UK Plans to Build New Spy Ship to Watch Over Subsea Cables

subsea cables
A rare photo of the Russian spy submarine Losharik, designed and equipped to tamper with subsea cables (file image)

Published Mar 21, 2021 11:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Royal Navy plans to build a new spy ship to keep an eye on the subsea telecom cables that connect the UK's data networks with the rest of the world. 

British defense planners have warned for years of the vulnerability of subsea cable infrastructure to foreign espionage and sabotage. Just over 200 subsea cables carry about 97 percent of the world's telecommunications, along with trillions of dollars per year in financial transactions. 

"Undersea cables are the indispensable infrastructure of our time, essential to our modern life and digital economy, yet they are inadequately protected and highly vulnerable to attack at sea and on land, from both hostile states and terrorists," wrote British MP Rishi Sunak in ar 2017 study.

Russia has shown a particular interest in the subsea cable networks connecting the UK with its allies, and the heightened activity of Russian naval assets near key subsea telecom cables has not gone unnoticed. In 2017, UK chief of defense staff Air Chief Marshall Sir Stuart Peach said that monitoring and defending the cables would be a critical task for NATO, because Russia "continues to perfect both unconventional capabilities and information warfare."

"The lights could go out if we lose our critical national infrastructure across the board. Cables are one part of that critical national infrastructure and incredibly important," said UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace on Sunday, speaking to the BBC. "Russia has certainly taken a deep interest in those cables, not only to the United Kingdom but obviously to the continent of Europe."

Highlighting his department's new plan for a "multi role ocean surveillance ship," Wallace said that it is "really important that we invest in [surveillance] because otherwise we are deeply exposed."

The call for a new spy ship is a component of the UK's integrated review of security and defense, which was first unveiled last week. An in-depth plan with additional budgetary details is expected on Monday; initial reports suggest that it will propose cuts to the British Air Force and British Army in order to fund nuclear and naval capabilities.