The next war at sea will actually be entirely under the sea?

One interesting part of Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans is the idea that the best way to attack a country by sea might be to cut its undersea communications cables:

In 2006 and 2008, accidental destruction of cables effectively shut down Internet services to several large countries or parts thereof, including, among others, Egypt, India, China, and Pakistan. Fortunately, the cables are fairly substantial: typically, a couple of inches thick and well insulated with galvanic padding. But they are quite vulnerable, especially at cable heads when they emerge from the water. In Egypt just a couple of years ago, swimmers were caught while trying to cut through a major 12,500-mile cable. Internet speeds throughout Egypt plummeted by more than 60 percent. Overall, the cable system is fairly robust in facing routine challenges— accidents, anchors dragged over them, corrosion, low-level attacks. The challenge will come as nations and transnational groups (criminal cartels, terrorists) find ways to disrupt them on a massive scale. Even with the 285 cables on the bottom of the world today and the 22 “redundant” or “dark” cables in reserve, the vulnerabilities are clear.

We have 16 $2.7 billion Virginia-class submarines. How could they possibly protect even a single 12,500-mile cable, though? What stops an enemy from building an underwater robot to go down and cut through these vital cables? Instead of investing in another 32 of these submarines should we be building anti-robot robots to patrol up and down the cable paths?

17 thoughts on “The next war at sea will actually be entirely under the sea?

  1. > What stops an enemy from building an underwater robot to go down and cut through these vital cables?

    The fact that there’d be a real war. Navies use satellites and radio, not cables. The fleets would counter-attack and do quite a bit more than cut some cables.

  2. What’s the big deal? If Amazon/Google/FB did their design correctly, shouldn’t everything still work fine within the US? China can function perfectly fine within the great firewall, shouldn’t we?

  3. I won’t bother because (1) it is futile to patrol 12,500 mile of anything and (2) all you really need to do is reinforce or hide the first maybe 1~5 km. The sea floor will fall away to thousands of meters past the continental shelf (50~500km offshore), and nobody is getting down there. But even before that, the sea floor will quickly fall to a few hundred meters. Normal SCUBA divers only go to about 30~40m and a 100m dive considered highly technical and risky. If you start breathing helium and using re-breathers, you may be able to go down to 200m beyond that you are probably on some record attempt. Actually, working and doing heavy duty cutting at such depths is a fool’s errand.

    If I am a terrorist or op-force operative it’ll be far easier to target the end points of the cables where they come out of the sea into a little building on the coast somewhere. They are not exactly Fort Knox and whatever security dude may be there trying to stay awake for the night will quickly succumb to a few dudes with AK47s and bags of stuff that go boom!

  4. Dwight Looi, what about Dr. Evil threat? Robotic submarines and deep water bathyscaphes are out there.

  5. Space based communication might put those cables out of business. Light travels 50% faster through air than fiber optics & has less distance to cover in a line of sight radio beam than an internally reflected fiber optic beam. They’re trying to dedicate more than twice the existing satellite population to internet communication.

  6. Dwight I think you are forgetting the low tech attack: drag an anchor around on the sea floor. In fact it happens accidentally all the time.
    ttps:// suggests 1400′ for a large aircraft carrier, drilling rigs could be longer.

    Still seems like a mutually-harming move in most conflicts, except for the North Koreans with few communication links to sever in the first place.

  7. Lion, internet satellites are at geostationary orbits, or about 22,000 miles (36,000 km) away. For some reason idiotic video- conferencing software does not work at this latency. I can not believe I do not have time to write and market better software package for video-conferencing that accounts for latency.

  8. I thought thay the undersea cables had far more bandwidth than satellites. The undersea robot will not be the entire war, but will be one where the large nuclear powered attack sub will not be less helpful.

  9. For now, Fast attack subs will be used to sink enemy ships. The enemy will do the same thing, so say goodbye to aircraft carriers and other surface ships. (if we’re fighting a capable enemy force)

    The Ohio class boats (or whatever the Navy comes up as a replacement) will still be in play as movable missile platforms. It will be interesting to see how submersible drones slowly take over.

  10. Fast attack subs used to be very loud and easily detectable at thier high speed and could be easily neutralized by smaller surface ships and aircraft.
    There was DARPA grant for submersible aircraft. It sounded like fun.

  11. Cables will ALWAYS have a higher bandwidth than wireless communications. To put things into perspective today’s cable projects are in the 20~160 Terabits/s range. Today’s latest high bandwidth satellites like the Echostar 17 have microwave links in of about 136 Gigabits/s (0.136 Terabits/s). That is two whole magnitudes of a difference.

  12. “Fast attack subs used to be very loud and easily detectable at thier high speed and could be easily neutralized by smaller surface ships and aircraft.”

    Anonymous, that’s true, boats were loud in the past. I was in a VP squadron (P-3 Orions) in the Navy. We flew long missions daily over the ocean dropping sonobuoys so we could play cat and mouse with the Soviets and their silent boats.

  13. Silent Soviet fast attack submarines? The ones that were nicknamed “boomers” due to their ultra-sonic signatures?

  14. I read in wired that british achieved fiber signal speed of 94% of speed of light in vacuum. Even if it is 67% of speed of light as in most fiber cables it is still faster than geostationary satelites that require 44000 miles round-trip, huge latency.

    If someone comes up with LEO internet satelite system it will be faster fiber can pack more data, as noted by Dwight Looi.

  15. Michael: I don’t think that the author was thinking only about major powers when talking about Internet cables being attacked. It could be a small group that is currently fighting mostly on the ground with rifles, etc.

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