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Subsea Threats: Resilience is Called For

The current geopolitical situation highlights the importance of having a range of alternative fiber optic cables to ensure true sovereignty in connectivity.

The war in Ukraine and the recent sabotage on Baltic Sea gas pipelines have underscored the vulnerability of the critical, international infrastructure that ties the modern world together. This is not only true for energy infrastructure but also the cables used for internet and telecommunication according to a new EU report, “Security threats to undersea communications cables and infrastructure – consequences for the EU”. The report paints a gloomy picture, with many European governments still lacking policy.

“In relation to the NRENs (national research and education networks, ed.) of the Nordic countries, the challenges described in the report do not call for new policy. However, they do highlight the importance of following through on the NORDUnet strategy of strengthening redundancy for the region further,” comments Valter Nordh, CEO of NORDUnet.

While previous strategies called for double redundancy – meaning two alternative routes between each country and each node in the network, so if one fails the other has sufficient capacity to take over, the NORDUnet partners in 2018 agreed to change the guiding principle to so-called “x3+ redundancy” – so each member of the regional network will have access to at least three alternative routes, sometimes more. This new principle was agreed in light of the increasing importance of the network being always available for all stakeholders, and inspired by emerging national strategies for digital security and autonomy.

The current NORDUnet network, implemented during 2019-2021, realizes this principle. The NRENs of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland have at least four international connections at their disposal, safeguarding a very high degree of resilience. Furthermore, none of the countries will be solely dependent upon a connection to a single, other country. This is even true for the NORDUnet network as a whole, implementing a range of routes to continental Europe, in such a way that the network does not depend on a single region or coutry.  The only missing piece in the puzzle is Iceland, at present connected via only two available subsea cables.

“On top of this redundancy, NORDUnet and the five Nordic NRENs are engaged in plans to establish a completely new route from Northern Europe to Asia and North America via the Arctic Ocean. If established, this will become a significant strengthening of the sovereignty in connectivity for Europe and especially for the Nordic region,” says Jørgen Qvist, Chief Network Operating Officer at NORDUnet. “Likewise, NORDUnet and the Nordic NRENs are continually engaged in initiatives that could increase the meshing and further improve the resilience of the network by adding new, international links”, he adds.

Increasing Russian undersea activity

Bearing in mind the war in Ukraine, the EU report has possible state-sponsored sabotage from Russia as a focus point:

“Increasingly aggressive Russian undersea activity raises the possibility that Moscow could seek to damage cable networks as part of escalating the conflict through grey zone activities. Russia has both experience and an interest in using unconventional or hybrid means of warfare, such as disrupting communications networks (…). There are several imagined Russian objectives severing a cable. These include damaging cables in operations short of war blocking military or government communications in the early stages of a conflict, shutting down internet access for a targeted population, sabotaging an economic competitor, or causing global disruption for strategic purposes.”

The report underscores that other nations than Russia could have hostile intentions, just as could criminal or terrorist organizations. Further, attacks do not necessarily need to be physical but could be data theft, digital cyber weapons etc.

So, reasons to maintain a high degree of redundancy are plenty.

Close to full x3 Nordic redundancy

As for the status of the implementation of the x3+ principle, Jørgen Qvist says:

“When a third Icelandic link becomes operational next year – a link between Iceland and Ireland – all Nordic NRENs will have at least independent connections to the global research and education network. Further, the network is designed for 100 % redundancy, meaning that the capacity for each connection is sufficient for carrying the entire traffic, should the alternatives break down.”

The challenges related to fiber optic cables differ somewhat from those of gas pipelines, Jørgen Qvist notes:

“Fiber optic cables are most often hidden underground. This is not so much a measure against sabotage but merely to minimize the risk of anchors from fishing boats or other vessels damaging them by accident. Therefore, the cables are more difficult to find for a potential attacker.”

“Still, this does not in any way imply that fiber optic cables are impossible to locate and sabotage. Given the importance of connectivity in the modern world, it does seem imperative that we continuously strive to build and maintain a high level of redundancy.”

See the EU report “Security threats to undersea communications cables and infrastructure – consequences for the EU” for an analysis of the general, European security perspective.

This article was originally published on the NORDUnet website:

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