A number of news stories concerning the sub-marine environment have emerged recently that suggest that the depths of the sea and the seafloor are very much on the geopolitical agenda. The presence of a Russian submarine near US undersea cables is one such story and it provides an opportunity to engage with how the sub-marine matters in geopolitics today and to ensure that this space is not neglected from our geopolitical and geographical imaginaries.
Last week, reports emerged of a Russian submarine ‘aggressively operating’ near US undersea cable infrastructure. According to the New York Times and a subsequent report by CNN, the presence of Russian subs near such vital infrastructure has prompted fears that Russia might be planning to ‘attack’ the cables in ‘times of tension or conflict’. The ‘cable’ posing a security threat is not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War for example, cable tapping was a key intelligence gathering strategy by both the US and Soviet Union. As a case in point Operation Ivy Bells saw fast-attack submarines and combat divers deployed to ‘drop waterproof recording pods on the lines’. The divers would return every few weeks to gather the pods before delivering them to the NSA. The latest reports, however, hint at something different to Cold War cable hacks. According to the NYT the primary threat is that the cables would be cut or severed.
It is important to note here that cables can get damaged or severed by a variety of actors and agents. Anchors, for example, being dragged along the sea floor, dredging and fisherman, natural disasters, and even marine animals can create moments of disruption in cable communications but, as the NYT state, these usually take place within a few miles from shore where the cable is relatively easy to repair. The threat from Russian subs is, apparently, quite different in that they appear to be ‘looking for vulnerabilities at much greater depths, where the cables are hard to monitor and breaks are hard to find and repair’.
The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski is helpful in placing these concerns in some sort of context. As Starosielski highlights, 99% of all transoceanic communications are transported along the seafloor. This includes everything from texts and emails to financial transactions. Indeed the NYT report states that the cables carry ‘global business worth more than $10 trillion a day’ with financial institutions settling transactions on them every second. Stephen Malphrus from the US Federal Reserve Board has stated that the financial services sector wouldn’t just grind to a halt were this infrastructure to be interrupted – ‘it would snap to a halt’. According to Starosielski, only 45 cables extend ‘outwards from the US, supporting almost all of the country’s international data transactions’ – one can begin to appreciate why they have expressed such concern about foreign sub activity around this ‘aquatic infrastructure’. Our ‘wireless’ world is clearly distinctly tethered, far from existing in the sky on a ‘cloud’ it is material and potentially vulnerable.
As alluded to above in the quote from the NYT ‘depth’ is extremely important geopolitically. Starosielski suggests that the vast body of water immersing and surrounding the cables acts as a ‘layer of insulation’. It makes the cables seem inaccessible, achieving some security through obscurity. Yet this also has the opposite effect. In this instance, it is fears that this obscurity and inaccessibility creates vulnerability. If they are to be found, and cut in the deep ocean, it would take a significant amount of time to locate and access, let alone repair. The significance of this is highlighted in a quote from NATO’s Admiral Ferguson who describes this type of attack as ‘hybrid warfare designed to cripple the decision-making cycle of the alliance’. ‘At sea, their focus is disrupting decision cycles’. The materiality of the sea proves agential in facilitating this – it becomes a space through which decision making processes can be altered and a space that is key for decision making processes to function in the first place.
To inhabit and operate in depth requires knowledge, technology, and money – it is an expression of power. As the image below demonstrates, Putin seems to enjoy and thrive on pitting himself and Russian submersibles against this complex operating environment. As one media outlet sarcastically states: ‘Puny sea, you are no match for Vladimir Putin’. Yet, it would seem that questions are being asked by US officials if Putin is doing more than putting on a show in the depths of the sea as he seeks to project power into the Atlantic.
Rachael is a PhD student in the geography department at Royal Holloway. Her research is on sub-marine geopolitics with a particular focus on how the water column of the sea and the sea floor have been inhabited and negotiated for geopolitical gain from the Cold War to the present day. The US Navy will feature centrally in this with a specific reference to their Experimental Diving Unit and Man in the Sea program. Rachael will be travelling to Florida and San Diego to explore this further in the coming months.