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.

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Emjay
Emjay
19 days ago

Always assuming any potential aggressors obey international law. Ask Putin.

Expat
Expat
18 days ago
Reply to  Emjay

Completely agree. It very nieve to think when things turn bad trestles will be honoured. A treaty not to tamper with undersea cables would be unenforceable.

OldSchool
OldSchool
18 days ago
Reply to  Emjay

Agree. Both Putin and Emperor Xi care nothing about international law ( unless it suits them). Sure have a treaty – but also declare tampering with our comm-links an act of war ( along with hacking of critical infrastructure) and we will deal with it accordingly.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
17 days ago
Reply to  OldSchool

That would be awkward as UKUSA routinely tamper with others infrastructure. So we’d be at war with dozens of nations.

Andy reeves
Andy reeves
15 days ago
Reply to  OldSchool

A war like act not an act of war two different things

Barry Larking
Barry Larking
17 days ago
Reply to  Emjay

Ms Lewell-Buck is making the point that at present there is no law for anyone to break. It is a small point but on the other hand Blighty’s greatest historical achievement was in establishing a ‘rules based’ international system. I agree with you and others that Putin doesn’t give a flying fig about that. But one day we and others liked minded, must believe we can get back to such a system of laws or basically, we are all ……

Andy reeves
Andy reeves
15 days ago
Reply to  Emjay

In light of the current situation I wouldn’t trust anything to do with the Russians full stop

JJ Smallpiece
JJ Smallpiece
18 days ago

Very naive article. The likes of Putin don’t care about international law.

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
18 days ago
Reply to  JJ Smallpiece

I am happy an MP actually has some knowledge and interest in more than the very basic defence. She is right that if the cables are wrecked our modern life and the economy is taking a break. It would be devastating.
Maybe a good idea for some kind of rapid repair ships, survey ships replaced or whatever would be useful in that situation.

Barry Larking
Barry Larking
18 days ago
Reply to  Monkey spanker

I am even happier that the M.P. is a knowledgeable Labour M.P. With her views and expertise she will go nowhere. Actually, Dr Mark Felton (YouTube channel War Stories) has made a short video highlighting how vulnerable the entire U.K. would be from a modest attack by Russia. However, this is a good sign: Ms Lewell-Buck mentions disapprovingly that the last budget singled out defence for cuts. She is a Labour M.P. Just think about that.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
17 days ago
Reply to  Barry Larking

A lone voice I fear. Just look at Young Labour’s and the party memberships views on defence, not the Parliamentary Labour Party. Her views are appreciated by me for sure but it does not fill me with hope.

Barry Larking
Barry Larking
17 days ago

I agree entirely. I am just staggered she wrote this article. How long will she survive?

Andy reeves
Andy reeves
15 days ago
Reply to  Barry Larking

Knowledgeable? Labour M.P? WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?

Barry Larking
Barry Larking
15 days ago
Reply to  Andy reeves

Search me. Mind you, her constituency would be very pro-armed services. Corbyn was muck up here because everyone loathed the old git for supporting the I.R.A.

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
18 days ago

I suppose it’s a start. Also need to look into how to detect interference with a cable. Then at least you would know where to look for the aggressor.
She is right that it would be extremely difficult to protect every cable above and below the waves.
Perhaps redundancy is needed so traffic can be rerouted easily between many cables.
While a treaty may help in some respects as has been shown some country leaders do not care about treaties.
Could skylink, one web etc be a back up. Never going to be able to carry all traffic tho

Daveyb
Daveyb
18 days ago
Reply to  Monkey spanker

The Skylink could be used as a means of mitigating loss of cabling. Though there will be a loss of bandwidth. As fibres in particular do not suffer as much bandwidth limitations. Whereas, communications to Skylink and beyond is limited by the radio frequency (channel) used. Further, fibre optics can be tapped, without attenuation losses. The trick is find a signal repeater that is used to boost the signal strength. Although fibre optics suffer as little as 0.2W/km of attenuation. A set of fibres crossing the Atlantic for example, will need a number of signal repeaters plus a high transmission… Read more »

Andy reeves
Andy reeves
15 days ago
Reply to  Daveyb

Couldn’t understand that techno stuff it’s a foreign language to me

Jay
Jay
18 days ago

As if Russia would adhere to any ‘agreement ‘ they have a fleet of submarines just to mess undersea cables!

Deep32
Deep32
18 days ago
Reply to  Jay

No fella they really don’t have a fleet of them for that purpose. They actually only have 3 which are seabed operations SMs. One is the Losharik which suffered a major battery fire in 2019 and is still in dock being repaired. The other 2 are Paltus mini subs built in the early 90’s. Whilst they are nuc powered all require a mother ship to get them to their operating areas. Not sure what the state of the 2Paltus class boats are, but they are both 25+ yo, so suspect that they are now unlikely to be able to reach… Read more »

Jay
Jay
18 days ago
Reply to  Deep32

Yes they do matey, although ‘fleet’ is an exaggeration

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
18 days ago
Reply to  Jay

They don’t have a fleet to mess with cables. Deep stated what they have and is correct.
There’s some great info on H I Sutton covert shores website about Russian undersea cable capabilities.

Deep32
Deep32
18 days ago
Reply to  Jay

Ah, that’s really interesting, you don’t happen to know which ones they are do you?

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
17 days ago
Reply to  Deep32

😆👍

Rob Young
Rob Young
15 days ago
Reply to  Jay

Now come on, the Russians would never cut our cables. Why would they, when they will be telling everyone that we will cutting the cables ourselves and blame the Russians just to make it seem that Russians are nice people who would never, ever, do such a vile thing.

Martin
Martin
18 days ago

Putin only understands strength and has zero respect for international law. Cutting cables is an act of war, it’s that simple. There is no plausible deniability if more than one cable goes down it should automatically be assumed to be Russia. We should launch all our offensive Cyber capability on them. I have no doubt devices have already been planted on cables just waiting to be triggered. Hopefully starlink and one web are online before he tries anything. It’s much easier for him to cut cables than try and knock out entire satellite constellations. If he kicks off a Kessler… Read more »

DanielMorgan
DanielMorgan
18 days ago

Russia invades Ukraine in violation of international law. China seizes and fortifies islands in the South China Sea in violation of international law. China, Russia, and the US all have the capability to disable or destroy the satellites that carry most of the world’s inter country communications and she’s worried about negotiating a treaty involving nineteenth century cables. Glad to see MPs on the Defence Committee are on top of things.

Quentin D63
Quentin D63
18 days ago

Not sure if the T32s and their submersibles will be tasked with looking after undersea cables but I would have thought this is a very pressing issue maybe requiring a small fleet of diesel submarines/uuvs to look after surveillance of undeesea cables?

Mike O
Mike O
18 days ago

I think many of the comments calling this article naive are themselves naive. A treaty would allow greater cooperation between members, exposure of those unwilling to sign, a legal framework for escalation and international cooperation on sanctioning offenders. It is a tool in the governments arsenal to bring attention to the issue and allow a legal, scalable response which is incredibly important for dealing with actions below the war threshold. A good article I think.

Barry Larking
Barry Larking
18 days ago
Reply to  Mike O

Agreed. In the absence of a treaty we have a ‘wild west’ of lawlessness – ‘Putin World’ – countries completely free to do as they please. Why not? It is important that all independent countries great and small realise that they would suffer. Few significant countries would be left unaffected.

Very good article in my view.

Crabfat
Crabfat
16 days ago
Reply to  Mike O

I doubt if Putin would be willing to sign such a treaty. Even if it does make him a pariah. He’d just say ‘up yours’, as he has about invading Ukraine.

Bloke down the pub
Bloke down the pub
18 days ago

The deterrence comes from having the capacity to detect and combat interference with the cables, and the ability to rapidly repair any damage. This, like all things defence related, will cost a lot of money at a time when politicians can always find other things to spend on. Like most things Navy relate, to the public it is out of sight and out of mind.

Daveyb
Daveyb
18 days ago

Due to the sanctions having a dramatic affect on Russia. I would not be surprised if all of a sudden some cables stopped working and links between the Americas and Europe were disrupted. It would be very difficult to level blame at Russia without direct proof. Meanwhile the banking sector will have a major meltdown and millions of blokes will no longer have access to pornhub!

Posse Comitatus
Posse Comitatus
18 days ago

I’d prefer to see greater emphasis on hulls , aircraft and submersibles being used to patrol and protect critical infrastructure like cables, rather than relying on treaties that will be ignored by hostile powers. To that end, more OPV’s with autonomous submersibles, drones etc. And some elements of ASW detection and interdiction.
The proposed multi role ocean surveillance vessel seems to have quietly shelved or is it still on the cards?

Deep32
Deep32
17 days ago

According to the recent article over on NL, MROS has dropped of the ship holding plot!! Apparently it will be replaced with contract crews on civilian ships. Absolute madness to outsource this capability, as it provides so much data for both the Navy and Air Force.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
17 days ago
Reply to  Deep32

And our SSN SSBN I believe? Agree. The usual!

Frank62
Frank62
17 days ago

Relying on treaties with Russia or the PRC to make an exception for undersea cables is a duff gamble when they rip up treaties when it suits them, not that we’re that good either.
Blatently we need a far larger sub fleet. Cheaper AIP subs if we can’t afford more SSNs. Many more ASW frigates & helis too.
Essential to have analogue back up systems for everything vital. We survived well before the web etc.

Last edited 17 days ago by Frank62
Frank62
Frank62
17 days ago
Reply to  Frank62

7 Astutes, 4 usually operational at any time. Protect the detterent subs, conduct recconesence, interdict enemy shipping & warships, protect carrier task group, track & kill enemy subs, land spies & special forces, plus other duties. Even if all 7 were able to conduct ops at one time we’ve still too few.

Matt
Matt
16 days ago

Good to see a politician beginning to think about this.

Now, therea re similar questions around cables from offshore wind farms.

Stc
Stc
15 days ago

Yes contributors are right agreements with China, Russia, Iran etc are about as reliable as a Del Boy guarantee. Continuing rights for the people of Hong Kong; the guarantee by Russia of Ukrainian security. Ditto the UK and US on the last one I am ashamed to say.

kayaker
kayaker
13 days ago

Whilst highlighting the issue of the vulnerability of undersea cables / power lines etc it is unrealistic to expect non interference with these in the event of a major war. They would be one of the first ‘soft’ targets of any campaign…and for obvious reasons..why wouldn’t you want to degrade the ability of your enemy to utilise communications? Comms have been a major target in every war for the past 100 years or so. Good luck with trying to defend against tens of thousands of miles of such vulnerable cable. Huge fleets of small deep diving robotic subs will soon… Read more »

MrSatyre
MrSatyre
9 days ago

Does anyone here really believe belligerent nations like Russia or China would honor such treaties should hostilities break out between them and NATO-alligned nations? Russia broke their treaty with Ukraine to never threaten or invade, so it seems highly unlikely they’d care about severing undersea cables; they don’t play at war, even if (at the moment) they are pretty terrible at it. Treaties are made to be broken.