01.06.23 Review

Dangerous 'Losharik': critically important underwater infrastructure could become a proxy war target

The explosion of the 'Nord Stream' pipeline has exposed another vulnerability — critical underwater infrastructure. The seabed is home to a critical network of communications — pipelines and cables that are usually located in neutral waters and lack protection. Damage to these might cause powerful social shocks, paralysing a significant part of economic life and information exchange. Until autumn 2022, Western countries paid little attention to its security as conducting sabotage at such depths is technically challenging. Now, experts believe that in the event of further escalation between Russia and the West, it could become Russia's number one target. This is especially true since units intended for such attacks have existed in Russia since the Cold War era, according to a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Today, there are 552 cable lines running along the seabed, totalling approximately 1.4 million kilometres. They facilitate the transmission of up to 97% of global Internet traffic and enable daily transactions worth over $10 trillion. Additionally, tens of thousands of kilometres of underwater pipelines transport gas, oil, and even drinking water. Minor damage to this infrastructure may have serious consequences. For example, in 2012, a vessel waiting for permission to enter the port of Mombasa accidentally severed an optical fibre cable, resulting in a 20% decrease in Internet speed across six African countries. Deliberately sabotaging a similar cable between Europe and America could cause colossal damage to international trade. Trading on all Western stock exchanges would cease, money transfers would become impossible, and financial flows would halt within seconds of an explosion. The damage from such sabotage could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars per day. Finding the location of the rupture would be difficult, as these cables are several kilometres below the surface, and repairing the damage could take weeks. Further, identifying the perpetrator and the sponsor of such an attack would be challenging as the majority of this infrastructure is located in neutral or international waters.

Prior to autumn 2022, Europe paid little attention to the protection of underwater infrastructure. However, after the explosion of the 'Nord Stream' pipeline, which exposed its vulnerability, the protection of underwater pipelines and cables has become the number one national security priority for European countries, according to an article by The Wall Street Journal. Surveying and protecting underwater pipelines, offshore drilling platforms, and fibre optic cables is now carried out around the clock.

These European concerns are not unfounded. Russia has a Main Directorate of Deep-Water Studies (GUGI), which specialises in safeguarding Russian underwater infrastructure and gathering intelligence on Western infrastructure. According to the latest issue of the Russia Military Reportpublished by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, GUGI is capable of conducting deep-water sabotage. It was established at the height of the Cold War in 1965 and became independent from the Navy's command 10 years later. However, despite this independence, GUGI has access to naval resources and, in particular, recruits personnel from the 29th Separate Submarine Division, the most qualified and expensive specialists in the Russian Navy.

The Russian organisation GUGI (Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research) possesses a fleet of specialised underwater vehicles for conducting operations and work on the ocean floor. Deep-sea submarines such as ''Paltus' (Halibut), 'Rentgen' (X-ray), 'Kashalot' (Sperm Whale), and 'Losharik' (named after a character from a popular children’s cartoon) boast titanium hulls which enable them to withstand immense pressure and operate at extreme depths. The unique design of the 'Losharik' features seven interconnected spherical chambers that evenly distribute the pressure exerted by the surrounding water, allowing the submersible to function at depths of up to 2,500 metres. All are equipped with manipulators, special chambers for deep-sea divers, and atomic engines, and these vessels serve a number of purposes.

GUGI's objectives include deploying deep-sea information collection sensors, monitoring foreign objects, and, if necessary, neutralising them, as well as servicing and storing nuclear torpedoes like the 'Poseidon.' In the event of a conflict escalation, GUGI is expected to be capable of inflicting significant damage on critical underwater infrastructure belonging to adversaries. Experts from RUSI believe that targeting underwater infrastructure could become a key strategy for Moscow in a direct conflict between Russia and NATO.

To minimise this threat to Western nations, the RUSI experts propose a series of measures. First, they suggest involving private companies that employ sensors and unmanned underwater vehicles to detect Russian submarines and track potential damage to their own underwater infrastructure. Second, increasing the activity of Western naval forces near Russia would force GUGI to allocate resources to monitor these forces. Third, countering Russian surface ships can be achieved by leveraging the tools of international law. The 1884 Cable Convention, to which Russia is a signatory, permits naval forces to conduct searches of vessels in international waters if there is evidence of interference with submarine cables. Moreover, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows countries to restrict the activities of civilian vessels within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Since the Baltic and North Seas are predominantly composed of EEZs belonging to Western countries, the EU nations have legitimate grounds to significantly limit the activities of Russian auxiliary ships while remaining within the bounds of international law. Fourth, Western countries should utilise artificial intelligence and traditional algorithmic tools to minimise the Russian threat. Computer programs based on big data can automatically identify suspicious vessels and alert military personnel, who can then verify this information based on international conventions. Finally, the RUSI analysts emphasise the importance of coordination and data sharing between EU countries to counter the Russian threat more effectively.