ISPI - Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale

06/11/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/11/2024 05:02

Why Connectivity and the Critical Infrastructure Protection Must Redefine Maritime Agenda

When security at sea is discussed, the focus is most often on the surface. Ensuring freedom of navigation while maintaining safety and environmental standards are seen as the key problems. Armed attacks on shipping, by pirates, and other non-state actors are the threats that are often prioritized by naval strategists. Indeed, most multi-national naval missions and international capacity-building efforts today are directed at this surface challenge.

Yet, in this brief essay I argue that the sea is a multi-dimensional space that goes beyond surface. In particular, the essay elucidates how the sea is composed of the crucial subsea and the seabed -where important infrastructures are installed -, closely linked to airspace, but also increasingly to the low orbit since satellites have become vital in navigation and remote sensing. The digital revolution in maritime transport, moreover, implies that the sea today is also closely interwoven with cyber space. As a result of such a complexity, the essay suggests that understanding the entanglements of these domains is essential in crafting maritime security strategy today.

Digital connectivity and the sea

A paradigmatic case is the global internet. When Alfred Thayer Mahan, the intellectual father of the concept of sea powerargued in 1895 that the sea is the "great means of communication between nations", he continues to be right. At the time of his essay, underwater telegraph cables were beginning to revolutionize international communications. However, he could not anticipate the scope of subsequent technological advancements, notably the invention of optic-fiber data cables. He could not foresee the extent to which his words would find new application with the addition of underwater sea cables as another primary mode of communication.

What we know as the internet is fully dependent on a global network of optic fiber cableslaid on the seabed. These underwater cable highways connect the data centers and internet exchange points of the world and ensure global communications at a speed unprecedented in human history. Financial transactions, emails, video chat all depend on it. In other words, many of the sea lines of communication of the 21st century are on the seabed, not the surface.

The vitality of this infrastructure brings with it new vulnerabilities. While much of continental Europe is connected by so many cables that the risks for a full communication failure are extremely low, this does not apply to more remote island countries or nations in the Global South. Moreover, several data cable chokepoints, including in the Red Sea, the Strait of Gibraltar or the British Channel are dangerous points of failure, where breakdowns could have more dramatic impact on global connectivity.

The inter-dependency of ocean infrastructure

The sinking of the merchant vessel Rubymar in March 2024 is a case in point. Hit by missiles from the Houthis operating from Yemen, the crew had to abandon the ship in the Red Sea. While drifting in the sea, the Rubymar's anchor cut four of the data cables that make up the data highway between Europe and Asia. While data was rerouted, the impact was felt across Asia.

The repair will take months to complete yet can only start if the security in the region improves. While this case demonstrates how digital security, the seabed and the surface are interlinked, data cables are only one seabed infrastructure among others.

With the acceleration of maritime activities, many regional seas, including the Baltic Sea, North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea have become heavily industrialized infrastructure zones. Energy platforms, pipelines, underwater electricity grids, but also fishing and navigation tools, have fundamentally changed the face of maritime space, and our dependency on it. The revolutionary expansion of green offshore energy, planned for the coming decade, will further increase the density of infrastructures and our dependency on it.

Recent acts of sabotage of infrastructures - most prominently the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September 2022 - indicate that this new age of maritime infrastructures has both expanded the notion of connectivity in the maritime domain and widened the potential for severe risks to its components.

New strategies and the critical maritime infrastructure agenda

What should be, therefore, the action to take to meet the transformative character of maritime security? Recent steps taken in Europe offer a positive starting point to explore the possible answer to this question.

The European Union in its 2023 maritime security strategy, and NATO which has developed a portfolio of responses have started to reformulate their priorities. Other countries, notably in the Global South, which are equally impacted by the new infrastructure risks, have been slower in adapting to the transformation.

Under the critical maritime infrastructure protection agenda the concerns of maritime security, energy security, climate security, and cyber security increasingly converge and more efforts are required to bring them under a common umbrella of strategies, operations and coordination. The strategic objective of collective security in the age of maritime infrastructures is to protect and care for the infrastructures we all depend on. The goal is to ensure resilience and repair.

This is not a task that military forces can deliver on their own. Indeed, trans-governmental efforts are essential for higher degrees of resilience and repair to be achieved. In this regard, close coordination, information sharing and a distribution of roles and legal responsibilities between navies, coast guards and industry is required. Regional sea neighbors must act together, yet given the global scale of many infrastructures, diplomatic initiatives for new global norms of protection are likely to be needed as well.