Britain’s chief of defence has highlighted the UK’s subsea telecommunications infrastructure as a key potential target for terrorists and hostile states, but some industry experts believe that these fears are being overplayed

The UK must do more to defend its subsea telecommunication networks from international espionage and attack, according to Britain’s chief of defence. 

"There is a new risk to our way of life, which is the vulnerability of the subsea cables that criss-cross the sea beds," said air chief marshal Sir Stuart Perch in a speech given to the Royal United Services Institute defence think tank. 

Perch said that an attack on Britain’s subsea networks would "immediately, and potentially catastrophically, affect our economy and way of life". 

Perch singled out Russia as the potential source of the attack, adding that the UK must work with its allies to develop its maritime forces and "match and understand Russian fleet modernisation." 

"Russia continues to perfect both unconventional capabilities and information warfare… In response to the threat posed by the modernisation of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships, we along with our Atlantic allies have prioritised missions and tasks to protect the sea lines of communication," he said.

According to a recent report compiled by the Policy Exchange think tank, a potential problem with securing subsea networks is that the vast majority of the world’s 213 independent cable systems are privately, rather than state, owned. This can create ambiguity over who is responsible for securing the network, leaving the door open for would be attackers. The report identifies subsea cables as "essential to our modern life and digital economy," yet it warns that they are "inadequately protected and highly vulnerable to attack from both hostile states and terrorists." 

The European Subsea Cables Association (ESCA) has issued a statement saying that while it welcomes the recognition of subsea cables as critical national infrastructure, it disagrees with some of the report’s key findings.

"The ESCA welcomes the demand for greater protection of cables in law and the acknowledgement that subsea cables are critical national and global infrastructure. ESCA notes there are some inaccuracies and misunderstandings in the report, about which it has some concerns and would have welcomed the opportunity to provide input into the report prior to its publication. ESCA’s members have taken, and continue to take, the security and protection of their assets seriously," it said. 

So, is this a case of scare mongering by the British Armed Forces, perhaps aimed at securing additional funding from the government, or is there a legitimate concern that Britain’s subsea networks could be under imminent threat? Whether a credible threat exists or not is a question for the UK security forces alone. However, by raising this issue publicly, the UK chief of defence has shone a spotlight on the issue of security across the telecoms sector and prompted the questions: could we do more to secure our networks and who is ultimately responsible for securing them?

With an estimated $10 trillion of transactions crossing the global subsea networks every day, it is not hard to imagine the potential carnage that would ensue were they to come under attack. 

From an economic point of view, the result would be cataclysmic. How would the city of London’s financial sector cope if it were cut off from the rest of the world? Financial markets would suffer an almost unprecedented hit were they to be left truly isolated from the international community. While companies have invested heavily to ensure the safety and security of their cable networks, the UK defence chief’s comments raise concern over a new generation of potential attacks.  

The European Subsea Cables Association chairman, Peter Jamieson, will be chairing a round table on ‘Addressing the security risks and protecting our subsea cable infrastructure’ at the forthcoming Submarine Networks Europe event, in London. During the session, Jamieson will look at a variety of new and innovative strategies that are helping the subsea community stay one step ahead of the would-be saboteurs.