Warship and Undersea Cables

February 1, 2022

How a Channel 5 fly-on-the wall documentary illustrates the prescience of Rishi Sunak’s Policy Exchange report.

Warship: Life at Sea Season 3 – if it’s not on your radar (pardon the pun), I strongly recommend watching the latest season. The Channel 5 project is brilliantly produced and achieves so much by way of lifting the lid on secretive Royal Navy operations at home and abroad. Season 3 follows the deployment of HMS Northumberland around the UK. It is more exciting than the latest Bond (himself a Royal Navy officer) because Warship: Life at Sea is not fictional but real life. It offers a chance for the British public to learn about and engage with present threats faced by the UK, chief among them, subversive Russian submarine activity in and around UK waters.

Episodes 2 and 3 are particularly noteworthy. HMS Northumberland is tasked with finding one of Russia’s largest submarines in the Arctic Circle. The submarine in question poses a major threat to undersea cables that provide vital telecommunications to the British mainland. Northumberland’s Commanding Officer receives orders direct from 10 Downing Street. The conditions are cold and rough as a storm descends with 8-meters-high swells, making life onboard even more precarious and demanding. The vulnerability of the cables that criss-cross the seabed is a direct danger to the UK way of life. Phonelines and the internet are at risk, and it is feared that the Russian submarine’s mission is to damage or hack into these cables. Northumberland’s mission is to beat the Russian submarine and stop them inflicting any damage to this critical part of UK infrastructure.

If Russia were successful in damaging these undersea cables, British society would be disconnected from the rest of the world. Just as the Royal Navy protected vital shipping supplies against German U-boats in World War Two, protecting undersea cables is of paramount importance in the 21st Century – a century defined by globalisation, interconnectedness, and interdependence.

Now Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak articulated this threat just over five years ago. Sunak authored the Policy Exchange report Undersea Cables: Indispensable, Insecure, highlighting that 97% of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions are transmitted by cables lying deep beneath the ocean. Sunak made several recommendations: most notably he made the case for establishing Cable Protection Zones around the UK’s highest value communication corridors, a policy already in place in Australia and New Zealand; he also argued for better monitoring of existing cables and enlisting the help of private communications companies to install more ‘dark cables’ in undisclosed locations. Internationally, the UK must also lead efforts to develop a new treaty and press for NATO to take more account of the risks posed to its members by the vulnerability of undersea infrastructure.

Unfortunately protecting undersea cables did not feature in the latest Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Despite Sunak’s report and the operational encounter evidenced by Season 3 of Warship: Life at Sea, the absence of policy development, innovation and adoption on this issue is alarming. Beyond the conventional efforts of warships like HMS Northumberland, the UK remains exposed and undersea cables are left unprotected. The Royal Navy should be our last line of defence, not the first.

For any island nation, marine infrastructure is existential. The sea floor is largely unexplored with an everchanging and vast geography, especially when two or more tectonic plates meet. As recently reported in the Telegraph, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption devasted the island of Tonga. Tonga was completely cut off and disconnected from the rest of the world – essential lines of communications were severed, preventing aid organisations from assisting with casualties and supporting the islands’ Government. Families were unable to confirm if their loved ones had survived the disaster.

The Telegraph’s essay by Harry de Quetteville cited Sunak’s report, making the point that undersea connections are like a ‘geopolitical dartboard, complete with high and low value targets’. Whether it’s a volcanic eruption, or an adversary’s enemy submarine, more needs to be done to protect undersea cables. The efforts of HMS Northumberland are valiant, but we cannot rely solely on our Navy to fight this fight alone.

Warship: Life at Sea demonstrates first-hand the hard work and professionalism of HMS Northumberland’s crew, and the difficult conditions in which they operate. Even more pressingly, it helps demystify geopolitics, bringing to life the rhetoric and posturing of the world’s adversaries, and its consequences for our brilliant servicemen who deal with these threats on a daily basis.


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