NATO launched a new submarine pipeline and cable protection center on Friday after an apparent attack on the Nord Stream pipeline remained unresolved, and amid concerns Russia is mapping vital Western energy and internet infrastructure in waters around Europe.
“The threat is developing,” said Lieutenant General Hans Werner Wellmann, who heads a task force focused on tackling the challenge, after NATO defense ministers gave the green light to the new center in Northwood, northwest of London.
“Russian vessels are actively mapping our critical undersea infrastructure. There is increased concern that Russia may target undersea cables and other critical infrastructure to disrupt the lives of Westerners,” he told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
NATO was forced to act after an apparent attack on two gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September.
The alleged attack on the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, built to transport Russian gas to Germany, remains under investigation. There have been no official accusations, but NATO has since stepped up its presence in the Baltic and North Seas, deploying dozens of ships backed by underwater equipment such as maritime patrol aircraft and drones.
With some 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) of oil and gas pipelines criss-crossing the North Sea alone, systems, networks and grids cannot be monitored 24 hours a day. With around 100 cable cuts reported each year around the world, it is often difficult to tell if they were intentional.
“It is impossible for NATO to deploy personnel along these thousands of kilometers of undersea infrastructure,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after chairing the meeting.
“But we can do a better job of gathering … intelligence, sharing information, connecting the dots, because there’s a lot of information in the private sector as well” on ship movements and maritime surveillance, he added.
Instead of trying to sit on the sidelines, the new center and NATO allies are focusing on high-risk areas. Pipes in shallow waters that divers can easily reach are very fragile. Potential damage to data cables can be mitigated more easily by simply plugging in more cables.
Whatever the target, NATO believes it is important to capture the saboteurs as they prepare to strike.
“In support of the Centre, the allies have decided to create a network of critical undersea infrastructure that will bring together NATO, allied and private sector players. This will help improve information sharing on evolving risks and threats,” Wiermann explain.