October 21, 2022 - 5:30pm

Back in 2017, the little-known backbench MP Rishi Sunak wrote an interesting paper for Policy Exchange, warning of the vulnerability to Russian sabotage of Britain’s vital undersea infrastructure, from communications data cable to oil and gas pipelines. As he cautioned: 

A successful large-scale attack upon UK undersea cable infrastructure, whether at sea or on land, is an existential threat to our security. The next Strategic Defence Review should specifically consider the risks to Britain’s security from attacks on its undersea cable infrastructure and ensure steps are being taken to mitigate this risk and that our maritime assets are sufficient to the task.
- Rishi Sunak

In the event, the strategy paper which accompanied the 2021 Integrated Review promised “a Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance capability, improving our ability to protect our underwater critical national infrastructure and improving our ability to detect threats in the North Atlantic.” What this actually means, it turns out, is the doubling of Britain’s newly-planned Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship fleet from one to two vessels, announced by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace earlier this month.

It’s a start, but whether it’s quite enough is another question. For one thing, our western neighbour Ireland has been curiously lax in defending its lucrative position as an Atlantic data hub for American internet giants, with Sinn Fein defence spokesman John Brady warning: “Some three quarters of all cables in the northern hemisphere pass through Irish waters and 97% of global communications including business operations, financial transactions and internet traffic are carried through these cables”. Yet Ireland is “the Achilles’ heel in the security of these critical data cables” as the run-down, understaffed Irish Navy is simply incapable of ensuring their safety. Like its airspace, Ireland’s undersea territory may also soon have to come under British effective guardianship, even if it’s politically awkward for Irish leaders to admit to it.

Thursday’s communications outage in the Shetlands Islands, apparently the accidental handiwork of a British fishing trawler, has a wider significance. Such events highlight an important point at a time when awareness of the vulnerability of our infrastructure is at an all-time high. It shows quite how much of our day-to-day existence depends on the security of a very few, fragile physical objects in places where we have limited oversight. The increasing penetration of British and Irish waters by Russian spy ships, carrying submarine vehicles explicitly designed to monitor and sever undersea cables, is rightly a cause for alarm.

While the Economist is keen to reassure us that there’s sufficient slack capacity to make up for the loss of a cable here and there, it’s worth thinking this through carefully. Last year’s Commons Defence Committee report on the future of the Royal Navy highlighted extreme expert scepticism of the value of Britain’s headline-grabbing commitment to an “Indo-Pacific tilt”. One witness warned it was “a distraction and costly prestige exercise that will have no significant impact, apart from a fleeting appreciation” from America.

Should Sunak win the premiership next week, there’s an easy, cost-cutting win for him here. In his paper five years ago, our possible next PM urged the establishment about special navy-monitored “Cable Protection Zones” around undersea infrastructure. Further, he suggested that the cables’ owners like Google and Facebook should be required to pay for sonar sensors to alert us to nefarious activity on the seafloor. 

Instead of wasting money on occasionally sailing our large and vulnerable aircraft carriers in China’s general direction, Sunak should insist that the Royal Navy refocus itself on the security of the North Atlantic approaches to the UK and Ireland, and the critical infrastructure beneath the waves.

Five years ago, the Yorkshire MP was ahead of the curve in warning about the threats to Britain’s undersea lifelines: if he becomes PM he can cut costs and keep us safe at the same time. All he needs to do is ditch one of Boris’s biggest and riskiest white elephants.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.