Without submarine cables, no more Internet: is Europe ready?

Forget the constellations of satellites, the hundreds of SpaceX launches and the notions of "cloud" or wireless: all these tend to make us believe that our smartphones, computers and other machines are linked to each other through space. . However, this is not the case: satellites represent barely 1% of data exchanges.

The reason is simple: they cost a lot more than cables and are infinitely slower. Most - nearly 99% of total Internet traffic - is provided by undersea lines, the real “backbone” of global telecommunications.

There are more than 420 in the world, totaling 1,3 million kilometers, more than three times the distance from Earth to the Moon.

The record: 39 kilometers long for the cable SEA-ME-WE 3, which connects Southeast Asia to Western Europe via the Red Sea.

A vital stake

It is estimated that more 10 billion dollars in financial transactions daily, or four times the GDP annual from France, now pass through these “deep sea highways”. This is particularly the case with the main trading system in world finance, the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications).

The security of these transactions is a political, economic and social issue. This is a major issue that has long been ignored.

With 36 new cables, 2020 was marked by a record number of deployments.

However, the extreme geographical concentration of cables, especially at their landing point (Marseille, Britain, Cornwall…), Makes them particularly vulnerable.

A very sensitive infrastructure

These infrastructures are today as crucial as gas and oil pipelines. But are they as well protected?

Modern submarine cables use optical fiber to transmit data at the speed of light. However, if the cables are generally reinforced in the immediate vicinity of the shore, the average diameter of an underwater cable is not much greater than that of a garden hose:

Submarine cables, popular targets, France 24, June 10, 2021.

For several years, the great powers have engaged in a "Hybrid war", half-open, half-secret, for the control of these cables. While Europe increasingly focusing on cybersecurity threats, investing in the security and resilience of the physical infrastructures that underpin its communications with the whole world does not appear to be a priority today.

However, failing to act will only make these systems more vulnerable to espionage and disruptions that cut data flows and undermine the security of the continent.

On average, there are over a hundred submarine cable breaks, usually caused by fishing boats dragging the anchors.

Cut of the Kanawa submarine cable connecting Guyana to Martinique.


Intentional attacks are difficult to measure, but the movements of some ships began to gain attention as early as 2014: their route followed submarine telecommunications cables.

The first attacks of the modern era date back to 2017: cables Great Britain – USA, then France – United States, torn by trawlers from a great customary power of the use of irregular forces during international tensions. If these attacks remain unknown to the general public, they are nonetheless worrying, and demonstrate the capacity of outside powers to cut Europe off from the rest of the world. It will be recalled that in 2007, Vietnamese fishermen cut an underwater cable in order to recover the composite materials and to try to resell them. Vietnam thus lost nearly 90% of its connectivity with the rest of the world during a period of three weeks. An attack of this type is extremely easy to carry out, including by non-state actors.

Cutting submarine cables, an ancient and proven practice of warfare

Recent attacks on cables carrying voice and data traffic between North America and Europe give the impression that this is a new development. But this is not the case: France and the United Kingdom have already had this experience… In the hands of the Germans during the First World War. These cables were part of the worldwide cable telegraphy network.

Likewise, the United States itself has cut cables in wartime as a means of disrupting an enemy power's ability to command and control its distant forces.

The first attacks of this type took place in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. That year, in Manila Bay (in the Philippines), the USS Zafiro cut the cable connecting Manila to the Asian continent in order to isolate the Philippines from the rest of the world, as well as the cable running from Manila to the Philippine city of Capiz. Other spectacular cable attacks took place in the Caribbean, plunging Spain into the dark about the course of the conflict in Puerto Rico and Cuba, which largely contributed to the final victory of the United States.

The Cienfuegos cable cut during the Spanish-American War, May 11, 1898.

Sensitive to the exploits, at the time very publicized, of the "valorous seamen", the Congress will attribute to these sailors 51 of the 112 medals of honor awarded for the Spanish-American War.

The three main causes of risk

Today, three trends are accelerating the risks to the security and resiliency of these cables.

  • The first is the increasing volume of data circulating on cables, which incites third States to spy on or disrupt traffic.
  • The second is the increasing capital intensity of these facilities, which lead to the creation of international consortia involving up to dozens of owners. These owners are distinct from the entities that manufacture the cable components and those that lay the cables along the ocean floor. Timeshare allows costs to be reduced substantially, but at the same time it allows entry into these consortia of state actors who could use their influence to disrupt data flows, or even interrupt them in a conflict scenario.

At the other end of the spectrum, GAFAMs today have the financial and technical capacity to have their own cables built. So the Dunant cable, which links France to the United States, is it wholly owned by Google.

The Chinese giants have also embarked on a strategy of underwater conquest: this is the case with Peace cable, linking China to Marseille, owned by the company Hengtong, considered by the Chinese government as a model of "civil-military integration".

Another threat, espionage, requires specially equipped submarines, or submersibles operating from ships, capable of intercepting, or even modifying, data passing through fiber-optic cables without damaging it. To date, only China, Russia and the United States have such means.

Cyberwar under the seas, Géopolitis, March 5, 2017.

The most vulnerable point of submarine cables, however, is where they reach land: the landing stations. Thus, the municipality of Lege-Cap-Ferret (33), on the edge of the Porge where the interface room between the Franco-American cable will be built " Friendship ", has become in recent times a real nest of spies, according to informed sources.

But the most worrying trend is that more and more cable operators are using remote management systems for their cable networks. Cable owners favor them because they save them on personnel costs. However, these systems have poor security, which exposes cables to cybersecurity risks.

It is necessary to develop a force for securing the cables

Faced with physical threats to cables, Japan and the United States recently launched a series of initiatives aimed at securing these infrastructures.

The programs of the United States Maritime Administration promote the development and maintenance of an "adequate and sufficient merchant navy, capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in times of war or national emergency", through endowments. in equity, CAPEX grants, to private shipyards building in particular ships capable of repairing submarine cables.

Cable ships are generally designed around large tanks which store the optical fiber and then put it in place. For such an operation, these ships need power and agility: their generators produce up to 12 megawatts of electricity that power five propellers, allowing the vessel to move in multiple dimensions.

Today there are around forty cable operators in the world. France would have 9, of which only one for the maintenance of all cables from the North Atlantic to the Baltic Sea: the Pierre de fermat, based in Brest.

These vessels are able to set sail in less than 24 hours if damage is detected on the cable. On board, a crew of around sixty sailors has underwater drones et other instruments allow repair. Thus Pierre de Fermat was able to inspect and repair very quickly the transatlantic cable damaged by a third party power in 2017.

But what would happen in the event of multiple attacks? Neither France nor the United Kingdom currently have the means necessary to defend and repair these cables in the event of simultaneous attacks.

The US executive recently looked into the issue. In addition to the extension of the SSGP, small shipyard grant program, he encouraged the Maritime Administration to enlist various associations from civil society, such asInternational Propeller Club, as part of programs to minimize these threats. The idea is to create a sort of “submarine cable militia” capable of intervening quickly in the event of a crisis. The Propeller Club has more than 6 members and recently secured $ 000 billion in aid for the maritime industry in the fight against Covid-3,5.

France is the entry point for most of the cables connecting Europe to the rest of the world.

The cost for French public finances alone of a submarine cable security program would however be prohibitive, even if civil society would be largely involved in it, on the American model.

Likewise, the creation of an “Airbus for submarine cables” capable of competing with the GAFAMs, whose market share could go from 5% to 90% in 6 years, will obviously only become a reality. provided that Europe makes it a key theme.

In a context of increasing international tensions, the question of creating a European program modeled on American and Japanese programs, aimed at increasing operations to deter attacks on these infrastructures and at developing a capacity for construction and repair up to the stakes, deserves to be asked.

Serge Besanger, Professor at ESCE International Business School, INSEEC U Research Center, INSEEC U.

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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