1970 has been followed by a host of others including numerous bilateral agreements between Russia and the United States like the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties) and START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties). All involved protracted and painful negotiation, but at least these are evidence than agreements can be reached.
The same is true of space and the satellites which carry all that data which doesn’t travel beneath the waves. Admiral Radakin’s predecessor, General Sir Nick Carter made it very plain that in his view, space is now critical for warfare. He said, “We have all grown up with the traditional domains of army, navy, air force. The future is going to be about space, cyber, maritime, land and air.” One doubts that the very precise General Carter put space at the top of that list by chance. Satellites are uniquely vulnerable and the identity of any attacker often very difficult to prove. China launched its first experimental satellite-killer missile in 2007.
Russia has been trying out space-based weapons in recent months according to the US Space Force. It’s easy to consider such aggression preferable to conventional warfare because the violence is carried out by machine on machine, but a tit-for-tat skirmish in space could easily lead to a lack of dependable command and control on both sides of a battle. How governments would behave if panicked by the lack of certainty such a situation would create is too frightening to contemplate.
We have lived for almost eighty years with nuclear weaponry and the fear that one deliberate or mistaken launch could destroy us all. Now that the sea and space-derived intelligence which keeps world leaders from firing those missiles is so vulnerable we may well be in more danger than ever. New international laws to mitigate that risk as far as possible are desperately needed. We can see today in the tragedy of Ukraine that nothing can be left to chance.