Can China Compromise America’s Undersea Cables?

Can China Compromise America’s Undersea Cables?

Fiberoptic cables are essential to our economy and our national security. But this infrastructure is surprisingly defenseless.

In 1949, Soviet leader Josef Stalin theorized why Nazi Germany lost World War II. Adolf Hitler’s generals, he felt, had been too enamored with military theorists like Carl von Clausewitz and Helmuth von Moltke. However, “war,” the communist dictator observed, “is won in the factories.” Indeed, American industrial capacity was central to achieving victory.

The wars of today and tomorrow are no less dependent on industry and infrastructure. But for the United States and its allies, critical defense infrastructure is alarmingly vulnerable.

In many respects, cables underpin the modern economy. As Jacob Helberg observes in his new bookThe Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power, undersea and underground cables “make up the backbone of the Internet.” A former Google employee who worked at the nexus of technology and national security, Helberg is now a senior adviser at Stanford University’s Center on Geopolitics and Information.

Fiberoptic cables are essential to our economy and our national security. Indeed, the cables carry as much as 98 percent of the world’s data, which, as some analysts have noted, is “the oil of the 21th century.” They do everything from send emails and process banking transactions to undergird defense systems.

But this infrastructure is surprisingly defenseless.

The cables “can be as narrow as a garden hose or as thick as a person’s forearm,” Helberg observes. “For protection from underwater earthquakes and even shark bites, the glass fibers are wrapped in layers of plastic and sometimes steel wire.” They are then covered in metal mesh and thick rubber hosing and laid in trenches that are fashioned by cable-laying ships. Later they appear at landing stations where they are connected to a country’s internet system.

The cables are easy to damage—a fact that has prompted growing concern by some analysts and policymakers. They merely have an integrated surveillance system which can “send out alerts only if there is a threat nearby,” as Tobias Liebtrau of the Danish Institute for International Studies told France 24 news agency.

Stephen Kotkin, a historian of Russia and Eurasia and a fellow at the Hoover Institute, recently pointed out that it wouldn’t be difficult for a country like Russia, which has a capable submarine force, to “cut those cables.” After all, the cables are mapped and “the ocean is a big place.” Repairing the cables would take time and cause significant damage to the United States and its allies—damage that some U.S. enemies could withstand. As Kotkin noted, “the international financial system is worth a lot more to us … than it is to the Russians.” And once the cables were repaired, they could simply be recut, or other cables could be tampered with.

Indeed, there are currently more than 430 underwater cables transversing roughly 750,000 miles of ocean floor. Some, Helberg highlights, run as long as 24,000 miles, stopping at almost forty different landing points. From the vantage point of a capable and determined enemy, the sheer scale offers plenty of opportunities for an attack.

Equally important: such an attack could be done with some level of plausible deniability. As Christian Bueger, a maritime security expert at the University of Copenhagen, pointed out, it is “very easy to conceal the sabotage of an underwater cable.”

Boating or fishing ships could damage the cables simply by dropping an anchor on them in the shallow waters near coastlines. Submarines could “accidentally” hit them, or divers could also tamper with them.

Cutting lines of both communication and supply are concepts as old as war itself. Severing the cables would also offer distinct advantages in the rapidly advancing arena of information warfare. There is, in fact, a century-old precedent.

On August 5, 1914, a few hours after declaring war against the Imperial Germany, the British severed German cable communications. The previous day they had sent out a ship called Teconia, a cable layer, into the North Sea to cut Germany’s five underwater communications cables, including two which connected Berlin to New York. As the historian G.J. Meyers has noted, “From that day no European news could be cabled to the United States except from London and Paris, where censorship offices were put in place to stop the transmission of any reporting not acceptable” to Britain and her wartime allies. This helped the Triple Entente set the narrative in the then-neutral United States, whose emerging global influence, manufacturing, and financial power were sought after by both sides.

Indeed, “as early as August 6, The New York Herald was running a story—improbable on its face and never substantiated—about German soldiers firing at Belgian soldiers being carried on Rad [sic] Cross stretchers.” This, Meyers says in The World Remade: America in World War I, “set the pattern for what was to follow.”

Nor do opponents necessarily need to cut or tamper with this critical infrastructure. As Helberg points out: “China is well on its way to controlling many” of these cables.

The first undersea cables were laid in 1850 by a British firm whose successor entity, Global Marine, formed a joint venture with a Chinese company called Huawei Marine in 2008. At the time Huawei Marine was a subsidiary of Huawei, a telecommunications powerhouse whose ties to China’s ruling autocrats have been documented.

“Over the past decade,” Helberg writes, “Huawei Marine has taken on roughly ninety projects to construct or modernize subsea cables, some connecting to key American allies.” In 2020, “perhaps to deflect the suspicion it draws from Western nations, Huawei sold off its marine subsidiary.” Yet the company was simply transferred to China’s Hengtong Group, which also has ties to China’s military.

China’s rapidly accelerating capabilities in this area have led to Western intelligence officials blocking a Huawei cable between Sydney and the Solomon Islands and working, albeit unsuccessfully, to thwart a deal between Huawei and Papua New Guinea.

Nor are concerns about Chinese manipulation unwarranted. As Helberg highlights, “in recent years, researchers have noted instances of internet traffic being ‘rerouted’ through China, including a notable 2016 incident where communications between the United States and a Milan-based bank were transmitted to China.” The data traversing those cables, he warns, “could be compromised, shared with the government in Beijing, and then used to further Chinese state interests.” After all: There is no need to damage or destroy what you already own or can readily manipulate.

The lack of a U.S. industrial policy, deteriorating and outdated infrastructure, and a delayed recognition of American vulnerabilities have only exacerbated the problem. While considerable attention has rightfully been paid to hypersonic missiles, naval carriers, and drones, the next threat facing the United States might come from deep below. And to counter it, the United States will need to combine both strategy and industry—along with an abundance of political will.

Sean Durns is a Washington D.C.-based foreign affairs analyst. His views are his own.

Image: Reuters.