The Future of Securing the Seas

(Image credit: SAAB)

The realm of Critical Undersea Infrastructure (CUI) unfolds as a complex network, spanning pipelines, communication cables, and power channels beneath the ocean. By bridging the physical gap between countries, this infrastructure is crucial to the growth and prosperity of nations all over the world, even more so for the socio-economic progress of developing nations.

The importance of CUI has now put a target on its back. This has been made abundantly clear over the last year, with the Nord Stream pipeline damage in late 2022, and further damage to a gas pipeline and a telecom cable connecting Estonia to Finland and Sweden in October 2023. The prioritization of protection strategies sees government and defense agencies, asking themselves how they deal with this new threat as it arises, who owns the problem, what is its nature and how can it be prevented. Yet, it is the commercial industry that has the technological advancements required for effective safeguarding, already in play.

SAFEGUARDING CUI

If we examine one particular subset of CUI, undersea communication cables offer a suite of key advantages crucial to the modern interconnected world. In fact, The UK’s Ministry of Defence suggests 99% of global internet traffic goes through these undersea cables. Their high-speed transmission, ensures not only rapid but consistently reliable connectivity, facilitating seamless data transfer. By bridging continents, these cables foster global interconnectivity, facilitating real-time communication and colossal collaboration, vital for international trade, research partnerships, and cultural exchange. There are more than 500 active and planned cables laid around the world, and over 1.4 million kilometers in overall length.

A vulnerability to the cables comes in the form of how deep they are laid. Some can go as deep as 8,000 meters, the deepest point in the Japan Trench—a depth that is almost equivalent to the height of Mount Everest. This makes monitoring and defending these cables a challenge, not only because of their depth, but their length—with some spanning multiple jurisdictions. We must solve how to protect these vital data routes, but also answer who protects them—the government of the country, the CUI owner, the respective defense agency?

The problem comes when we consider the importance these cables have on society, and the potential outcome if one of them was to be interfered with, as seen with the Nord-stream pipeline damage. Whilst the world debates who is responsible for the safeguarding of CUI, these vast webs of infrastructure go often unguarded. Seeing recent leaps in technological advancements, diving down into subsea terrain to damage and disrupt these cables is not only achievable, but has already been realized. It has opened the world up to a new strategic battleground: CUI warfare. Defense agencies are racing to equip their fleets with the same technology; one example is the UK welcoming RFA Proteus to its fleet, a ship designed to function as the base for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) dedicated to underwater surveillance.

There is a clear opportunity here for defense agencies to tap into the commercial industry expertise that has been driving the recent technological advancements that the defense systems are founded on.

THE ROLE OF COMMERCIAL INDUSTRY

The commercial industry has spearheaded remarkable technological strides aimed at maintaining and safeguarding CUI. Advanced surveying techniques, like multibeam sonar systems and LiDAR, enable precise mapping and monitoring of the seafloor, ensuring accurate identification of potential hazards. Underwater robotics, including autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and ROVs, play a pivotal role in inspection, maintenance, and repair tasks, allowing for the efficient, real-time assessment of underwater structures.

These innovations not only enhance the efficiency of infrastructure protection but also minimize risks to human divers, significantly advancing the reliability and resilience of critical undersea assets in the commercial sector. These advancements have inspired the defense sector, showing that the key of ensuring effective protection will be in international collaboration and forward-thinking initiatives between the two industries.

COLLABORATIVE APPROACH TO THREATS

A collaborative approach between the commercial and defense industries stands as an imperative pillar in safeguarding CUI, offering multifaceted advantages crucial to fortifying this vital network. Firstly, the commercial sector’s technological prowess, rooted in innovation and agile development, synergizes with the defense industry’s strategic acumen and security expertise, fostering a holistic defense framework.

This collaboration harnesses advanced tools and solutions from the commercial realm, such as cutting-edge surveying methods, and underwater robotics, fortifying defense strategies with state-of-the-art capabilities to monitor, respond, and protect CUI.

NATO has already showcased its focus on collaborative approaches to solving CUI safeguarding tactics, through the NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative (MUSI), launched in October 2018. The initiative aims to promote interoperability in the development of Maritime Unmanned Systems. It has inspired the annual ‘Operational Experimentation Exercises’ REPMUS and DYNAMIC MESSENGER, with Saab’s underwater systems, AUV62-AT anti-submarine warfare training target and Seaeye Falcon underwater electric robot, supporting elements of the most recent exercises in September 2023. The exercises involved over 2,000 civilian and military personnel from 15 NATO nations, Ireland and Sweden.

The fusion of commercial innovation with defense strategies enhances adaptability and agility, enabling faster response times and the implementation of proactive measures against emerging threats. Beyond technological synergies, the collaborative approach fosters knowledge exchange, offering a fertile ground for cross-sectoral expertise sharing, thereby enhancing understanding, preparation, and resilience against evolving risks to undersea infrastructure. Ultimately, this alliance not only bolsters the immediate defense of CUI but also cultivates a continuous cycle of innovation and readiness, essential for the ever-evolving challenges posed to critical undersea networks.

In a world in which CUI warfare’s strategic importance grows, governments, defense agencies, and those that have an invested interested in CUI need to start advocating for proactive international collaboration and commercial initiatives in navigating the evolving CUI landscape.

This story was originally featured in ON&T Special Edition 2023. Click here to read more.

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