National Interests

Protecting Critical Undersea Infrastructure

15 February 2016

While Canada’s role in the ISIS-defeating coalition has been dominating media coverage of Canada’s defence issues since the election of the Trudeau government, arguably larger and more critical issues loom from a national defence, foreign policy and security perspective in the long term. The brief, but focused, Speech from the Throne on 4 December 2015 laid out broad parameters and included the new federal government’s position on defence:

“The Government will strengthen its relationship with allies, especially with our closest friend and partner, the United States.”

“To keep Canadians safe and be ready to respond when needed, the Government will launch an open and transparent process to review existing defence capabilities, and will invest in building a leaner, more agile, better-equipped military.”

As part of that process, the Government of Canada has announced a defence review that will look at all aspects of defence issues and provide a blueprint for the future in 2016. How will the Royal Canadian Navy fare in this defense review process? The previous government announced, with great fanfare, a major multi-year National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) which was to develop the capability for a robust Canadian fleet of naval warships and supporting vessels and the civilian Canadian Coast Guard fleet. The problem was, the NSPS was created without any underlying or overarching policy to define what Canada’s projected maritime needs were into the 21st century. Canada is dependent on international trade carried by sea for its economic prosperity, and so, this much anticipated Defence Review is an opportunity to examine the threats that may affect the world’s largest coastal nation.

One very possible maritime threat is the susceptibility of the physical network of submarine fiber-optic cables, which are the backbone of the global internet. Is it even possible to imagine how crippling it would be to lose this resource today, when we don’t even print phone books anymore? There is a clear need for allied navies to protect this critical undersea infrastructure that is the foundation of the global internet.

In an earlier FrontLine article, entitled “Reset required? Canada’s Maritime Strategy” (2015 issue 5), I discussed the need for a clear policy foundation for a maritime strategy for Canada; one that would provide a guidepost for the Royal Canadian Navy to respond to new and emerging maritime threats.

Analysts are concerned that Russia has been adopting new war-fighting techniques that have been dubbed hybrid warfare, which includes a maritime dimension among its many components and combines traditional military capabilities with information warfare techniques, such as cyber attacks. The disabling of undersea Internet cables could be a part of future hybrid warfare attacks as nations become increasingly reliant on global information networks.

As widely reported in the press last Fall, a Russia’s new naval “deepwater research” vessel Yantar was observed loitering in Canadian and American east coast waters. The Pentagon was concerned that Yantar was searching for vulnerabilities in undersea communications systems and sensors). Such information would be extremely valuable in hybrid warfare. The physical infrastructure, the fiber-optic cables of the internet, are at risk, and there is no limit to the kinds of damage that could domino from such a disruption.

Hostile plans to disrupt undersea communications date back to the start of the First World War. Only hours after war had been declared, England severed German underwater communications cables in the English Channel, arguably affecting the eventual outcome of the war. Without direct communications outside Europe, Germany was forced to use alternative methods which were interceptable. When codebreakers translated a telegram ordering the German Ambassador to Mexico to propose an alliance with the promise that Mexico would receive Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, this information helped bring the USA into the First World War.

In the January 2015 edition of Foreign Affairs, his article “Under the Sea, The Vulnerability of the Commons” Robert Martinage addressed the modern day threat to one of the global commons:

“In recent years, U.S. officials have grown increasingly fearful of a massive cyberattack, one capable of crippling infrastructure and crashing markets. In 2010, William Lynn, then deputy secretary of defense, wrote in these pages that cyberspace was ‘just as critical to military operations as land, sea, air, and space.’ As defense secretary, Leon Panetta warned of a ‘cyber–Pearl Harbor.’ And in 2013, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, put cyber attacks at the top of his annual list of transnational threats.”

The emerging maritime hybrid threat cannot be ignored, it needs to be included in Canada’s defense review. Undoubtedly, the review will examine this and other threats and options in detail, which will assist in defining the role of the Canadian Navy well into the 21st century.

In late 2015, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mr. Ashton Carter has clearly set out the American position with respect defence procurement to deal with high-end capabilities and the underwater domain. In a February 2016 speech at the Economic Club of Washington, Carter stated the American $582.7-billion defense budget would take “the long view […] making choices and tradeoffs to adjust to a new strategic era, and seize opportunities for the future.”

He stated that President Barack Obama discussed five military challenges with him: Russian aggression; a rising China; North Korean nuclear ambitions; Iran’s influence in the Middle East; and countering terrorism. “Russia and China are our most stressing competitors […] They have developed and are continuing to advance military systems that seek to threaten our advantages in specific areas, and in some cases, they are developing weapons and ways of war that seek to achieve their objectives rapidly, before they hope we can respond,” he told the Economic Club.

“Today's security environment is dramatically different than the one we've been engaged with for the last 25 years and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting.”

Carter also said the Pentagon would spend $8.1 billion on undersea warfare in fiscal 2017, and more than $40 billion in the next five years. It is clear that the United States takes seriously the threat of China and Russia expanding naval and marine capabilities right to the edge of Canada’s and the United States’ ocean boundaries as witnessed in the recent actions by both the Chinese and Russian Navy with both vessels submarines and overflights in 2015.

It is estimated that over 95% of the world’s communications travel the internet highway, and a New York Times report stated that $10 trillion is transacted via the internet every day. Any disruption to that capacity affects global trade and security, especially if the disruption was a widespread, coordinated attack that could take years to repair and replace in the deep ocean.

More than 550,000 miles of flexible fiber-optic undersea cables, about the diameter of garden water hose, carry all of the world's emails and other electronic communications around the oceans. Together, these fiber-optic cables transmit the equivalent of several hundred United States Libraries of Congress worth of information back and forth every day in cyberspace at the speed of light. Much of the information age’s global economy is dependent on this vulnerable undersea infrastructure, which explains why the U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists the terminus of these cables in New York and Los Angeles as part of America’s critical infrastructure.

Undersea research and surveillance is another example of the need for maritime capability in the context of emerging hybrid warfare, especially as it relates to undersea fiber-optic cables. Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, commented publicly about recent Russian naval activities off the coast of North America and what the Yantar was doing off the east coast. According to Admiral Ferguson, Russia is increasingly using Special Operations missions and new weapons as part of an emerging doctrine of hybrid warfare. “This involves the use of space, cyber, information warfare and hybrid warfare designed to cripple the decision-making cycle of the [NATO] alliance,” he said. “At sea, their focus is disrupting decision cycles.”

These comments were directed towards the Russian naval oceanographic ship Yantar in the late summer of 2015 off the east coast of Canada and the United States. It was strongly believed that the vessel, though operating in accordance with international law, was searching for classified Department of Defense communication cables and sensor arrays in deep waters. Allegedly it was on sea-trials.

The recently launched Yantar is a highly sophisticated oceanographic vessel. It is the first of a class that provides Russia with a very robust deepwater capability combined with manned and unmanned underwater systems. It is clearly more than a research vessel. It took three years to construct, and it made a beeline across the Atlantic for sea trials off the East coast of Canada, then made its way down the eastern seaboard of the United States, lingering off Kings Port, Georgia, and then down to Cuba where a major fiber-optic cable makes landfall at Guantanamo Bay. Given the classified nature of many of these cables, not all the details were released by the U.S. Navy.

The Yantar carries a variety of surface supported underwater systems including two manned submersibles that have an operating depth down to 6000 metres. Russia has maintained an extensive and sustained underwater technology program that provides access to the deep ocean. This vessel and its systems have the capability to access commercial and military fiber-optic cables where they are most difficult to repair, in the deep ocean. While there are redundancies in the cable system, a coordinated attack could prove a major problem.

It is feared that this highly specialized vessel gives Russia the ability to monitor underwater sensors or neutralize or sever fiber-optic cables in deep water during a time of conflict. Was the vessel detecting and mapping some of the classified underwater cables for future use?

Russia made a clear statement with this maiden voyage, and highlights the very real need to address a vulnerability that is critical to global prosperity and security. The Yantar is the first of a class of these specialized vessels, and more are expected.

Russia’s new naval “deepwater research” vessel Yantar.
Russia’s new naval “deepwater research” vessel Yantar. (Photo: Igor Zarembo, sputniknews.com)

Protection of this underwater critical infrastructure has heretofore flown under the radar and should be a key component of any maritime strategy into the 21st century for Canada and its allies. This maritime threat requires marine capability – surface and subsurface vessels in addition to unmanned systems that can operate in the deep ocean. This involves state-of-the-art ocean engineering and dynamic positioning capabilities for vessels to operate in deep water and maintain position without anchoring.

The capability that can be provided by a mixed-use state-of-the-art multi-mission vessel is needed and could be a chartered or purchased civilian vessel. This concept is not new, for example, the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker CCGS John Cabot was a partially funded by the Canadian Overseas Telecommunication Company, a cable company that was predecessor to TeleGlobe Canada in the 1960s. This is an example of creative partnerships between the Canadian government and the private sector for an icebreaking cable ship. The vessel maintained a military cable as part of missile defense to Thule, Greenland.

Offshore hydrocarbon exploration and development has created a need and development and construction for state-of-the-art vessels that can operate throughout the world’s oceans in conjunction with both manned and unmanned submersible systems. These ships can be economically fitted to provide an important NATO capability in the 21st century. That needs to be addressed in the discussion in the new defence review. This provides a unique opportunity for the Royal Canadian Navy to provide this underwater capability and utilize world-leading marine technology in an innovative fashion.

During the Southern Ocean search for the Malaysian plane MH370 (missing since March 2014), we saw the capability brought by the Royal Australian Navy vessel Ocean Shield, a chartered offshore supply vessel. It ably supported the U.S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage deployment of the of the USN’s subcontractor Phoenix International’s Bluefin underwater autonomous vehicle (AUV) in the deep water search.

In the past, Canada had a diving support vessel capability, HMCS Cormorant. A former civilian Italian fishing trawler, it had been converted (1978) into a diving support vessel for a number of Canadian-built submersibles including Pisces IV and SDL-1. The former Canadian Navy dive tender is presently moored in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia as a derelict vessel. Since the decommissioning of Cormorant in 1996, Canada has not sought to enhance the underwater capability of the RCN in an integrated fashion. At present, Canada’s defence research vessel CFV Quest is not operational and is at the end of a long lifespan. CFV Quest was heavily utilized in antisubmarine warfare research by Defence Research Atlantic, both in the Atlantic and in Arctic waters. This gave Canada a deep water capability that it presently does not possess.

It’s important to note the Canada has led the world in much of this deep water ocean technology and engineering, especially as it relates to manned submersibles and unmanned autonomous vehicles. Canadian autonomous vehicles have been the deployed under the ice by researchers as part of Canada’s mapping of its continental shelf for a claim under Article 76 of the Law of the Sea Convention. In fact, Canada is ideally suited to provide this niche marine capability to NATO for the protection and support of the critical undersea fiber-optic cables.

Arguably, the Internet and the concept of hybrid warfare requires new ways of thinking about maritime security. The Yantar’s voyage should be seen as a precursor to what can happen in the future. Russia has spent considerable money finessing the capability of this vessel, and has a clear purpose and mission. Canada needs to review this, especially in light of the desire to put fiber-optic cables to the Northwest Passage and be able to service and protect that from a security standpoint.

Coast Guard Icebreaker, CCGS John Cabot
Coast Guard Icebreaker, CCGS John Cabot

Considering its importance to both military command and control and the global economy, what is Canada’s capability to protect this critical infrastructure? Given Canada’s proven underwater capability, this is a natural fit and a key leadership role Canada can assume – led by the RCN, in a NATO context. It can be a creative and cost-effective public/private partnership using the latest technologies.

This is one clear threat that needs to considered as a matter of national interest. It is also critically important to Canada’s best friend and ally, the United States, and its NATO partners. It is time to examine this threat, develop the strategies, resource the capabilities, and define the role to be played by the Royal Canadian Navy and others in deterring such disruption. This is an opportunity for Canada.

K. Joseph Spears is the principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group. He has written and spoken extensively on Canada’s role as an Ocean nation. He can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com