On Protecting the Undersea Cable System

Kevin Frazier of Lawfare discusses the current status of the protection of the undersea cable network and its shortcomings.By Kevin Frazier, Lawfare
January 12, 2023

Cables the size of a garden hose crisscross the oceans. Unlike your hose at home, these cables require all the protection afforded to other pieces of critical infrastructure, like the power grid. And, assuming you don’t have a serious feud going on with your neighbors, these cables are also unlike your hose at home because nations and non-state actors keen on sowing disruption realize that breaking a single cable can leave millions without internet access, saddle companies with millions in losses, and rob the power grid of millions of gigawatts of energy.

Despite the obvious vulnerability of these cables, the United States has failed to take necessary steps to protect this critical infrastructure. It’s not for lack of warning. Back in 2017, Garrett Hinck discussed in Lawfare the inadequacies of the legal regime protecting undersea cables. A year later, he evaluated the specific threat Russia poses to the undersea cable system. By late 2022, “mainstream” commentators such as Fareed Zakaria had picked up on the need to enact new policies surrounding the security of this critical infrastructure.

The inadequate attention given to undersea cable protection stems from three facts. First, a dearth of awareness among legislators of the vulnerability of these cables has muted calls for overdue policies. Second, private entities own the majority of the most important cables, complicating efforts to institute time- and resource-intensive policies. Finally, outdated and complicated laws govern different parts of the sea, which presents barriers to implementing new policies. Despite these hurdles, however, the Biden administration can and should act to secure the undersea cable system. This article offers three straightforward recommendations that could drastically improve the resilience of these deliverers of internet, energy, and more.

Insufficient Awareness of the Significance of Undersea Cables

Undersea cables have rarely been headline news. The public may have had a vague sense of their role in facilitating communication when, in 1857, two ships embarked from County Kerry, Ireland, to lay a transatlantic cable so that telegrams could flow across the pond. Perhaps the public’s attention waned that same day when the nascent expedition came to a rapid conclusion—the cable broke, and a series of repairs began.

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