Western naval forces are having to adapt to a new threat as Russia and other military powers develop new capabilities to target critical undersea infrastructure such as pipelines and cables.
The vulnerability of such infrastructure has long been recognized. Those concerns turned to reality in September last year, as the Nord Stream pipelines that carried gas from Russia to Germany ruptured spectacularly on the Baltic seabed near the Danish island of Bornholm, sending huge volumes of gas bubbling to the surface.
Swedish investigators found traces of explosives at the site. The West suspects Russia of sabotage. The Kremlin denies this and accuses Western nations of staging the attack.
“There has been a growing awareness of the vulnerability of critical national infrastructure, but the event in the Baltic Sea certainly brought the issue into sharp relief,” said analyst Sidharth Kaushal of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, author of a recent report titled Navies and Economic Warfare.
Days after the incident, Britain announced plans to enhance its undersea defense capabilities.
“Our internet and energy are highly reliant on pipelines and cables,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said October 2. “Russia makes no secret of its ability to target such infrastructure. So for that reason, I can announce we’ve recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe.”
The first of those vessels is being fitted out by the British navy at a shipyard outside Liverpool and is due to enter service this year. It is designed to act as a “mother ship,” operating remote and autonomous systems for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare.
Millions of kilometers of undersea cables and pipelines carry the energy and data that power the global economy, Kaushal said. “A number of challengers to the West, Russia most notably, are developing bespoke capabilities to target precisely these vulnerabilities, things like special purpose submarines,” he told VOA.
Russia denies sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines. But observers say the Kremlin increasingly sees Western subsea infrastructure as a vulnerability. In December, President Vladimir Putin oversaw the launch of four new naval vessels, including two nuclear-powered submarines. “They have highly accurate weapons and robotic complexes,” Putin announced.
Faced with that threat, NATO and the European Union last month launched a joint task force on protecting critical infrastructure. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg outlined the alliance’s posture at a meeting of defense ministers in October.
“Any deliberate attack against allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response. … Hybrid and cyberattacks can trigger Article 5 [on collective self-defense], can constitute an armed attack against a NATO ally,” Stoltenberg said October 11.
The West must clarify its rules of engagement, analyst Kaushal said.
“What does one actually do when one observes, for example, a submarine tampering with critical national infrastructure, but not in a way that necessarily leads to an immediate loss of life?” Kaushal said.
“So actually, it’s more a question of how you change organizational practices to deal with this sort of activity.”