What Jersey can teach us about Russia’s ‘risk’ to undersea cables
Russia poses a threat to our country’s infrastructure, the UK’s most senior military officer has warned, claiming that the vulnerability of undersea internet cables is a “new risk to our way of life”.
Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute defence think tank, air chief marshal Sir Stuart Peach called on Britain and Nato to prioritise the protection of the vital communications cables that run between countries and continents.
“In response to the threat posed by the modernisation of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships, we along with our Atlantic allies have prioritised missions and tasks to protect the sea lines of communication,” he said, adding that “it is very, very important that we understand how important that mission is for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”.
Why are undersea cables important?
A Policy Exchange report published earlier this month claims Russian submarines have been “aggressively operating” near Atlantic cables as part of the country’s “broader interest in unconventional methods of warfare”. It notes that one of the first things Russia did when it annexed Crimea was to sever the main cable connection to the outside world.
According to the report, 97% of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions are transmitted via undersea cables. While many might assume that the internet is networked across ethereal, sky-bound streams, the reality is altogether more tangible, as this interactive submarine cable map shows.
“Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living?” asked Peach.
The answer is yes. Last year the Channel Island of Jersey found its connectivity to the outside world hobbled after three of its four main international cables were accidentally cut. In this case, the culprit was a ship dragging its anchor along the seabed. The year before that, connectivity on the Channel Islands was similarly damaged after a boat dropped anchor in stormy weather.
“It is exceptionally unlucky and unprecedented for three submarine cables to the UK to be cut in the same day,” said Daragh McDermott, director of corporate affairs for Jersey’s main internet provider, JT, at the time.
Should we worry about undersea cables being cut?
What may have been an unprecedented accident only a year ago is now a geopolitical threat. Mainland UK has more undersea cables than Jersey, but these are still centred on a handful of crucial points, and extend across the breadth of the Atlantic; a large area that is difficult to police in its entirety. As the risk of state-sponsored hacks on energy and transport infrastructures increases, Peach’s warning shows we also have a much more literal form of hacking to be cautious about.