Maritime - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, Issue 46
Deep sea data
Defence Management Journal looks at the role of undersea cables within subsea defence, and how submarine communication networks are being developed and globally protected
With the increased use of information and communication technologies on a global scale, the importance of the cable network on which it is all shared is paramount. There have been considerable advances in fibre-optic technology in the last decade, yet despite the volume of communications, submarine cable routes carry over 95% of international voice and data traffic.
The success of this network is attributed to the high levels of reliability, capacity and security that it is able to provide. On all major routes, submarine cabling provides considerable cost-effectiveness that cannot be rivalled
by satellite communications, for example. Worldwide, governments now recognise the importance of protecting the cable network, as disruption – from cable damage – has a resounding impact across all aspects of communication, from finance to education and defence.
There are several international treaties in place to protect the submarine cable network. This includes the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) and the long-standing regulations of the International Convention for the Protection of Submarine Cables. They enforce obligations on a large number of the countries involved to protect this cabling, even outside of their territorial seas.
In addition, the treaties enable the naval forces to investigate vessels that are likely to cause damage to the physical network. This applies to both suspected intentional attack and negligent disruption. Action to prevent any damage to the cabling can then be taken appropriately and within the legal remit. Retrospective action, such as criminal prosecution or civil penalties, can be imposed where damage cannot be prevented. In essence, under the relevant aspects of UNCLOS, countries are obliged to follow up on any damage caused.
Cables near the shoreline need, inevitably, greater protection from shipping activities. Such networks are identified with a legal protection zone.
Ships undertaking the installation or repair of the submarine cable network also have protected status. This applies to cables being laid for all purposes, including both military and commercial. The laying of cables requires considerable planning – from environmental impact assessments to route planning and appropriate cable design – which itself utilises a further range of subsea technologies. The crucial importance of the continued development and protection of the subsea cable network is closely tied to countries' social and economic development.
In addition to the security role of naval ships specified in the legal conventions, the military – in varying degrees across different nations – plays a more direct role in the advancement of subsea communications. For example, developments have been made in combining subsea cabling capabilities with sonar technologies. Naval solutions to counteract underwater threats to its own submarine cable systems, used for sensors and power distribution, are vital.
More generally, in the pursuit of persistent intelligence and in the operation of submarine systems, the acquisition of deep sea communications technology is becoming increasingly important for the military. While air communication has traditionally received the bulk of investment, communication systems on-board Royal Navy vessels, for example, has seen attention in recent years. Not only does the MoD have three IPTs for the procurement, production and support of submarines, but other IPTs also have responsibility for the management of submarine communication systems. For instance, the Command Support and Intelligence Solutions Team manages 'the submarine Broadcast Processing System for the command and control of the UK submarine fleet'.
Keeping the communications systems up-to-date is an important role of support teams. For instance, in 2008, the Support In-Service Submarines Project Team saw the installation of upgrades for HMS Torbay. Part of this included the advanced Sonar 2076 described as 'a fully integrated system comprising bow, flank, fin and towed arrays that can track an object the size of a bus at a distance of more than 50 miles (80km)'. It is also said that 'new communications equipment will allow internet access even when the submarine is deep underwater'.
The recent Royal Navy Taurus 09 deployment also saw the testing of deep sea communications systems that could potentially enable far better communication between submarines and above water parties.
It would seem that the maintenance and development of both wired and wireless communications underwater is highly important.
Sophisticated data gathering systems can be used in conjunction with distributed networked sensors. This will enable further development of unmanned undersea vehicles, amongst other applications. Some technologists consider this to be a central way to move forward with subsea defence. Security of these systems is a dominating factor in their development and, as with the existing submarine communication networks, protection is vital.