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Communications of the ACM


From U-boats to 'U-bots'

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John Arquilla.

Credit: Naval Postgraduate School.

Of all the perils he faced during World War II, Winston Churchill said that German submarine wolfpacks were his greatest concern, because their attacks on merchant ship convoys threatened to choke Britain's economic lifelines. Today, it seems that there is another emerging undersea threat, one that has the potential to disrupt the global economy by severing fiber-optic lines of communication that run along the world's various seabeds.

There are nearly 400 undersea cables that stretch for almost three-quarters of a million miles, the densest concentrations of them being in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, the Mediterranean, and in Southeast Asia and around Japan.  They carry virtually all (97%) international communications, and their exact locations are reasonably well-known.  They are also increasingly vulnerable to being tapped or even cut by advanced submarine craft of a range of types – from manned mini-subs to remotely operated undersea drones, and even fully autonomous "U-bots."

The Russian Navy seems to have taken to heart the late historian John Keegan's statement, in his Price of Admiralty, that by the 1980s the submarine had become more important than the aircraft carrier as an instrument of sea power. Russia's undersea capabilities are exceptional, and include a range of vessel types that can approach even cables located at great depths, thanks to the operating capabilities of their U-bots. Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, the overall Russian naval commander, is himself a deeply experienced submariner. His forces reflect his expertise.

Given that the vast majority of the world's international communications still run via wires, any country with a capability for tapping into or severing the undersea cables that drive globalization is a very serious concern. In Russia's case, possible "mass disruption" of this sort would be a less grave matter given its much lower dependence upon undersea cables than other countries, East and West. Russia can, therefore, be viewed as having a strategic advantage in this aspect of cyberwar – which in this form is about conducting physical attacks upon or exploitations of critical information infrastructure.

This concern has led NATO member states, for example, to establish initiatives for the protection of this essential – and almost entirely privately owned – element of the "global commons." Indeed, by September of this year there are intended to be two naval commands up and running, one in the United States, the other in Europe, that will have the principal responsibility for the defense of undersea cables.

But beyond such military measures, it seems to me that this is a situation that calls for diplomacy as well. The world community does not hesitate to craft agreements controlling production and intending to ban use of weapons of mass destruction. So too, there should be no hesitation about putting limits on those things able to cause "mass disruption."  Because the U-bot threat is directed at information systems, it should be seen as falling under the rubric of cyberwar.  Like the other weapons that operate in this realm – in and out of cyberspace – there is very little probability of reaching an arms control agreement to prevent their further development. But this still leaves open the possibility of crafting behavior-based agreements, binding on all, to refrain from interfering with global communications that flow through the world's undersea cables. 

During his second term, President Barack Obama met with President Xi Jinping to discuss the possibility of reaching an agreement to refrain from attacking critical information infrastructures. Both leaders saw it as in the interest of the United States and China to pursue such an agreement, but momentum was lost in recent years. It is time now to rekindle that kind of creative thinking about how to secure the global commons. Along with many other nations, I believe that the Russians would also join in support of such an initiative. My belief derives from my early personal experience (back in the '90s) with Russian cyber experts who introduced the possibility of cyber arms control in the week-long session we had together. 

The alternative? Continue to grow a global economy increasingly dependent on ever more vulnerable lines of communication. Simply put, an unacceptable risk.

John Arquilla is Distinguished Professor of Defense Analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.  His forthcoming book is Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare. The views expressed herein are his alone.


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