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Military prioritising defence of undersea telecoms cables amid Russian threat

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Britain’s chief of defence staff, Sir Stuart Peach, has said the economy could be catastrophically hit if the backbone of the internet is disrupted – and he added that the UK needs new capabilities to deploy military hardware through the Channel Tunnel to the continent.

The UK’s military must become more creative and risk-taking to counter Russian cyber-interference and other types of unconventional attacks, Britain’s chief of defence staff has said.

In a wide-ranging speech last night at the Royal United Services Institute, Sir Stuart Peach also said undersea fibre-optic-carrying cables linking Europe and North America were vulnerable to being cut or disrupted.

Many of these economically crucial lines of communication, which lie deep under the sea and stretch over thousands of miles, with many making landfall in Cornwall, could be vulnerable, he suggested.

Publicly available submarine cable maps reveal the extent to which the UK is geographically pivotal as part of international subsea communications corridors. Numerous cross-channel cables serve continental Europe, while others span the so-called GIUK gap – a naval ‘choke point’ that was a hot spot during the Cold War.

When Russia annexed Crimea, one of its first moves was to sever the main cable connection to the outside world.

It is unclear whether Peach perceives the threat to be from the potential for Russian submarines to bomb the cables or from other, land-based interference, and how effectively he believes naval forces could realistically patrol thousands of miles of the ocean floor.

However, the threat is hardly new; Britain famously cut Germany’s undersea cables in 1914 in what was one of its first acts in the First World War.

“In response to the threat posed by the modernisation of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships, we – along with our Atlantic allies – have prioritised missions and tasks to protect the sea lines of communication,” Peach told his audience of military experts at last night’s event in London.

He added: “This sounds like a re-run of old missions. Actually as I’m about to say, it is very, very important that we understand how important that mission is for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

“Because Russia, in addition to new ships and submarines, continues to perfect both unconventional capabilities and information warfare.

“And there is a new risk to our way of life, which is the vulnerability of the cables that criss-cross the seabeds.

“Can you imagine a scneario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living if they were disrupted? 

“Therefore we must continue to develop our maritime forces with our allies, with whom we are working very closely, to match and understand Russian fleet modernisation.

Peach also raised the prospect of bringing back the Army’s now-defunct railway squadron amid the threat to Western military technology posed by “anti-area access denial” – a phrase used to describe multi-layered defences designed to lock out opponents’ air, land and sea access.

He said: Some people have talked about a military Schengen, I dont like that term, but we certainly need to know how to deploy our equipment through the (Channel) Tunnel and across Europe, or also have a real serious discussion with our European allies about pre-positioning equipment.

We dont need to go everywhere by air or ship and I would be delighted if it happens to re-welcome what we used to have in Germany 25 years ago – the railway squadron of the Royal Logistics Corps.

In addition, Peach said he wanted to see the military taking more “big bets” on what might work, stating: “If we dont change with the threats we face, we risk becoming overmatched... I think we need to take more risks and be more creative, with both reserves and contractors, to develop a true total force for cyber. This could be and should be exciting work.”

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