Chief Construction Electrician Daniel Luberto, right, and Construction Mechanic 3rd Class Andersen Gardner, with Underwater Construction Team 2 Construction Dive Detachment Bravo (UCT2 CDDB), remove corroded zinc anodes from an undersea cable at the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, Hawaii, on July 5, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Charles E. White)

Russia’s ‘Seabed Warfare’ Could Hit Vast Networks of Underwater Communications Cables

A report issued this month echoes concerns voiced across the pond recently about the potential of Russia striking at the West by damaging a vast network of undersea cables that carry nearly all online international data.

“Contested Seas: Maritime Domain Awareness in Northern Europe,” released by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, notes that “while some constructive work has been done to address the evolving Russian threat, NATO and its partners must make changes to their current MDA capabilities to evolve alongside with it.”

The threat from Russia is broken down into maritime hybrid warfare, including “deception through different types of vessels including civilian ships, deniable forces like the amphibious and light infantry that easily navigate the complex Baltic and Norwegian Seas, and the country’s well-developed and diverse force for seabed warfare,” electronic and cyber warfare capabilities that “have the potential to hinder information gathering and dissemination methods,” and long-range strike systems “now being mounted on new and existing Russian naval vessels,” giving these vessels “the option to stay in the Barents or White Seas and strike targets across Northern Europe.”

The first Maritime Domain Awareness venture was established via a national security directive from President George W. Bush in 2004, and the CSIS report argued a weakness of MDA is that “many of the associated capabilities and frameworks are focused on civil maritime issues.”

“Given the global proliferation of advanced military capabilities, like antiship cruise missiles, NATO and its partners require a holistic understanding of the maritime environment that focuses on everything from civil maritime actions to high-end military operations and even issues associated with the maritime environment,” it adds, stressing that a key factor in an integrated approach is “comprehensive understanding of the undersea realm” that “should extend beyond” anti-submarine warfare.

“Russia’s amphibious special forces and combat swimmers threaten more than just military targets, including civilian vessels and undersea cables, which are an integral part of MDA. ASW technology can be useful in countering these and other threats.”

Russia has “the most developed force for seabed warfare in the world,” the report states, including the placement of acoustic sensors, surveying wreckage at the sea floor to glean intelligence, and “tapping undersea cables.” In the Baltic Sea in 2015, Russia interfered with the completion of the SweLit underground power cable. Western analysts have feared Russian capabilities could be used to sever communication links.

Detailing America’s history with the National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domestic Awareness, the report notes that “because of the close relationship between homeland security and law enforcement operations, the MDA mission has been fully embraced by the U.S. Coast Guard.”

“The relationship between law enforcement and MDA was also the result of the considerable and ongoing U.S. experience in the Caribbean” and the interdiction success of the Joint Interagency Task Force-South “serves as a model of how successful cooperation in the maritime domain can work across jurisdictions.”

In December, the UK’s defense chief of staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach warned that Russia could “immediately and potentially catastrophically” hit global economies if undersea cables — spanning 545,018 miles across 213 independent systems — were cut or disrupted.

Sir Stuart told a defense think-tank that the cables’ vulnerability posed a “new risk to our way of life,” according to BBC, and it was critical for NATO to prioritize protection of the cables “in response to the threat posed by the modernization of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships.”

That same month, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Andrew Lennon, the commander of NATO’s submarine forces, said they were “now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of undersea cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen.”

“Russia is clearly taking an interest in NATO and NATO nations’ undersea infrastructure,” he said, noting that “they can do oceanographic research, underwater intelligence gathering” with current capabilities. “And what we have observed is an increased activity of that in the vicinity of undersea cables. We know that these auxiliary submarines are designed to work on the ocean floor, and they’re transported by the mother ship, and we believe they may be equipped to manipulate objects on the ocean floor.”

Insulated fiber-optic cables have been prone to damage before from rough seabed contact such as that from ship’s anchors.

The CSIS report makes several recommendations, including “integrate subsurface sensors and antisubmarine warfare into a comprehensive MDA framework” and “acquire significant stockpiles of advanced sonobuoys and associated acoustic processing systems.”

NATO partners “should also act to focus on resiliency to continue to operate in the face of jamming and nonkinetic attacks from Russia.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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