Securing Europe’s Underwater Wealth: Navigating the Complexities of Protecting Critical Seabed Infrastructure

In September 2022, Europe experienced underwater explosion that ruptured the Nord Stream pipeline, leading to an awakening of the need to protect the ocean floors that contain the continent’s wealth. The challenge of securing the vast network of energy pipelines and communication cables that line the surrounding bodies of water leads to the question of who is in charge.

Protecting infrastructure that traverses multiple countries, is privately owned, and serves vital national interests is not a straightforward task. Militaries, with their specialized skills and equipment for underwater operations, are expected to play a significant role in the protection of these assets. However, the scope of the assignment and the technologies involved are still being defined.

Seabed warfare is being considered a growing national security discipline that draws from submarine warfare, countermine operations, and harbor protection. This field encompasses both offensive and defensive tactics, such as the use of autonomous weapons lying on the ocean floor until activated, which could potentially create movable minefields that are not recorded on any maps. On the defensive side, protecting critical underwater infrastructure has a lot to do with understanding, via sensors, what is happening around the cables and pipelines. Observing deep-sea locations is challenging enough, but doing so on the scale required is a different challenge entirely.

Individual countries and the European Union are taking steps to address this issue. For example, at the European Defence Agency, officials are awaiting word from Italy in the first quarter of 2023 on a proposal for a dedicated program for critical seabed infrastructure protection. The agency is also starting a series of studies in January to identify capability gaps and find emerging technology in the industry that could fill them. Additionally, an examination of national governance mechanisms that impact underwater infrastructure protection is also planned.

However, peeling back the layers of authorities – military, civilian, and commercial – may turn out to be the biggest obstacle to Europeans acting jointly against threats. Understanding the complexity around critical seabed infrastructure is crucial in addressing this issue. The EDA plans to culminate the series of studies and examination with a symposium in late April, which aims to bring together military and civilian authorities, private companies, and academic researchers.

France has invested in new technologies to explore and protect the seabed, as part of its national security-oriented seabed warfare strategy, which was the first of its kind in Europe. The strategy was released in February 2022 and focuses on the need to protect transoceanic cables and gas pipelines and to develop new underwater unmanned vehicles and mine countermeasure missions. France has a high stake in the seabed as 51 of the 450 submarine cables that convey 99% of intercontinental digital data exchanges land in French national territory. They are planning to test existing underwater vehicles capable of probing deeper depths, with a goal of developing one new sovereign autonomous underwater vehicle and one new remotely operated vehicle by 2025.

The Italian Navy has signed a cooperation deal with Italian telecommunications company Sparkle in July 2022 to actively protect subsea internet cables in the Mediterranean. The deal includes the navy keeping an eye on cables in the Mediterranean Sea, sharing maps of the seabed and intervening in emergency operations. Sparkle already monitors the automatic identification system to know which ships are passing over its cables and is working with university research departments to see if subsea telecommunication cables can act as earthquake sensors. The Italian Navy is also considering research work into the sensor concept, noting that undersea pressure and vibrations can change the way light travels through subsea fiber-optic cables, which can be recorded and used to spot earthquakes and tsunamis. However, more research is needed to sense tampering.

Britain is investing in unmanned underwater technology for various roles, from anti-access and area-denial to surveillance, reconnaissance, and protection of underwater infrastructure. The Royal Navy has signed a £15 million deal with MSubs, a company specializing in underwater technology, to receive a 17-ton, 12-meter-long demonstrator vehicle with a mission range of 1,000 miles. The aim of the Cetus project is to develop the Royal Navy’s operational understanding of long-endurance autonomous vehicles, build trust in autonomous capabilities, explore potential mission roles, and inform how the vehicles fit into the underwater battlespace and the service’s future vision. Delivery of the Cetus platform is scheduled within two years. Additionally, the Defence Ministry is planning to spend £20 million to acquire a remotely operated deep-water salvage vehicle with the ability to manipulate objects and produce high-resolution imagery down to a depth of 6,000 meters.

As EU officials consider their next moves in securing seabed-borne cables and pipelines, they are focusing on collecting and connecting data on undersea activity. Private companies that operate these connections tend to already have installed the technical means to collect information on the condition of their hardware. The European Defence Agency is interested in novel information-processing techniques that can translate signals picked up by sensors into actionable intelligence. German Navy chief Vice Adm. Jan Christian Kaack also wants to integrate sensor data generated by operators, oceanic research institutions, police and the Navy into one operational picture that covers activity above and below water to detect anomalies and enable follow-up. Germany has pledged to support Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in protecting their critical maritime infrastructure and has turned its ships’ travel routes to and from northern naval exercises into patrols for this purpose and sent P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft to watch over objects off the Norwegian coast.

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