The subject of cable security and threats of intentional damage to submarine cables by hostile states is often discussed in the media, and ESCA has put together some frequently asked questions to address some of the issues raised.
It is against UK, EU and International law to wilfully or negligently damage a subsea cable (Submarine Telegraph Act 1885, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)).
Malicious damage is uncommon. The most common cause of cable damage is through inadvertent contact with fishing gear or ship’s anchors. Other less frequent causes include abrasion, equipment failure, and damage arising from natural events such as submarine landslides sometimes triggered by earthquakesin those parts of the world prone to such activity, so less likely in European and surrounding waters. The cause of damage to a cable is usually determined with a high degree of certainty.
No, historically communication cables have been targeted in times of war to interrupt vital communications (e.g, see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-42367551). The threat of interference is not new and the question has been raised many times over the last decade. Although intentional sabotage may be viewed as a “possible” threat, cables are at a far greater risk of being damaged by the very real threat of fishing and anchors, or other natural events and human activities.
This depends on the number of cables impacted versus the number of cables available. For instance coastal European nations and the UK in particular are very well served by multiple cables, whereas small island communities may rely on fewer or even a single cable where an outage can be much more disruptive.
Sabotage to cables is rare in any event, but it is highly unlikely to be possible to ’tap’ a submarine cable without immediate detection. Therefore, as a sabotage technique it would be impractical.
The industry remains aware of the potential for sabotage, however the focus of cable protection is on the real risks of inadvertent or accidental damage. The diversity and resilience of undersea networks seeks to ensure that in the event of sabotage, any disruption would be kept to a minimum.