The age of cables: More than 95 percent of international data traffic takes place via gigantic undersea cables at depth. But Europe is still doing far too little to protect this vital infrastructure. The aggressive behavior of China and Russia is now forcing us to act.
Our data is in the cloud, according to the general assumption of the digital society and working world. That is not completely right. The truth is: Our data lies and moves in submarine cables on the seabed – sometimes up to 4000 meters deep. The digital age is really a cable age. Our way of life, our prosperity and our security are based on a global network of physical undersea cables.
The recent incident in the Shetland Islands at the end of October shows how extremely dependent our lives are on such cables. There, an undersea cable connecting the islands to mainland Britain was severed, cutting out phone and internet connections. At the same time, another underwater cable important for data traffic was cut off the southern French coast. The Nord Stream gas leaks in September, which according to American and European authorities were most likely an act of Russian sabotage, also show in a dramatic way how vulnerable underwater infrastructures are – and how much Europe depends on them.
In addition to the risk of sabotage and attack, the issue of submarine cable control has become a major and burning issue for Europe. The growing amount of data in the cables encourages third countries, which are not particularly well-disposed towards the West, to spy on or sabotage them. We are facing a paradigm shift in the question of how the digital sovereignty and strategic autonomy repeatedly propagated by Brussels can actually be implemented.
Oliver Rolofs is a security expert, co-founder of the Munich Cyber Security Conference (MCSC) and former head of communications at the Munich Security Conference. There he was responsible, among other things, for the cyber security and energy security program.
Data traffic across the Atlantic doubles every two years, while the average age of European submarine cable systems is now 18 years. In addition, laying and maintaining submarine cables is becoming more and more expensive, and more and more non-European players are pushing into this important strategic field. This leads to the formation of sometimes confusing cable consortia with different owners and specific interests – in which state actors, for example from China, are also involved.
Once upon a time, it was the Europeans who drove the networking of the world. The first sea cable was laid between Britain and France in 1850. The first fiber optic cable rang in 1988 as a joint project of the then partly state-owned AT telecommunications companies
Today there are only a few European providers who lay cables through the oceans themselves. One of them is the Finnish company Nokia, which repeatedly considers divesting this business. As a result, there is growing concern that Europe will permanently lose its competences and sovereignty, Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer warned last year.
Europe is increasingly at risk of getting caught between the fronts. Russia and China are pursuing their claim to power more and more aggressively by trying to gain control over data streams and communication channels. The Indian Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Asia Center in Leiden, Netherlands, estimate that between 2025 and 2030 China’s share of the world’s undersea cables will be 20 percent. Another challenge is to stand up to the growing monopoly of US technology giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft as well as Chinese competitors and to enforce their own sovereign rights. Private operators already control more than half of the submarine cable bandwidth.
Europe must take action here in order not to fall even further behind. The EU must expand its own capacities and lay more underwater cables itself – as well as replace outdated ones, in order to reduce its targets and become more independent again.
An improvement in public tenders and the exclusion of certain states that pose a security risk would be one way of strengthening the much-touted digital sovereignty and correcting homemade mistakes. As long as the best bidder principle applies in tenders and non-European, sometimes even state-subsidized providers outbid trustworthy European security solutions that are then used in the area of critical infrastructure, we will remain vulnerable – not just under water.
Especially in the area of critical infrastructures, we have to think more European again and should only rely on local solutions and operators in our own interest in protection. A military response is also needed: Unlike during the Cold War, NATO only has a few frigates designed for submarine hunting – let alone submarines that carry out maintenance work on strategically important submarine cables at greater depths could do. Meanwhile, China and Russia have upgraded and specialized their navies for such maritime operations.
NATO and individual partners like France and Great Britain have now started to close this open flank. A new NATO force command for the Atlantic, based in Norfolk, Virginia, is to make the start and better protect the transport and communication routes between North America and Europe. But this also requires the necessary fleet to guarantee this safety. The British Navy’s announcement that it is building a ship solely to protect submarine cables may be a start. But one ship alone will hardly be able to cover the more than 400 submarine cables in use worldwide unless other NATO partners like Germany join in, especially since the laying of at least 45 more submarine cables in the oceans is planned by 2025.
And not only submarine cables are of great strategic importance for Europe’s future as an economic power. Because we are producing more and more data: Analysts assume that the global data volume will increase to a whopping 175 zettabytes (that’s a 175 with 21 zeros!) by 2025. At the same time, the global demand for energy is growing as a result of advancing digitization and ever larger data centers. According to the US Energy Agency EIA, global energy consumption is increasing by an average of up to two percent each year.
Energy security is also the main driver of the energy transition at the moment, as countries look to renewable energy as a solution to break their dependency on Russian gas. More underwater infrastructure is therefore needed to transport electricity from renewable energies and, in the future, hydrogen via pipelines.
Protecting these crucial infrastructures is becoming increasingly urgent and requires a new security strategy for Europe not to be vulnerable underwater. The threat and high vulnerability of underwater infrastructures and their important geostrategic role are evident, and they are an expression of growing global rivalries between the Eastern and Western great powers. Europe should not get under the wheels here and should finally grow up in world politics. The war of the future will also be a war over data cables and power connections on the sea floor. The damage to submarine cables is certainly no coincidence in the current tense world situation.