Protecting underwater infrastructure

The Royal Navy is investing in multi-role ocean surveillance vessels as governments increase surveillance to defend undersea internet cables.

The Royal Navy is investing in multi-role ocean surveillance vessels as governments increase surveillance to defend undersea internet cables.

Underwater cables may be hidden but they keep the worldwide internet online. The durability of this important network has been increasingly questioned in recent years.

When cable AAE-1 was severed on 7 June 2022, near where it passes across land through Egypt, millions of people faced internet blackouts. The cause of the damage was not known but it affected seven countries and major telecoms services, with Ethiopia being the hardest hit. Connectivity was restored in a few hours, but the disruption symbolised the fragility of the world’s underwater cables.

The weakest link

A high concentration of the world’s cables pass through Egypt, in the Red Sea’s shallow waters and with exposure over land at points, making it a prominent chokepoint. Most of the outage has been traced back to shipping or environmental damage but there are concerns about human sabotage. 

Writer Matt Burgess discusses the vulnerabilities in Wired magazine, explaining the alternative of satellite-based internet would not work, being designed for remote locations. 

With no obvious alternative, this heightened risk to underwater cables is driving interest and investment into surveillance and repair measures. 

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Undersea internet cables are vulnerable to shipping, environmental damage and human sabotage, when exposed and underwater (Credit:Shutterstock)

Adopting Topaz Tangaroa for UK defence

Earlier this year, the UK Ministry of Defence announced the purchase of Topaz Tangaroa, an offshore oil industry support vessel, for conversion to a Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) ship. After the revamp, she will serve as RFA Proteus in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, a branch of the Royal Navy. Proteus will safeguard critical seabed infrastructure, while operating remote and autonomous off-board systems for seabed warfare and underwater surveillance.

The ship benefits from low fuel consumption and boasts diesel-electric propulsion that drives azimuth thrusters at the stern. Her dynamic positioning system with twin bow thrusters will allow precision when working over underwater infrastructure. She also has a ‘moon pool’, a vertical shaft for underwater robots, which was utilised for subsea oil applications, and will soon prove useful for underwater defence operations. Cammell Laird is currently fitting her out by painting her grey and adding light weapon mounts and military communications equipment, including suitable ROVs and UVVs to perform surveillance.

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Newly acquired future Multi Role Ocean Surveillance Ship (MROS) sailing into Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, Liverpool (Credit: LPhot Bill Spurr/UK MOD)

Preventing attack

As there are thousands of miles of subsea cables to be monitored globally, Proteus marks a step towards improved security measures enabling the UK to heighten its surveillance of undersea infrastructure and respond to interference swiftly. 

King’s College London Professor of War and Strategy in East Asia, Alessio Patalona tells the IMarEST: “MROs join a long-standing tradition within the Royal Navy of oceanic research and survey. The capacity to assess what lies beneath the waters, and increasingly along the seabed is going to be a crucial aspect of national security. MROs will monitor cables but also assess what else lies on the seabed.”

In an article for GeoStrategy, Patalona explains that, in the current geo-political environment, European economic security relies heavily on undersea connectors, and he emphasises their importance for Euro-Atlantic security and to the UK, as the ocean links the world together like a highway.  

It is timely perhaps for governments to invest in maritime infrastructure and defence so the integrity of worldwide communications can be protected in turbulent times. 

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Clarissa Wright

Clarissa Wright is a freelance journalist.