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September 2012 Issue

The Protection of Undersea Cables: A Global Security Threat
By Michael Matis

Many people around the world believe that their e-mails and phone calls are being sent through satellites. They are mistaken: Satellites account for less than 5 percent of this message traffic. Undersea cables provide 95 percent of the world’s international voice and data traffic. As vital infrastructure, this global communication system runs the global economy.

About 150 years ago, the first commercial international submarine cable was laid between Dover, England, and Calais, France. In 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cable linked London with the New World, via Newfoundland, Canada. The message, 143 words transmitted in 10 hours, surpassed a one-way dispatch that would have taken about 12 days by inland telegraph and fast steamer.

In the past 25 years, the Internet has sparked a communications revolution that has fostered a stunning growth of undersea cables. This demand is expected to increase across the globe. The United States and Europe are not the only players in this communication revolution: China, India, Brazil and Africa are seeking more bandwidth for communication access.

Financial markets utilize undersea cables to transfer trillions of dollars daily. In 2004, 9 million messages and approximately $7.4 trillion a day was traded on cables transmitting data among 208 countries, according to “Cyberspace in Deep Water: Protecting Undersea Communications Cables,” a policy paper that was presented to the Department of Homeland Security in 2010. Undersea cables play a critical role in global commerce and communication, and are also instrumental in U.S. national security.

Disruption of submarine cables can cripple the world economy. In 2006, a powerful earthquake off the coast of Southern Taiwan cut nine cables. It took 11 repair ships and 49 days to fix them. This protracted disruption affected Internet links, financial markets, banking, airline bookings and general communications in China, Hong Kong, India, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and the United States. The International Cable Protection Committee estimated interruptions of undersea cable communications systems have a financial impact in excess of $1.5 million per hour.

Although hundreds of cables cross global seabeds, this network lacks sufficient redundancies to assume uninterrupted communications. In turn, there is little regulation of the allocation of the vast amount of bandwidth needed to access this network that is mostly owned and operated by the commercial sector. The U.S. government does not own and operate its own undersea cable system but instead relies on the commercial market for access to the network.

Cable repair vessels are designed specifically to lay and repair cables, which typically have the diameter of a garden hose. As expensive and challenging marine operations that require highly trained crews and engineers, cable repairs are not directed by national governments, who rely on contracts to carry out repairs.

If these cables were inadvertently cut or damaged, the global Internet would not function. They are vulnerable to man-made and natural disruptions. The global community needs an overarching organization to coordinate information sharing among the various entities tasked to minimize cable disruptions. World leaders must formulate an agreed on international, tiered scheme to protect undersea cable routes based on a viable grid restoration plan.

A new undersea cable construction regulatory regime could be modeled on the Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS), which was developed by the U.S. Navy Command Sixth Fleet and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center. This unclassified, multinational, freely shared AIS network tracks the global traffic of merchant ships.

By sharing data on vessel locations near undersea cables, the 69 MSSIS participant countries have access to a picture of the maritime domain that far exceeds the data they can gather alone. MSSIS is a data aggregator that gathers real-time streams of data and combines them into a single stream. In addition to operating and maintaining the MSSIS network, the Volpe Center provides the client software Transview (TV32) free to users.

What sets the MSSIS apart from existing AIS networks is that it provides users with enhanced maritime domain awareness capabilities. MSSIS is a diplomatic tool that helps foster cooperation among nations in the larger goal of increasing the safety and security of the world’s oceans.

With a system similar to MSSIS, undersea cable consortiums would be able to share data freely on cable locations through an open exchange. Such a system would enhance international cooperation and strengthen cable security. A system based on the MSSIS model could prevent and mitigate cable damage. It could coordinate responses among cable repair ships, commercial and government entities when cables are damaged.

The challenge in implementing such a system for the cable industry is that MSSIS is only available to government agencies, and having government control of cables is not the answer. The industry could serve as the enabler for participants to achieve maritime security through exchanges of information and best practices between national governments and cable owners, as some members may have few resources to provide their own security. The resulting benefit is that participants from emerging economies have a greater stake in securing their own undersea cables, leading to more favorable conditions for cable security at a fraction of the cost of individual command and control systems.



Cmdr. Michael Matis is a naval reservist deployed to the Horn of Africa after graduating from the U.S. Army War College in June 2012. He holds a bachelor’s in marine engineering from Massachusetts Maritime Academy and a master’s in organizational dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania. In his civilian career, he was an assistant professor in the war gaming department at the U.S. Naval War College.


2013:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC
2012:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.