back to article Russia could chop vital undersea web cables, warns Brit military chief

The head of the British Armed Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, has warned that Russia could cut off the UK by severing undersea communications cables. In a speech made to military think-tank the Royal United Services Institute last night, the air marshal said: "There's a new risk to our way of life, which is the …

  1. Outer mongolian custard monster from outer space (honest)

    This isnt a new threat, I remember having this discussion and the possibility of intercept/monitoring on the repeaters with collegues. There's alarming systems and other devices of course but to be fair, dragging a ships anchor through one "accidentally" would be rather little green man style of operations.

    However timing of this in reality makes It fit being a military budget inducing narrative to suddenly care and acknowledge it publically.

    It would cause economic chaos and have all sorts of not immediately obvious side effects, which even someone as insular and bubble inhabiting as Ledswinger would be heavily affected by.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "This isnt a new threat, "

      The "threat" is even older. Pre-Internet, the world relied on undersea voice and telex comms for much of the worlds international trade so the threat of cutting off the UKs phone cables was as "real" as this one. There would likely be more of an effect now as we depend on data connections far more than we ever relied on voice and telex, but the threat is exactly the same.

  2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    It think this is called "really reaching"

    Sadly, being a complete clown doesn't have consequences.

    "I'm getting my way of life through the the undersea web cables!"

    1. eldakka Silver badge

      Re: It think this is called "really reaching"

      It think this is called "really reaching"
      As in a reach-around? Sounds about right.

      Coat icon because that's what you were when going after reach-arounds isn't it?

  3. Jason Bloomberg

    Protecting underwater cables is easy

    ... compared to protecting European GNSS satellites which America's military has said it would be prepared to put out of action if they believed that were necessary.

    The one with "America: The Good Guys!" reprint in the pocket.

  4. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

    Cut off the UK?!?!

    Good lord, but he's right. The US is our major trade partner! Our nearest land mass! Our special relationship!

    Oh, what a thing it is to be an island with no nearby continent to communicate or trade with, forced to send our exports across 3000 miles of unforgiving ocean and forever at the mercy of the Russians snipping the phone line.

    If only there was somewhere else to turn, perhaps a continent of half a billion like minded souls some 20 miles away. We can but dream of such a world.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Cut off the UK?!?!

      Psssst! Don't tell anyone, but all our communications links with that there Yrup are also via under-sea cables...

      1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: Cut off the UK?!?!

        Psssst! Don't tell anyone, but all our communications links with that there Yrup are also via under-sea cables....

        Nope, they are not.

        If my memory from my telco days are right, most of the capacity from the UK to the continent is dual route. One route is ALWAYS under the sea - North Sea or Channel. The other route is USUALLY the Channel Tunnel (sometimes an alternative sea route). So on that side usually only one is under sea.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Cut off the UK?!?!

          Kinda. Look at the Telegeography maps for a rough idea. Some fibre is routed via the Chunnel, but there are.. wayleave issues and other complications with doing that, mostly commercial. But there are fairly widely diverse routes across the pond, and from the UK into Europe.

          Challenge from a security standpoint though is I think too many people now know where cables are to too high an accuracy. Anyone who's worked on this stuff knows customers will demand high resolution routing plans in easily exportable KML form. Wet sections still have a little protection, ie cable protection zones on navigation charts are more general.. But still sometimes ignored, ie accidental cable cuts from anchor drags. That's something where in Euroland, it's often relatively straightforward to identify ships in the area so cable operators know who to bill.

          Same's true for some nefariousness. So if someone cuts a cable, that's usually quickly detected, then a cable maintenance ship will yoink the cable up, or look at it with an ROV. Unauthorised taps for a Tbps system should be detectable to the eyeballs on a cable ship.

          Rest is kinda prelude to brown stuff heading for the whirly thing, ie all cables get cut, and satellites start going dark is likely to mean something more serious is about to happen than losing access to kitteh pics and hentai.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Cut off the UK?!?!

          One route is ALWAYS under the sea - North Sea or Channel. The other route is USUALLY the Channel Tunnel (sometimes an alternative sea route).

          If the Russians want to snip the comms lines, they will, Just because some aren't underwater will be no bother, just as there have at times been a range of suspicious "accidents" and explosions on a range of strategic gas pipelines in central and eastern europe.

          Even on land and in "home territory", civil infrastructure is VERY difficult to protect from a modestly intelligent adversary. This also applies to electricity, gas, water, even sewers. Our strategic adversaries (as opposed to bearded god-botherers) know this full well. I could nominate the Pareto attack points for UK infrastructure with a few minutes work - our potential adversaries will already have a list, and maybe even sleepers in place to do the work..

          1. Charles 9 Silver badge

            Re: Cut off the UK?!?!

            The point, though, is that if you're at THAT point, you can pretty much assume WW3 is imminent (and likely the end of the world as we know it, as WW3 implies MAD). In which case, you'll have other concerns.

    2. Captain Badmouth

      Re: Cut off the UK?!?!

      They've cut the cable?

      Better get on the RT then.

    3. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      Re: Cut off the UK?!?!

      @Androgynous Cupboard

      The US is our major trade partner! Our nearest land mass! Our special relationship!

      Not with David Cameron and George Osborne batting for China.

      Who knows, he may even do a deal where the Chinese refit the new carriers with catapults and kit them out with Chinese built fighter aircraft, provide extra crew and help with the running costs to keep both vessels at sea at the same time. On condition we help them out with any spats in the South China Sea that may threaten the Belt and Road Initiative.

      I'd better make myself scarce pronto - there are a couple of men in white coats coming this way with what looks like to be a straight jacket

    4. not.known@this.address Silver badge

      Re: Cut off the UK?!?!

      Androgynous Cupboard wrote "If only there was somewhere else to turn, perhaps a continent of half a billion like minded souls some 20 miles away. We can but dream of such a world."

      I assume you don't know anyone who ever worked for a haulage company or on a fishing boat, used a ferry or the Channel Tunnel or flown on an airline affected by the "like minded souls some 20 miles away" whenever the farmers, air traffic controllers, truckers or other group decide to cause trouble....

  5. ukgnome

    Flying Submarines? I don't think so!

    I thought it was all in the clouds these days.

  6. f4ff5e1881

    Most Important Comment

    I bet the Russians start cutting the cable just as I’m typing this mess hage ….......... ong I blobddggggggg eeekkkkk ….....…. … rrrr rrrrr rrrr rrrrr …............ erg39f883 429egjejrg390j …...... ..... schnell! schnell! kartoffelkopf! ….. htijeerg … ......... .. 293i2ergei09iereg … ...... .. . until the name Maudling is almost totally obscured.

    1. Cameron Colley

      Re: Most Important Comment

      I'm sorry you appear to have a terrible lion up your end, there's an advantage to an enema at once!

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why don't we just run them over the sea? That way submarines and boats can't cut them.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Why not just have each plane passenger carry a handful of USB thumbdrives with them on every flight, and tell them to drop them off on their way to whereever they've going? I'm sure the airlines could get this organised, as there's bound to be someone going near most cities, and if not they can get someone else to complete the journey.

      Might slow the internet down a touch, but modern life is too fast anyway. And it would give us more time for tea breaks.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Better yet why don't we drill down to the centre of the earth and have a massive cable crossover & data centre there?

        1. Steve Hersey

          Because that would interfere with the Gravitube.

      2. VK2YJS

        Moving stuff via USB is faster than using Turnbull's "fraudband" VDSL / fibre to the node "NBN"...

    2. f4ff5e1881

      "Why don't we just run them over the sea? That way submarines and boats can't cut them."

      Alas some ships, like tankers and cruise ships, are surprisingly tall…

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Obviously they would be really high up but not so high as to interfere with planes.

    3. VK2YJS

      As in, via multiple microwave links over the channel? Apart form the problem of intermittent cancellation of the signal due to reflection from the water, which redundancy may help, it should give some capacity.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Apart form the problem of intermittent cancellation of the signal due to reflection from the water, which redundancy may help, it should give some capacity."

        Thick fog in Channel. Continent cut off.

  8. batfink Silver badge

    Er, so what's Sir Stuart's proposed solution then?

    So, what does Sir Stuart suggest we actually do about this Threat To Our Way Of Life then? Buy enough boats to shuttle up and down the wires at 10min intervals, looking For Bad Guys at their nefarious activities? Blockade them thar Russkies in their ports perhaps?

    Or is he just asking for more funding for the sharks/lasers project?

  9. asdfasdfasdf2015

    it's one cable

    the internet is resilient. route around the break.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: it's one cable

      Doh! Don't tell them that they might think to cut more than one, perhaps even at the same time, mind you judging by recent events its more likely they'll cut a few and route all the traffic via Russia to do with what they wish.

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: it's one cable

      the internet is design resilient. however companies route around the expense.

  10. naive Silver badge

    Is Russia just a threat because Hillary lost the election ?

    Except from that, why would Russia be a threat, probably Merkel is a bigger threat for Europe than president Putin. Unless ms. Merkel, president Putin didn't allow an army of million aliens to invade West Europe.

    1. Holtsmark

      Re: Is Russia just a threat because Hillary lost the election ?

      Dear Naive,

      please do not turn the Register into the commenzs section for a BBB article about Brexit.

      The amount of anti-German xenophobia displayed in those comments is horrifying.

      Mrs. Merkel took steps that she believed to be the right ones at a time when the EU borders were buckling, very much as a consequence of failed anglo-american policies in the middle east (iraq war etc...).

      This did not leadt to optimal results, but the alternative might have been much worse.

      (I am personally critical to unrestricted immigration, but a number of the stories I hear from these people are truly heartbreaking).

      Germany now faces the big and difficult task trying to integrate these people. In this, it should not be forgotten that Germany has had to integrate huge numbers before; Peopleb(many of them Jewish) fleeing from the Soviet Union between the wars (which led to sentiments reflected in the UK today), 12 Million Germans fleeing from the Russians in 1945 to 1950 and 1.4 million "German"-Russians after the fall of the wall. Germany also had to refurbish and re-integrate all of East Germany in the same period. Hearing the british complain about having too many Polish plumbers and Romanian field workers is ridiculous.

      While WW2 is very much celebrated in the US and the UK, Germany has all thoughts about empire building very much bombed out of them. To the Germans, the British were seen as a sane partner nation, that could serve as a counterweight to the French. How this is currently misrepresented in the UK is quite sad.

      And myself; I am neither German nor British, and I live the productive life of an immigrant.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Resiliency options

    Despite the "everything will route around the break" talk, reality really isn't that simple.

    Firstly, cables that are rented as dark fiber, or which have SDH and static MPLS provisioned point to point links routed over them cannot reprovision quickly. Just imagine say Hibernia having both it's Trans-Atlantic fibers cut and begging Century Link for space on it's fibers. Even the provisioning processes will be utterly different, and getting a "clean" fiber pair assigned would be just about impossible: they would all be in use on various wavelengths. The muxes or routers would probably require new dark fiber between them: fine if they are in the same carrier hotel, slow if not.. The interruptions to service would be measured in weeks or months, and in all you might be better off just waiting for the repair ships to finish.

    Secondly, using IP to route around sounds easy, but it's not much better. The IP backbone of the affected carriers will be in all likelihood severely affected by the destruction of many of it's point to point links over which the IP runs. Carriers and end users do not generally have multiple transit relationships set up in advance: commit costs money, even if you don't use it, and even assuming there are available ports, capacity and all equipment in common carrier hotels (which have hopefully not also been attacked in some way!), you would need lots of planning and new dark fiber to stop these new links instantly saturating. So even assuming massive goodwill, we are talking about days or weeks to recover.

    I've had personal experience of a trans Irish sea issue where one cable provider suffered a cut which caused fairly severe issues: so severe, one of our customers called to *offer* capacity on their network. Despite all sides being sincere, the practicalities (local loop install, IP peering problems) were such the offer was never taken up.

    If you want to make us resilient, I think there are three things you could do. Firstly, mandate that key applications (banking, telephone/999, government functions) must be hosted within the UK. Incentivise this by making it a requirement for getting government business. Secondly, mandate that carriers must have contingency plans for rapidly increasing their transit and peering options: lit interfaces on routers between them, even if BGP is shutdown, "shadow" public peering configs held in readiness to be turned on on public exchanges, tested on occasion. Thirdly, mandate all carriers have plans to hurl neutrality into the bin in extremis, and aggressively throttle customer traffic by type on their edge, and also be willing to depeer AS's that demand the most traffic if the network is threatened by their demands.

    1. Threlkeld

      Re: Resiliency options

      That all sounds very sensible. Once he is made aware of the facts, I'm sure that Sir Stuart Peach will be glad to divert some funding from the MOD to beef-up the resilience of the system.

      I mean, defence funding is always deployed in the most rational a cost-effective manner, after an objective analysis of the most important and most likely threats. Anyone can see that.

    2. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: Resiliency options

      Protection agreements are a thing, at least at system owner/operator level. So there may be an agreement between nominal competitors to reserve some capacity on systems in a mutual protection deal.. Which can get complicated if systems have widely different capacity, and tax/revenue recognition. And then even more complicated when customers call their account directors and scream they're down. Correct answer is to check if customer ordered a protected service, or not. If not, say it'll be 3-6wks and would they like to buy protection?

      But luckily with RealNetworks, a wavelength is usually a wavelength and generally compatible across systems. Like you say, IP is a whole other bag'o'nails. And smart network architects understand it's generally a whole lot simpler to swing a wavelength than 'route around the problem'.

  12. Mage Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Not news.

    Was massively done* at outbreak of WWI (1914, not 1917). UK was a major telegraph hub. Prior to that Churchill had set up spying on all international traffic. The precursor to Bletchley & GCHQ.

    [*The UK cut any cables that would be of use to Germans and their allies.]

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not news.

      Good reading :-)

  13. Attila of welshpool

    Not a new threat

    This is not a new threat by any means. Royal Navy X craft midget submarines were deployed at the end of WW2 to cut Japanese sub sea cables to disrupt their comms. So why the fuss now?

    1. Dave Bell

      Re: Not a new threat

      My guess is that there's a bit of a question mark about how we can defend ourselves against submarines. We haven't had any maritime patrol aircraft since 2010 (and that was a Labour government decision). We depend on our NATO aliies, most of them in the EU. Dodgy project management is a part of the issue.

      Never mind the cables, what happens if ships start getting sunk in a war? But I might just be remembering the stories of my parents, of times when we were struggling to feed ourselves and there was food rationing. But it's the internet that is sexy today.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It not the Russians we need to worry about, North Korea could one day shoot down satellites because you can see them through telescopes with the naked eye.

    1. The First Dave

      " through telescopes with the naked eye."


      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        You don't need special glasses to use a telescope but yes the contradiction was intended.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          Telescopes not needed to see many satellites.

  15. a_mu

    its not new, cables have been of great use

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pot calling the Kettle Black

    Isn't that exactley what WE (the Brits) did at the outbreak of WWI, to the German's undersea comms cables?

  17. Steve Aubrey


    "Naval gazers" - love it!

    1. not.known@this.address Silver badge

      Re: Sly

      From the Office of Naval Contemplation :-)

  18. FordPrefect

    I'd love to know the plan for realistically protecting literally thousands of miles of cables from stealthy submarine attack!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Lube them up. The submarines will just slip right over them. Never discount Lube in any situation. Just to be clear I am in no way affiliated with the international lube promotional board.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Lube tends to be oily, and oil tends to be flammable.

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