The internet relies on things: vulnerable undersea cables
Undersea cables

Undersea cables carry almost all the world's internet traffic - and they are vulnerable to deliberate destruction as China has shown around Taiwan.

Written by

Anthony Bergin

According to Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president, Russia could destroy subsea cables in Europe and America. As a maritime power the US connects with its friends and allies around the world through submarine cables. Almost all our communications, including banking transactions and internet activities, go via submarine cables.

 Medvedev said Moscow had the “moral” right to target its enemies’ subsea critical infrastructure because of what he claimed was western collusion in the blasts that ruptured the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines last year.  To date there’s been no “smoking gun” to prove who was behind the attack. Russian submarines have the capacity to target cables at depths that would be difficult to repair.

NATO is taking the threat seriously. In February it established an undersea critical infrastructure cell to facilitate engagement with industry and bring key military and civilian stakeholders together.

An attack on undersea cables could be regarded as an act of war.  But there are very minimal rules to protect the cables, and these rules were developed during the era of copper, not fibre optic cables.

Taiwan’s cables have been cut by China at least twenty seven times in the past five years. The excavators it used to build artificial islands and military bases in the South China Sea can cut undersea cables. An internet outage for Taiwan in a wartime scenario would impact its capacity to communicate its needs to the outside world, as well as the ability of residents to receive basic information.

Cutting undersea communications cables would cripple the functioning of any modern society.Citizens and businesses would be cut off. That would cause unrest, a factor that we shouldn’t underestimate.

States can’t have their navy out twenty-four hours a day sitting on top of the cables to make sure nobody harms or cuts them: subsea cables weren’t designed to have to be constantly patrolled and repaired. And demand for the word’s 60 cable ships far outstrips supply.

The locations of the 380 submarine cables around the world isn’t a secret. There are maps detailing their locations.

Fishing and anchoring incidents account for approximately seventy percent of cable faults globally. Divers, submersibles or military grade drones could place explosives on the cables or install mines nearby, which could then be detonated remotely. Cable repair ships could be attacked.

Several nations in the Indo-Pacific operate submarines capable of stealthily tampering with cables, although it’s technically challenging to do and there are easier ways to obtain data.

But cable-laying companies can potentially insert backdoors or install surveillance equipment. By hacking into network-management systems, attackers could control multiple cable-management systems. Terrorists and criminal organisations could exploit cable vulnerabilities for different purposes.

But the bigger threat is cable interference at data points or landing stations. Sydney and Perth are the primary points where cables land in Australia. Power could be cut to those sites or explosive devices detonated. Missile attacks are possible. Landing station locations are vulnerable because data can be intercepted and ‘mirrored’ (that is, copied while the sender and receiver are none the wiser).

Over the next few years, subsea cable numbers are expected to grow by some 30 percent annually. The US and China are vying for influence over which companies get to build and maintain cables.

As Elisabeth Braw recently noted in Foreign Policy magazine, cable owners may opt for more circuitous routes that would ordinarily traverse Chinese or other geopolitically risky waters between their landing points. They may give up some routes altogether.

Countries will be directly connected with friendly countries by cables traveling through friendly waters. Braw says we’re entering the era of the undersea Iron Curtain, but she argues that this new cable strategy presents an opportunity for Western governments. 

Countries that would face second-cable status as new and better cables bypass them could be offered inclusion in a Western public-private cable alliance based on shared risk and responsibility for the cables.

In this context, it’s worth noting that at the recent Quad meeting in Hiroshima the US, Japan, India, and Australia agreed to establish the Quad Partnership for Cable Connectivity and Resilience.

Just last week Australia, US and Japan announced that they will jointly fund a new cable to connect Micronesia,Nauru and Kiribati.

This is designed to bring together public and private sector actors to address gaps in the infrastructure and coordinate on future builds. It should improve access to develop trusted and secure cable systems and establish better internet connectivity and resiliency in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia will usefully establish a new Cable Connectivity and Resilience Program to share best practice, (our submarine cable protection legal regime is considered a regional gold standard) and provide technical assistance to Indo-Pacific governments.

Australia should work with like-minded countries to coordinate with the International Cable Protection Committee,  an organisation of more than 200 members who own nearly all the world’s undersea communication cables, to develop new standards for laying cables. This might also include mandating better defences of where subsea cables make landfall.

The transmission of renewable energy through subsea cables will become more important in the future as well as the flow of internet communications.

That requires Australia and partner states working more closely with the cable companies to develop new standards for cables that will make them both harder to detect and to break.


Anthony Bergin is senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia and an expert associate at the National Security College