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Royal Navy Hydrographic Vessel HMS Scott at anchor near Port Lockroy in Antarctica. Credit: POA(Phot) Ray Jones, Crown Copyright/UK MoD 2011

World - Seabed warfare is a 'real and present threat'

Seabed warfare has moved on from hydrography and mine clearance as the sea floor infrastructure has exploded in scale.

Seabed warfare truly began in the 1960s with operations such as the United States Navy’s Operation Ivy Bells, a cooperative effort by the US Navy, CIA, and NSA to wiretap Soviet undersea communication links during the Cold War.

Since then, the size of infrastructure networks on the seafloor and the dependence of civic society on these networks have exploded. Never-before-seen densities of pipelines, optical fibre, and power cables traverse the ocean, allowing data transfer in telecommunications and for energy flows the distribution of gas, oil, and electricity.

The security concerns are not in any sense theoretical. “There is a real and present threat out there today,” said Chris Lade, Saab sales manager and a former UK Royal Navy mine clearance diver, during a briefing on seabed operations at Euronaval conference Paris in October.

The damage to the Nordstream pipelines at the end of September is widely publicised, but less well known is the loss of a major piece of the Norwegian sensor system in January, one of four seabed infrastructure loss occurrences this year alone.

“[Seabed warfare] is extremely difficult to defend against and no country on earth is well-equipped or prepared to do the defending,” said H.I. Sutton, an independent naval researcher and author of ‘Covert Shores: The Story of Naval Special Forces Missions and Minisubs’, highlighting the contrast between defensive operations and expeditionary, offensive operations. “It can often be done in ways which are not attributable, which adds a hybrid warfare dimension,” continued Sutton, speaking of the threat from offensive operations.  

Cutaway of CETUS, the Royal Navy’s first autonomous submarine, described within a 40ft cargo container. Credit: UK MoD

Navies modernising for the challenge

In February, the French Navy unveiled a new strategic seabed warfare doctrine, while in May, the UK Royal Navy met with private operators in the undersea, indicating that navies in the area are studying seabed warfare vulnerabilities. Due to the experience gained building the infrastructure developed by the oil and gas industry, it is thought that the commercial sector has primacy in ocean floor operations at depths beyond the continental shelf.

“The civilian sector, such as offshore oil and gas, are often better equipped than navies,” continued Sutton, “but they tend not to be set up for covert action. In Russia the lines between civilian and navy are blurred, much more so than in [the] West.”

In November the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it was prioritising the procurement of two Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) ships. “The suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in late September has brought these vulnerabilities in sharp focus,” said James Marques, associate aerospace, defence and security analyst at GlobalData, “prompting the MoD to speed up delivery of the MROS capability.”

First announced in March 2021, the first ship is now scheduled to enter the fleet in January 2023.

The MROS ships will bring deep-diving operations back into the mission set of the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic squadron, building on the capabilities of its multiple surveillance ships. Its inclusion in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is intended to advance British security by monitoring and protecting seabed communications cables and energy pipelines, and the ships are expected to carry Autonomous Underwater Vessels (AUV) for this purpose.

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