Nord Stream explosions show the deep sea is now a battlefield

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The recent attacks on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea have highlighted the importance of the seabed as a conflict zone in modern warfare. Unfortunately, the United States and its Western allies are ill-prepared to protect their vulnerable networks far below the waves.

The series of pipeline explosions has yet to be definitively proven as sabotage or attributed to any nation, but most analysts believe the likely culprit is Russia. Moscow would appear to be the main beneficiary of the attacks, which may have been designed to send a signal to Western Europe (and all players in the global economy) that the Kremlin may endanger critical infrastructure on the seabed.

How can we prepare to deter, defeat and respond to submarine assaults?

I’ve been researching this since the early 1980s, when I wrote an article in the Navy’s professional journal, the US Naval Institute Proceedings, titled “Resource War at Sea.” He described vulnerabilities in offshore hydrocarbon and communications facilities, and speculated about attacks similar to what has happened now with Nord Stream.

Decades later, my team at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how to protect the 400 cables that carry 98% of the world’s internet data, which we obviously didn’t have to worry about in the 1980s.

There is now vast critical infrastructure at sea, but the United States and its allies have done very little to prepare to defend it, including honing their offensive skills to create real deterrence in the minds of any potential attacker.

At the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where I am a Principal Investigator, a recent highly classified war game explored these challenges, bringing together a highly experienced and elite group to wrestle with the technological and political decisions that will be crucial to the defense of the world. deep ocean. The result was clear: it is time to devote more attention and resources to this set of challenges, not only at the Pentagon, but also in our research institutes, think tanks and other government agencies.

Of course, not all parts of the seabed are equally important. The vast area under the oceans – 70% of the Earth’s surface – is hard to reach and difficult to monitor, even with the exceptional fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, manned submersibles, deep-sea drills and vehicles US Army remote controls.

We will have to prioritize defending and holding the portions that matter the most. These will include submarine gas and oil pipelines, both those that go up on land and those that link installations at sea; internet data cables; platforms above water for the exploitation of oil, gas and seabed; and classified sensor chains used to track underwater traffic.

All of this means investing in training, staffing and equipping highly specialized forces capable of operating on the seabed. Today, these capabilities are spread across the military, scientific, meteorological, environmental, and business communities, with little coordination. Consolidation of these stakeholders for consultation and operations should be centered on a single organization, either the US Navy or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Areas we need to focus on include physical reinforcement of cables and pipelines, including risers connecting them to the ground; better real-time underwater sensors to detect and document attacks, as well as ubiquitous surveillance video cameras in public spaces; intervention and repair teams positioned near the most vital underwater installations (off the coast of Norway, for example); and drills and exercises that demonstrate to rival powers that the United States has the offensive capability to respond to attacks proportionately. Russia, too, has many vulnerabilities on the seabed.

Working with allies, partners and friends will also be important. The United Nations International Maritime Organization, the NATO alliance (especially its formidable Allied Maritime Command) and important bilateral partners like Australia, Brazil, India and Japan can help leverage American efforts.

A major complication is the US Senate’s failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which excludes America from many councils and decision-making bodies. Finally, ratifying this important and sensible diplomatic instrument—whose operations U.S. military agencies and commands regularly cite and track anyway—makes more sense than ever.

The military has traditionally considered the domains of warfare to be air, sea, and land. Over time, we realized that outer space and cyberspace are distinct and require specialized tools and training – hence the creation of the Pentagon’s Cyber ​​Command in 2010 and the Space Force in 2019. The ocean floor – a difficult mix of land and sea – is also a unique domain, and preparing to operate globally is a crucial part of American national security.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

Is Putin fully weaponizing Nord Stream pipelines? : Javier Blas

• How does Putin remain so popular while losing the war in Ukraine? : Tobin Harshaw

• Iran’s drone hack shows how naval warfare is changing: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired Admiral of the United States Navy, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice president of global affairs for the Carlyle Group. He is the most recent author of “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision”.

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