Nord Stream Explosions Show the Deep Sea Is Now a Battleground

By Admiral James Stavridis, Fletcher Dean Emeritus, former supreme allied commander of NATO

Recent attacks against the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea have underscored the importance of the seabed as a zone of conflict in modern warfare. Unfortunately, the US and its Western allies are ill-prepared to protect their vulnerable networks far beneath the waves.

The series of pipeline explosions have yet to be definitively proved as sabotage or attributed to any nation, but most analysts believe that the likely culprit is Russia. Moscow would seem to be the primary beneficiary of the attacks, which may have been designed to send a signal to Western Europe (and to all participants in the global economy) that the Kremlin can put critical infrastructure on the seabed at risk. 

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

I have studied the issue since the early 1980s, when I wrote an article in the Navy’s professional journal, the US Naval Institute Proceedings, entitled “Resource War at Sea.” It outlined the vulnerabilities of offshore hydrocarbon and communications facilities, and hypothesized attacks along the lines of what has now occurred with Nord Stream. 

Decades later, my team at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization spent considerable time thinking about how to protect the 400 cables that carry 98% of global internet data, something we obviously did not have to worry about in the 1980s.

There is now a vast critical infrastructure at sea, yet the US and its allies have done precious little to prepare to defend it, including honing offensive skills to create real deterrence in the mind of any potential attacker.

At the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where I am a senior fellow, a recent highly classified wargame explored these challenges, bringing together a very senior and elite group to wrestle with the technology and policy decisions that will be crucial to defending the deep ocean. The outcome was clear: It’s time to put more attention and resources to this set of challenges not just at the Pentagon, but also in our research institutions, think tanks and other government agencies.

Not every part of the seabed is equally important, of course. The vast area beneath the oceans — 70% of the Earth’s surface — is hard to reach and difficult to surveil, even with the US military’s exceptional fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, manned submersibles, deep-water drills and remotely operated vehicles.

We will need to prioritize defending and holding the portions that matter most. These will include undersea natural gas and oil pipelines, both those rising ashore and connecting facilities at sea; internet-data cables; the above-water rigs for oil, gas and seabed exploitation; and classified sensor chains used to track undersea traffic.

All this means investing in training, manning and equipping highly specialized forces that can operate on the seabed. Today, such capabilities are spread through the military, scientific, meteorological, environmental and commercial communities, with little coordination. Bringing these stakeholders together for consultation and operations should be centered under one organization, either the US Navy or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The areas in which we need to concentrate include more physical hardening for cables and pipelines, including risers connecting them at the land; better real-time undersea sensors to detect and document attacks, much like the ubiquitous surveillance video cameras in public spaces; response-and-repair teams positioned near the most vital undersea facilities (off the coast of Norway, for example); and training and exercises that demonstrate to rival powers that the US has the offensive capability to respond to attacks in a proportional way. Russia, too, has many vulnerabilities on the seabed.

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

A major complication is the US Senate’s failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which keeps America out of many councils and decision-making bodies. Finally ratifying that important and sensible instrument of diplomacy — whose provisions US agencies and military commands routinely cite and follow operationally anyway — makes more sense than ever.

Militaries have traditionally thought of the domains of warfare as being air, sea and land. Over time, we have come to realize that both outer space and cyberspace are distinct and require specialized tools and training — hence the creation of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command in 2010 and Space Force in 2019. The ocean bottom — a challenging blend of land and sea — is also a unique domain, and preparing to operate globally there is a crucial element in America’s national security.

This piece is republished from Bloomberg.

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