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Achilles' Heel of a Digital Nation: Australia's Reliance on Subsea Cables

Cable
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Published Jun 9, 2024 5:01 PM by The Strategist

 

[By Andrew Horton]

Australia’s digital sovereignty is at risk of disaster, held hostage by a network of vulnerable subsea cables. Our complacent reliance on these underwater lifelines is a reckless gamble with our economic, social and national security. While the government and telecommunications industry tout ongoing efforts to enhance cable security, their measures are mere stopgaps, inadequate to address the magnitude of the looming crisis.

We need more resilient cable designs, more distributed landing points, alternative communication paths and the best possible cybersecurity measures.

Australia’s digital economy is a juggernaut. It’s expanding rapidly and is central to the nation’s prosperity. In 2021, it contributed a staggering $167 billion, or nearly 8 percent, to gross domestic product. Those figures are projected to surge in coming years, with the government’s Digital Economy Strategy 2030 aiming to position Australia among the top 10 digital economies and societies globally. That ambition is underpinned by the expectation that the digital economy could grow to $315 billion a year over the next decade and create a quarter of a million new jobs in the four years to 2025.

However, this digital powerhouse rests on a precarious foundation: the network of subsea cables that carry 99 percent of Australia’s international internet traffic. The cables enable everything from e-commerce and online banking to telecommunications and cloud computing. A disruption to them would not only cripple businesses and essential services but also jeopardize Australia’s economic growth and global competitiveness.

The threats to subsea cables aren’t theoretical; they’re real and growing. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and underwater landslides pose a constant risk of disruption. However, the most alarming threat comes from human actors. State and non-state actors alike could exploit the vulnerability of subsea cables to achieve strategic objectives.

In an era of escalating geopolitical tensions and hybrid warfare, the weaponization of subsea cables is increasingly likely. A hostile actor could sever Australia’s connections to the world, causing widespread panic, economic chaos and a severe blow to national morale. The threat of espionage also looms large, as foreign intelligence agencies could potentially tap into the cables to siphon off sensitive data and compromise Australia’s national security.

Recent incidents around the globe have underscored the vulnerability of subsea cables. In 2022, suspected sabotage of internet cables near Svalbard and the Shetland Islands raised alarms, as did the damage to the Baltic connector pipeline and two subsea cables by a Chinese-owned commercial ship. In February 2023, two submarine cables connecting Taiwan to the outlying island of Matsu were cut by Chinese civilian ships, probably intentionally. Those incidents, along with the alleged Houthi attack on Red Sea cables in 2023, serve as stark reminders that subsea infrastructure is increasingly becoming a target in the escalating tensions between nation-states.

The belief that Australia’s cable network has enough redundancy to withstand such threats is a dangerous misconception. While there are multiple cables connecting us to the world, they mostly converge at just a few landing points, creating single points of possible failure. Moreover, many of them follow similar routes, making them vulnerable to simultaneous disruption.

Australia’s primary international cable connection points are Sydney, Perth and the Sunshine Coast. While there are secondary landing points in other cities, such as Adelaide and Melbourne, they often link back to other Australian cities rather than go directly overseas. The concentration of landing points further amplifies the risk, as a single event could cripple multiple cables simultaneously.

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence and its integration into various sectors of the Australian economy further exacerbate the nation’s reliance on subsea cables. AI-powered technologies, such as machine learning, big-data analytics and autonomous systems, require vast amounts of data to be transmitted and processed, often across international borders. That increased data flow intensifies the demand for high-speed, reliable internet connectivity, making Australia even more dependent on its vulnerable subsea cable infrastructure.

Australia’s defense capabilities are also inextricably linked to its digital infrastructure. The Australian Defence Force relies on subsea cables for secure communication, intelligence sharing and the coordination of military operations. A disruption to this critical infrastructure would severely degrade the ADF’s situational awareness, command-and-control capabilities and ability to project force. In a conflict, the loss of subsea communication links could be catastrophic, potentially isolating Australia from our allies and hindering our ability to defend our borders.

Band-Aid improvements to cable security and resilience are no longer sufficient. Australia needs a paradigm shift in its approach to digital infrastructure. This requires a bold and comprehensive strategy that encompasses:

—resilient cable design: investing in new cable technologies that are more resistant to physical damage and tampering, such as armored cables and self-healing fibers;

—distributed landing points: establishing a truly decentralized network of landing points across the country, ensuring that no single region can be isolated by a localized attack or natural disaster and reducing the risk of multiple cables being severed simultaneously;

—alternative communication pathways: investing in and developing non-terrestrial communication alternatives such as satellite constellations, high-altitude platforms and ground stations to provide backup connectivity in the event of cable outages;

—cybersecurity fortification: implementing state-of-the-art cybersecurity measures to protect cable infrastructure from cyberattacks and espionage, including strengthening network monitoring, intrusion-detection systems and incident-response capabilities; and

—international collaboration: strengthening partnerships with regional allies and like-minded nations to share intelligence, coordinate responses to threats and develop joint strategies for cable protection through joint exercises, information sharing and collaborative research on cable security technologies.

Australia can’t afford to procrastinate on this critical issue. The threats to our subsea cables are escalating, and the consequences of inaction are dire. By taking decisive action now, Australia can bolster its digital resilience, safeguard its national security and ensure its continued prosperity in an increasingly interconnected and contested world.

The time for complacency is over. The Achilles’ heel of our digital nation must be protected.

Andrew Horton is the chief operating officer of ASPI. This article appears courtesy of ASPI's The Strategist, and it may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.