Thousands of feet below the ocean is a worldwide network of Internet cables responsible for carrying 97% of international communications.
In the digital age, these physical cables, sheathed in steel and plastic, are at the heart of our operations. If they were to be disabled, it would not only prevent us from accessing the web on our phones and laptops, it would disrupt everything from agriculture and healthcare to military logistics and financial transactions, instantly plunging the world into a new depression.
According to experts, this doomsday scenario ranks alongside nuclear war as an existential threat to our way of life.
And the new Chief of the Defense Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, believes Russia is the hostile power most likely to cripple these vital arteries.
In an interview over the weekend, he said there had been “a phenomenal increase” in Russian submarine activity over the past 20 years, adding: “Russia has increased the capacity to threaten these cables submarines and potentially exploit them “.
Any such interference would be treated with the utmost seriousness. When asked if the destruction of cables could be considered an act of war, the highest ranking officer in the British Army replied: “Potentially, yes”.
Over 97% of global communications are transmitted through submarine fiber optic cables surrounded by shielding wire and polyethylene blanket
Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured, has invested heavily in his country’s submarine fleet, including developing technology to interfere with submarine cables
The good news is that cable makers aren’t making it easy for would-be saboteurs.
The cables, largely owned and installed by private companies, are designed to withstand natural underwater rigors and cannot be cut easily.
Usually a little over an inch in diameter, they are made of optical fibers – strands of glass as thin as a hair – in the center, surrounded by an armor of galvanized steel wire, then, at the l ‘exterior, with a plastic coating.
They are designed to the “five nines” standard, which means they are reliable 99.999% of the time, a standard typically reserved for nuclear weapons and space shuttles.
But, armed with hydraulic shears attached to their hulls, the Russian submersibles would make short work of the thin cables of the garden hoses. Alternatively, divers or remote controlled vehicles (ROVs) equipped with knives could do the job.
One ship identified as a serious threat is the Yantar. Officially described by the Russian Navy as a “research” vessel, it carries two mini-submarines designed for engineering missions that can examine areas up to 3.75 miles underwater.
Just four months after first setting sail in 2015, Yantar sparked concern in intelligence circles when he was detected just off the coast of the United States on his way to Cuba, where cables submarines land near Guantanamo Bay.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, pictured, has ordered research vessels that can target submarine cables
In shallower waters, a ship could deliberately drag an anchor along the seabed to tear the cables. Such an attack could be covered up by passing it off as an innocent fishing boat accident.
Last August, the Yantar was sighted off the Irish coast of Donegal-Mayo. Despite having territorial waters ten times the size of its land mass, Ireland has only one warship to monitor the four cables that connect it to the United States and the eight that connect it to the United States. Britain. At sea, cables are all the more vulnerable as they are often located hundreds or thousands of kilometers from the nearest naval bases capable of identifying, monitoring and intercepting hostile ships.
There are also concerns that Yantar’s submersibles may be equipped with technology capable of exploiting cables.
There are 436 of these cables in the world, containing between them more than 800,000 miles of optical fiber.
The daddy of all is the Asia American Gateway which is 12,430 miles long.
Each cable contains between four and 200 optical fibers – one fiber can transmit up to 400 GB of data per second, enough for about 375 million phone calls.
A single cable containing eight strands of optical fiber could transfer the contents of Oxford’s Bodleian Library – which contains more than 12 million books, journals and manuscripts – across the Atlantic in about 40 minutes.
They are much more important than satellite communications, which represent only 3% of world traffic. As futuristic as satellites may seem, this mode of transmission has been in decline since the early 1990s, when fiber optic cables have taken over.
“Barring a nuclear or biological war, it is difficult to think of a threat that could be more correctly characterized as existential than that posed by the catastrophic failure of submarine cable networks following a hostile action, “says a Policy Exchange think-tank report written in 2017 by now Chancellor Rishi Sunak, then a backbench MP.
Every day, the cable network carries 10,000 billion dollars in financial transfers. The report says: “In the words of the managing director of a large telecommunications company:” Cascading failures could immobilize much of the international telecommunications system and the Internet. . .
“The effect on international finance, military logistics, medicine, trade and agriculture in a global economy would be profound. “. . Electronic funds transfers, credit card transactions and international bank reconciliations would slow down. . . such an event would cause a global depression ”.
Sunak’s report recommended that submarine cables be designated as critical national infrastructure and that “cable protection zones” be established.
Meanwhile, British ships and other military assets protect cables in areas such as the North Atlantic. Last week, it emerged that the sonar equipment of one of those ships, a frigate called HMS Northumberland, had been struck by a Russian submarine in late 2020.
At the time of the collision, the ship had deployed a Towed Array, a tube up to two miles long equipped with hydrophones for listening underwater, and it was this item that the submarine allegedly hit.
As tensions rise between Russia and the West over countries like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, such incidents are likely to become much more frequent.