Does the Recent Undersea Gas Pipe Attack Threaten Internet Infrastructure?

12-10-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

A recent attack on the undersea gas pipelines connecting Germany to Russia has sparked worry amongst Naval forces in the West regarding undersea internet cables. Why are undersea cables ideal for long-distance internet connections, how does the recent attack threaten this infrastructure, and what technologies could provide immunity against such attacks in the future?

Why are undersea cables ideal for long-distance communication?

When it comes to communication, mankind has developed all kinds of solutions, including cables, radio waves, pulses of light, and even sound. But with regards to modern technology, undersea cables are by far the most important as they allow nations spanning across oceans to communicate with each other at high speed

The first undersea cable linking the UK and the US was installed in 1858 and demonstrated its first successful message on the 16th of August (after several test messages were sent to configure the voltage and current levels). Before this point, communication between the US and UK was done entirely through the mail, which could take as long as 10 days to arrive, while the new cable reduced this to 16 hours (this length of time resulted from the delays caused by sending pulses down the cable, and as such, each character would take a long time to send). While this cable demonstrated a new revolutionary method of communication, it also failed shortly after installation, likely due to corrosion of salt water, sea creatures attacking the cable, and the lack of deep-sea understanding.

Fast-forward to 2022, and submarine cables have greatly improved with all kinds of armour shielding, the use of fibre optics, and the ability to send mind-boggling amounts of data. In fact, undersea cables provide almost 99% of internet connectivity between the US and the UK. But why are undersea cables preferred over other methods, such as radio?

The advantage to using undersea cables over other techniques comes down to the introduction of fibre optics, the obscene bandwidth provided, the low latency and the lack of interference caused by two cables being next to each other. Furthermore, cables can be pretty much laid anywhere (so long as it doesn’t span across a deep-sea trench). The additional cable length to avoid undersea obstacles doesn’t increase latency significantly, and cables can mostly be forgotten about once installed. 

In contrast, radio transmission between the US and UK would be horrendously challenging for everyday internet use. First, radio repeaters would need to be installed at various points across the ocean, and such installations would be affected by the weather. Secondly, radio cannot provide the same degree of bandwidth as fibre optic can, and this limits the number of frequencies used in such a connection. Thirdly, if satellites are used instead of radio repeaters, then bandwidth is limited, and latency becomes a serious issue. Overall, undersea cables can utilise fibre optics and numerous light wavelengths simultaneously, are immune to weather, and can just add more cables if additional bandwidth is needed.

Do the recent gas pipeline attacks threaten internet infrastructure?

Recently, the news has been buzzing about a rumoured attack against the undersea gas pipelines Nord 1 and Nord 2. The entire world looking at this situation, can clearly see that Russia is a prime suspect while Putin is insistent that it is a western attack, but either way, the damage done to the pipeline will make it outright ineffective for years. Currently, huge amounts of gas are emanating from the pipeline, but this is only gas stored in the pipe being replaced with seawater (the pipeline has been non-operational for a while). 

But while the media focus their attention on a non-operational gas pipeline with little importance (now that Russian oil and gas are being limited in use), key individuals in the UK government and The Royal Navy have joined forces with other European allies to plan a defence against Russia attacks on undersea cables.

Due to the UK sitting on an undersea shelf (UK coastal waters are relatively shallow), it is an ideal location for installing cables, so much so that the UK is a transatlantic cable hub with over 98% of global communications going through UK territorial waters. These cables are responsible for  £7 trillion of international finance trade every day and provide specific data connections for large tech companies such as Google and Facebook.

As such, these cables would be a prime target for Russia as it would knock out the financial capability of the west while simultaneously severing most communication. At the same time, severing such cables could be done remotely and silently, with Russia being able to deny any involvement (likely claiming that it was a Ukrainian conspiracy to get the west to fight).

Of course, the chances of Russia attacking these cables are small as it would invite serious consequences from the majority of the world. These cables are responsible not only for the US and UK but for every European country, Africa, the Middle East, and even Asia, where these cables help connect numerous services.

What technologies could help provide immunity in the future?

Unfortunately, there are no real alternatives to undersea cables for high-bandwidth, low-latency communication between countries separated by water. While satellite technologies such as StarLink can provide low latency, they cannot provide anywhere near the bandwidth that cables can provide. Furthermore, satellites are prone to missile attack and debris, and a few destroyed satellites could make space inhospitable for any new systems (through the Kessler Syndrome).

The only real defence against undersea attacks is to install excessive amounts of backup cables separated by large distances to make a mass planned attack impossible. At the same time, cable manufacturers could look into localised cable defence, whether through short-range electronic warfare (effectively disabling electronic systems within a meter of the cable) or surveillance technologies that monitor activity. 

Overall, the chances of Russia attacking undersea cables in UK waters are improbable, but if Putin feels threatened by advancing Ukraine forces helped by the West, then it could be a logical option before launching an attack against NATO itself. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.