Vulnerable Undersea Cables?

by AMBASSADOR HENRY F. COOPER December 20, 2017

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Great Britain's most senior military officer, warns of a new threat to undersea communications and internet cables. He said NATO is protecting the cables "in response to the threat posed by the modernization of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships." And that's an understatement!

Air Chief Marshal Peach emphasized that cutting or disrupting the undersea cables that criss-cross the seabed connecting counties and continents would "immediately and potentially catastrophically" hit the international economy.

Click here for the related report - Undersea Cables, Indispensable, Insecure - written by Conservative Member of Parliament Rishi Sunak and published by a leading United Kingdom think tank, The Policy Exchange. It discusses the vulnerability of the world's submarine network, reportedly comprised of 213 independent cable systems and 545,018 miles of undersea cables. Click here for the related December 15, 2017 BBC summary article by Jonathan Beale entitled, "Russia a ‘risk' to undersea cables, defence chief warns."

These reports emphasize Russia's threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, (NATO), but the threat actually is global and involves much more than Russia. Still, discussing the Russian threat is instructive in better understanding the broader implications of threats to the global cable network, illustrated below.

Air Chief Marshal Peach in his speech to the Royal United Services Institute observed that a lack of formal state ownership means there is a lack of strong protection in international law for these undersea cables that transmit an estimated 97% of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions - and that the vulnerability of undersea lines poses a "new risk to our way of life."

He said NATO prioritized the protection of the cables "in response to the threat posed by the modernization of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships."  He said it is "very, very important" to understand how crucial that mission is for NATO, "because Russia in addition to new ships and submarines continues to perfect both unconventional capabilities and information warfare." And he acknowledged that the NATO allies are ill-prepared to deal with the prospect of such an attack.

Sir Stuart rhetorically asked, "Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living?"

Certainly I can.

This conclusion was echoed by NATO's former Supreme Allied Commander Retired Admiral James Stavridis, who wrote the Forward to the Policy Exchange report. He elaborated that "We've allowed this vital infrastructure to grow increasingly vulnerable and this should worry us all . . . It is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world's economy."

Admiral Stavridis also warned of a potential threat from China and Iran, as well as Russia - and I would add North Korea and even terrorists that could effectively attack the undersea cable network, and from threats other than the conventional means of attacking submerged cable systems.

Notably, the above reports also referenced the origin of our undersea cable system that began its deployment over 160 years ago, following the first telegraph signals sent in the 1830s and the first transatlantic telegraph cable message that Queen Victoria sent in August 1858 to U.S. President James Buchanan. 

This was a year before the September 1, 1859 Carrington event, a major Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) that caused the largest recorded Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD) - or "natural" electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event, as I have often referred to it. 

Click here for my July 16, 2013 discussion of such natural EMP events, based on a then recent Washington Post article. I also discussed manmade EMP events created by nuclear explosions above the earth's atmosphere.  Click here for other High Frontier articles referring to such "solar storms."   

The Carrington event damaged the telegraph systems of that era, including the brand new undersea telegraph cable. Other than significant but non-essential losses, the then U.S. agrarian society was little perturbed. Whatever was the damage to the undersea cables of that time, subsequent less intense solar storms have caused significant damage. For example, click here for a May 6, 2008 NASA report describing several interesting more recent less intense solar storms, as illustrated by the below excerpt.

"'More than 35 years ago, I began drawing the attention of the space physics community to the 1859 flare and its impact on telecommunication,' says Louis J. Lanzerotti, retired Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff at Bell Laboratories and [then] current editor of the journal, Space Weather. He became aware of the effects of solar geomagnetic storms on terrestrial communications when a huge solar flare on August 4, 1972 knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. That event, in fact, caused AT&T redesign its power system for transatlantic cables. A similar flare on March 3, 1989 provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power from the Hydro Quebec generating station in Canada blacking out most of the province and plunging 6 million people into darkness for 9 hours; aurora-induced power surges even melted power transformers in New Jersey. In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes. That might not sound like much, but as Lanzerotti  noted, ‘I would not have wanted to be on a commercial airplane being guided in for a landing by GPS or on a ship being docked by GPS during that 10 minutes.'"

This quotation interested me for a couple of reasons: 

  • First, my initial assignment when joining Bell Labs in 1960 was to help redesign resonators for the AT&T undersea telecommunication cables, over a decade before the events described by Lanzerotti. 
  • Second, even though these later solar storms were less severe than expected by a Carrington class solar storm, the 1972 event required at least another redesign of the undersea cables.

Makes one wonder what might be required for today's undersea cables to survive a Carrington-class solar event. Especially since today's repeater designs probably involve solid state electronics rather than the inherently harder electromechanical designs I worked with in 1960. (Such a Carrington-class Coronal Mass Ejection barely missed the earth a few years ago - and certainly will one day occur.)

Furthermore, as I have discussed previously, the low-frequency component - the so-called E3 component - of a man-made nucelar EMP is much stronger than the natural EMP pulse.  So, the nuclear threat to the undersea cables is more severe than would be a Carrington-class event.  

This latter observation is important in considering the High-altitude EMP (HEMP) threat from North Korea, which has claimed achieving an EMP attack capability is its "strategic goal."  Given this situation, I joined others from The Foundation for Reslient Societies in considering five particular scenarios that North Korea might consider in testing such a capability.  Click here for our report which also has been provided to senior Trump national security officials. Below is depicted the scenario involving a high altitude test above Guam.

Note the two circles indicating the line-of-sight extent of the EMP pulse from bursts at 40 and 150 kilometers altitude.  You can move them around to estimate possible consequences, e.g., on the nearby undersea telecom cables. 

For example, imagine the consequences if the burst point were over the eastern seaboard of the United States. The eastern interconnection of the electric power grid which produces most of the U.S. electricity could be taken down indefinitely.

Our recommendations based on these considerations are that the Trump administration should seek to block such high altitude nuclear tests, specifically: 

  • A North Korean atmospheric test of a nuclear warhead in the Pacific would be a risky and provocative act. Thus, through diplomatic channels and otherwise, the North Korean regime should be warned that there are no "low-risk" or "low-impact" test options.
  • It would be technically challenging for North Korea to conduct a test of wide-area EMP effects without impacting satellites and the extensive network of undersea telecommunication cables in the Pacific. Because submarine fiber optic cable networks are ubiquitous and provide approximately 98% of all international voice, data, video, and internet traffic, the concurrent loss of a significant share of the world's roughly 400 submarine fiber optic cables, which enable at least $10 trillion dollars of global transactions each day, would be likely to cause a global recession or severe depression harmful to every nation on the planet. American trading partners in the Pacific, including China, should be alerted that some North Korean test scenarios could interrupt undersea telecommunications necessary for financial transactions, international trade, logistical control of global supply chains, and China's ability to reliably import the agricultural and energy commodities upon which its economy depends.
  • Because the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 halted atmospheric tests and scientific observation of EMP events, any test of EMP effects by North Korea will be a rare opportunity to gather more data on these important phenomena and their impact on modern infrastructure. United States and allied deployment of instrumentation of E1 and E3 EMP effects in the Pacific region could have high strategic value. Any attempts by North Korea or other adversaries to establish EMP instrumentation in the Pacific region should be closely monitored.
  • Anticipating that no financial recovery will be available to reconstitute critical infrastructures that may be damaged by high-altitude North Korean EMP testing, the United States and its allies (and possibly quasi-allies such as China), should redouble their efforts to discourage North Korean atmospheric nuclear testing before testing occurs.
  • Because some North Korean atmospheric nuclear test scenarios may effectuate an act of war, constitute a material breach of the ENMOD Convention, and/or cause severe harm to other nations, the United States and its allies (and possibly quasi-allies) should be prepared to execute "anticipatory self-defense" measures as may be essential and time-urgent.

Bottom Lines:

Frankly, while I stand behind these recommendations, I think we should reinforce such demands with an announced policy of shooting down such launches, should North Korea conduct them.  And we should assure that we can back up this policy with truly effective ballistic missile defenses.

And we also must be prepared to shoot down Iranian threat ballistic missiles. Remember that in the late 1990s Iran launched ballistic missiles from vessels in the Caspian Sea and went through operations that mocked detonating a nuclear weapon at high altitude - mimicking a high altitude EMP attack. Thanks to the terrible 2015 Iran Deal, Iran can purchase from its ally North Korea whatever it doesn't develop itself.  We have little time to waste in assuring we can meet this objective.

Such objectives would fit with key imperatives of the President's National Security Strategy announced on Monday, in particular:

  • Protecting our critical infrastructure and digital networks, and
  • Deploying a layered missile defense system to defend American against possible attacks.

Click here for links to the President's speech, which explicitly referred to the EMP threat to the electric power grid and our need for a layered defense - including in space, and his formal National Security Strategy report. Note on page 12:

"Critical infrastructure keeps our food fresh, our houses warm, our trade flowing, and our citizens productive and safe. The vulnerability of U.S. critical infrastructure to cyber, physical, and electromagnetic attacks means that adversaries could disrupt military command and control, banking and financial operations, the electrical grid, and means of communication."

Hear!  Hear! 

Our challenge is to help President Trump counter these threats to all we hold dear! As quickly as possible, we should harden our electric power grid against EMP effects and build truly cost effective ballistic missile defenses, including in space.

What can you do?

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Ambassador Henry F. Cooper is Chairman of High Frontier and a former Acquisition Executive for all U.S. ballistic missile defenses.  He also served in several other senior USG acquisition and policy positions, including as President Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union. He is currently focused on helping local, state and federal authorities protect against the natural and manmade EMP threat by building effective ballistic missile defenses and hardening the electric grid. Otherwise, loss of the electric grid would freeze America's "just in time" economy, leaving most Americans without means for survival.


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