Chief of the British Defence Staff and Chair of the NATO Military Committee, Sir Stuart Peach, announced a threat that Britain and her allies ought to be alert to: that Russian ships could sever internet cables that feed into NATO nations. I must say I am very cynical about this announcement.
Budgetary restrictions are biting into the UK military budget more severely than other sectors and it is of course the job of senior military officials to fight their corner and defend themselves against further cuts. But, in this instance, I believe they have concocted an entirely false threat.
I am not one to normally take a reductive approach to global affairs, but in this case I think its a question of simple logic. There are around 420 undersea internet cables in the world. These lay across the ocean floor and account for something like 97% of global data transmission. They are critical to the functioning of the world as we know it, and they are also vulnerable to disruption. It happens all the time: from tectonic movements, from dragging anchors, fishing nets and very occasionally from sealife itself.
Internet cable companies are very aware of the risks and that is why besides the speed of roundtrip data transmission (known as ‘latency’) the critical consideration when laying a new cable is route diversity as a means to minimise cable disruption. If you were to look on a map of the global subsea cables, you would see certain parts of the world are inundated with cables feeding into the region. The Southern tip of Florida, the US West Coast, parts of Western Europe, South Korea etc. have huge numbers of cables feeding into the region. And, this is not always ideal, but due to population distribution, ‘smart’ industry distribution and therefore data centre distribution, subsea cables will feed areas of concentration. This obviously increases risk.
But, the fact is Russia is no different in this respect. Likewise it has areas of cable feed-in concentration. Critically, it also has far far fewer cables than the likes of Britain, the US or many other nations in Western Europe – as the map demonstrates. So, it would be an act of enormous self-harm to damage wires of hostile nations when it is so vulnerable itself to acts of sabotage.
The other point to mention is that the subsea cable network is designed to be resilient against damage (and has to be due to the daily troubles causes by other accidental damage). Cables interconnect across the globe, so if one becomes damaged, data can easily re-route through other channels, resulting in minimal disruption. It is precisely NATO nations which are the least vulnerable to this method of attack given their rich diversity of cable options.
I think Russia would be very foolhardy to go down the route of cable disruption for any nation, let alone the relatively sophisticated nations of NATO. It requires only a simple act of sabotage to enact revenge. You don’t need a big sophisticated naval ship to sail out into the ocean to reek revenge, you can simply find a small motor boat, sail over a cable and drop anchor! Don’t forget these cables are only the width of garden hosepipes. Though they are wrapped in layers of protective polyethylene, steel, copper and much else, they are certainly not invulnerable.