It is not known who set off explosions powerful enough to be detected by earthquake monitors over the Baltic Sea, but they damaged the Nord Stream pipelines.
PARIS, France — Deep underwater, the pipes and cables that carry the lifeblood of the modern world — energy and information — are out of sight and largely ignored. Until something goes catastrophically wrong.
The alleged sabotage of gas pipelines linking Russia and Europe this week highlights how vital but weakly protected underwater infrastructure is vulnerable to attack, with potentially catastrophic repercussions for the global economy.
It is not known who detonated explosions powerful enough to be detected by earthquake monitors over the Baltic Sea, which European governments suspect were the cause of several holes in the Nord Stream pipelines. The leaks released foaming torrents of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
The Kremlin has denied involvement, calling allegations that it sabotaged the pipelines “predictable and stupid”.
Analysts found that hard to believe, saying gas producer Russia would appear to benefit most from spiking market prices with such a strike, punishing Europe by stoking fear and uncertainty in retaliation for its move other gas suppliers because of the Kremlin invasion of Ukraine.
Since underwater sabotage is harder to detect and easier to deny than more visible ground and air attacks, the blasts also seemed to fit Russia’s military scenario for a “hybrid war.” It is the use of a range of means – military, non-military, and subterfuge – to destabilize, divide, and pressure opponents.
A look at underwater infrastructure that needs more protection, according to military and economic analysts:
Gas networks are just one part of the dense web of undersea pipes and cables that power economies, keep homes warm, and connect billions of people.
More than 1.3 million kilometers (807,800 miles) of fiber-optic cable — more than enough to stretch to the moon and back — spans the oceans and seas, according to TeleGeography, which tracks and maps vital communications networks.
The cables are usually the width of a garden hose. But 97% of the world’s communications, including trillions of dollars worth of financial transactions, go through it every day.
Without them, modern life could suddenly freeze, economies collapse and governments struggle to communicate with each other and their troops, British lawmaker Rishi Sunak warned in a 2017 report, laying out the risks before he became the UK’s chief financial officer .
Power cables also run underwater. Lithuania claimed in 2015 that a Russian naval vessel had repeatedly tried to prevent the laying of an underwater power cable connecting the country with Sweden. Lithuania’s energy minister was quoted as saying that he viewed Russia’s actions as “hostile”.
HOW VULNERABLE ARE YOU?
The gas pipeline explosions showed that even in the overcrowded Baltic Sea it is possible to hit seabed infrastructure and escape seemingly undetected. Relatively flat, with a lot of shipping traffic and duds from both world wars on the bottom, the sea is seen as a challenge to navigate undetected.
Even the Kremlin agreed that it was unlikely to be the work of amateurs.
“It looks like a terrorist attack that was probably carried out at the state level,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday.
Dozens of breaks each year in undersea communications cables, often caused by fishing vessels and anchors, are a testament to their fragility. Their locations on the seabed are not classified, they are not strongly protected by international law, and it does not take great expertise or resources to damage them, Sunak’s report said.
“Our infrastructure is fragile,” said Torben Ørting Jørgensen, a retired admiral in the Danish Navy. The Baltic gas leaks “have sharpened our attention to these vulnerabilities like the internet, power cables or gas lines,” he said.
Internet giants like Amazon, Facebook parent Meta, Google and Microsoft are among those driving the expanding cable network, with ownership stakes in a growing number of undersea cables. This avoids the need to spend taxpayers’ money to move the networks. But because private companies don’t think as broadly about national security as governments, they were unaware of the “aggressive new threat” to cables from countries like Russia, Sunak’s report said.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
After the Cold War, the nations of the NATO military alliance shrunk their anti-submarine forces, slashed defense budgets, and perceived the threat from Russia as less.
“The ability of many Western nations to reliably detect, track, deter, and counter Russian underwater activity has declined,” according to a 2016 study titled “Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe,” conducted by Kathleen Hicks, now No. 2, was headed US Department of Defense.
Retired French Vice Admiral Michel Olhagaray, a former head of France’s Center for Advanced Military Studies, said Western nations “have allowed themselves to fall asleep” and that they must now focus on locating submarine cables and pipes that Russia has identified as vital , better protect and vulnerable.
They “are certainly falling behind,” Olhagaray said of Western defenses against underwater attacks.
“The seafloor is a far more important and obvious area” than space exploration, he added. “Instead of going to Mars, we should better protect the infrastructure.”
AP journalists Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Kelvin Chan in London contributed.
https://www.king5.com/article/news/nation-world/undersea-cables-pipes/507-954debee-6347-4928-a779-da43c0cf71d9 Why are natural gas pipelines important?