UK military has ‘limited resources’ to defend subsea cables

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The UK military is “woefully unprepared” to protect the nation’s critical subsea infrastructure, an analyst has claimed, after several submarine internet lines were severed within the space of a week. Two cables were reportedly damaged on the Shetland Isles off the coast of Scotland in a “major incident” which authorities believe to have been caused accidentally by a fishing vessel. But, suspiciously in the same week, a major cable was severed in the south of France, causing connectivity issues across Europe, Asia the US and elsewhere, which a technology expert believes was an “act of vandalism”. 

These incidents also came after the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were “sabotaged” earlier this month, causing the gas from Russia’s pipelines to leak out into the Baltic Sea. While Moscow denies any involvement, Western officials have blamed Russia for the blasts. 

The incidents have raised the alarm for the UK, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace saying that the “mysterious” damage to the Nord Stream pipelines should be a reminder of how “fragile” the UK economy and infrastructure are in the face of “hybrid attacks”.

Subsea internet cables are vital for global internet connectivity, accounting for around 95 percent of all transatlantic data traffic, according to the International Cable Protection Committee. 

But worryingly, Brandon Weichert, a geopolitical analyst and former Congressional staff member, told the UK is still “woefully unprepared” to defend against such attacks, despite Mr Wallace announcing that the Ministry of Defence will send out two specialist ships to patrol the seas to protect its subsea energy and internet infrastructure. 

Mr Weichert said: “The UK is woefully underprepared to prevent such incidents. The British military has – until very recently – been in a state of major decline. There are too few troops, not enough planes, and an insufficient number of naval vessels.

“The Government is trying to change this, notably with their aircraft carrier plan. But, this will take time and, given the limited resources Britain now has at its disposal, the UK military may never reach the size and capabilities it needs to in order to both venture East of Suez, hold the Falklands, and still be relevant in Europe.

“So long as the Russo-Ukraine War continues, with Russia’s threat to those undersea cables increasing, and given the UK’s limited military capabilities of late, London should prioritize all military operations in the North Atlantic, North Sea, and Europe at the expense of all other concerns outside of Europe.

“Because London has not done this, events like the cable cutting between Shetland and Faroe Islands could serve as a dangerous portent for things to come at the hands of the Russians.”

And while it is thought that the damage to the cable along two points off the Shetland Isles was most likely thought to have been an accident, Mr Weichert said there is something “strange” about this explanation. 

He said: “The story indicates that, officially, it is believed to have been fishermen. Although, even as that story indicates, two points of damage at two different areas along the cable track is…strange.

“We know that the Russian Navy has been interested in severing undersea cables since before the start of the Russo-Ukraine War. It is my belief that this may have been a dry run for Russia to test a larger attack against undersea cables linking Europe with England and with North America.”

But the UK is scrambling to ramp up its defences as the perceived threat continues to grow. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham following the Nord Stream attacks, Mr Wallace said: “Our internet and our energy are highly reliant on pipelines and cables. Russia makes no secret of its ability to target such infrastructure.

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“So for that reason I can announce we have recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe.”

The first “multi-role survey ship for seabed warfare” is expected to be bought this year and should become operational by the end of next year, Mr Wallace noted.  He added that the second ship will be built here in Britain. But Mr Weichert has previously told that two “specialist ships” will “not be enough” to fend off a Russian attack. 

He said: “Two ships are not enough to defend the vast layers of cables. This is why since 2014, I’ve urged nations like Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, and others to cooperatively invest in enhancing their naval capabilities to be able to better defend the local waters from obvious Russian aggression.

“But the upside with Britain is that their navy is highly capable and two ships are better than none. London is fixated on trying to deploy their naval forces to faraway places like the Indo-Pacific and off the coast of Argentina to defend the Falklands, and these are understandable strategic goals, but London should fixate much more on the local waters near Britain and Europe until further notice and leave the farther afield areas to the Americans.

“The UK must prioritize its naval operations in the North Atlantic, North Sea, and anywhere else these cables are. They need to keep their forces much closer to home indefinitely and serve as a vital stopgap in protecting these undersea cables.”

The Ministry of Defence has been approached for comment.

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