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The Gulf Submarine Network amid Sabotage and Mine Warfare Threats

by Arnold Koka

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The key to global connectivity lies at the bottom of the sea. Over 500 submarine cables carry about  95% of the world’s Internet data, conveying some €10 trillion in financial transactions every day.[1] Such infrastructure enables the majority of global economic activities, diplomatic communications, and military operations.[2] Securing the network is crucial for global security.

 

NATO and the European Union (EU) have underlined the challenges sabotage operations pose to the network[3] and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are particularly vulnerable given the acute threats posed by state and non-state actors and the essential interconnection of Gulf and Red Sea submarine cables are soft targets with tremendous spillover effects globally.

 

The Gulf Network

Europe is served by 186 cables (active or in service by 2025). There are only 59 cables connected to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.[4] Of those, the GCC countries are connected to 33 cables, with Saudi Arabia being the most served country (21), followed by the UAE (19), Oman (17), Qatar (7), Bahrain (5), and Kuwait (5).[5] The networks of Bahrain and Kuwait are almost exclusively tied to other Gulf states, with the exceptions of the ‘Kuwait-Iran,’ ‘GBICS’, and ‘FALCON’ cables, which link them to Iran and India, among others.[6] At present, (2022), there are 8 cables delivering data to both the GCC and Europe, with 4 more to enter service by 2024. Bahrain and Kuwait will be connected to Europe in 2023, when the longest cable in the world, 2Africa, will be operational. The new route will connect the two countries with Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and the UK. Besides 2Africa, which circumvents the African continent, all the other routes reach the Mediterranean by crossing the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.[7]

On the other side of the Gulf, Iran’s subsea cable network is relatively limited, with only 6 cables landing on Islamic Republic’s coast. Remarkably, Tehran’s subsea network is almost entirely linked to the GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, with state-to-state cables with Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE. [8]

 

What are the threats?

The subsea network is subject to disruptions, most of which are caused by unintentional human activities and natural disasters.[9] However, NATO and EU officials are increasingly wary of sabotage operations, particularly by Russia. For instance, since 2015 the Kremlin’s ‘Yantar’ spy ship was tracked loitering near undersea cables off the coasts of Cyprus, Israel, Syria, Iran, and Ireland. The ship’s activities have, in some cases, coincided with temporary connectivity disruptions in the neighbouring countries, causing concern in security and defence policymakers.

Yet, a Russian-kind naval force with high-end capabilities is not indispensable for cable sabotage operations. Cheaper forms of attacks can be carried out with naval mines, maritime improvised explosive devices (MIEDs), low-profile submersible vessels, and even divers.[10] In the Gulf, high-end technical submarine requirements are further reduced by its shallow sea, which reaches a depth of a maximum of 100 meters.[11] Remarkably, in 2013 the Egyptian Coast Guard arrested three divers who were trying to cut a cable off the coast of Alexandria, a striking example of cheap threats to the network.[12]

Enter Iran:

Iran’s IRGC Navy (IRGCN) matches the low-cost attack requirements. While Tehran’s regular navy (IRIN) operates through large, aging high-end capabilities, the IRGCN has specialised in using fast, small platforms, optimised for minelaying as well as hit-and-run operations.[13] Should Tehran target the Gulf’s undersea cables, the IRGCN’s structure and capabilities could be adapted for such actions.

Cable disruptions might also result as a collateral effect of Iran’s mine warfare. Tehran has employed sea mines in the Gulf to disrupt cargo ships and oil tankers, a tactic later also used by the Yemeni Houthi militia in the Red Sea.[14] The Gulf’s shallow waters favour the use of moored and bottom mines, increasing the risk of unintentional damage to the seabed cable infrastructure during minelaying operations.

Nevertheless, Iran’s dependency on GCC-connected cables makes sabotage operations more difficult. The GCC countries could retaliate against possible sabotages simply by operating on their sides of the cables. Moreover, as cables are often laid in geographical proximity, simultaneous damages might result from mine-caused explosions. An attack on the network in narrow areas such as the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb would pose a higher risk for multiple cables. Accidental damage resulting from mine warfare is more likely. Tehran has already conducted minelaying operations as part of its asymmetric warfare doctrine. A possible open confrontation between Iran and any GCC state would include the use of a high number of mines by both sides, as well as increased subsea operations against warships, increasing the dangers of unintentional damage to the undersea cables.

Who Benefits?

Events of such kind would ultimately harm both the GCC and Iran. As Bahrain, Kuwait and Iran have low-redundant networks — meaning that they hold fewer alternative cables for their data —disruptions might cause significant impacts on their economic and military security. Disruptions of the submarine network in the Gulf would have a limited impact on Mediterranean and European connectivity. The regions’ networks maintain high degrees of redundancy. Nevertheless, the scenario of simultaneous disruption of more cables, particularly in the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb, extends the threat beyond the Gulf and Red Sea areas.

What Can the GCC Do to Prevent These Challenges?

Within this framework, international maritime security missions can counter maritime threats in the region—indirectly securing the subsea cable ecosystem. The US-led Coalition Task Force (CTF) Sentinel as well as the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) are especially relevant, as they deal with maritime threats in both the Gulf and the Red Sea.[15] Moreover, the development of a GCC dedicated strategy for the protection of the submarine network could assist regional coordination in the development of the network as well as in the definition of security priorities for both national and international maritime missions. NATO has already taken steps towards a more focused approach on the issue by tasking its Atlantic Command in Norfolk with exploring protection measures against threats to the submarine cable network.[16] The GCC should follow along with similar measures.

25 October 2022

References

[1] Maritime Awareness Project, ‘Factsheet: Submarine Cables’ https://map.nbr.org/2018/07/submarine-cables/

[2] European Parliament, ‘Security threats to undersea communications cables and infrastructure – consequences for the EU’, 1 June 2022, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document/EXPO_IDA(2022)702557

[3] EURACTIV, NATO seeks ways of protecting undersea cables from Russian attacks, 23 October 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/defence-and-security/news/nato-seeks-ways-of-protecting-undersea-cables-from-russian-attacks/

[4] Telegeography’s Submarine Cable Map, consulted on 27 September 2020.

[5] Ibidem

[6] Ibidem

[7] Ibidem

[8] Ibidem

[9] Telegeography, ‘Submarine Cable 101’, https://www2.telegeography.com/submarine-cable-faqs-frequently-asked-questions

[10] European Parliament, ‘Security threats to undersea communications cables and infrastructure – consequences for the EU’, 1 June 2022, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document/EXPO_IDA(2022)702557

[11] Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law, ‘Strait of Hormuz, Assessing the threat to oil flows through the Strait’, https://www.strausscenter.org/strait-of-hormuz-about-the-persian-arabian-gulf/

[12] The Guardian, ‘Undersea internet cables off Egypt disrupted as navy arrests three’, 28 March 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/mar/28/egypt-undersea-cable-arrests

[13] US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), ‘Iran Military Power 2019’, https://www.dia.mil/Portals/110/Images/News/Military_Powers_Publications/Iran_Military_Power_LR.pdf

[14] The National, ‘Limpet mines and mini subs: Iran's war of naval sabotage could spin out of control’, 11 April 2021, https://www.thenationalnews.com/gulf-news/limpet-mines-and-mini-subs-iran-s-war-of-naval-sabotage-could-spin-out-of-control-1.1200791

[15] CTF Website, https://www.imscsentinel.com/; EMASOH, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/54437/st06255-en22.pdf

[16] EURACTIV, NATO seeks ways of protecting undersea cables from Russian attacks, 23 October 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/defence-and-security/news/nato-seeks-ways-of-protecting-undersea-cables-from-russian-attacks/