Defence Forces assess risk to subsea cables amid fears of Russian attack (2024)

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John Mooney

, Crime and Security Correspondent

The Sunday Times

Defence Forces assess risk to subsea cables amid fears of Russian attack (2)

John Mooney

, Crime and Security Correspondent

The Sunday Times

The Defence Forces have been asked to carry out a threat assessment of the risks posed to the subsea cables and energy pipelines located in Ireland’s maritime territory, amid concerns that they may be targeted by Russia’s armed forces.

Ireland is among the European countries making contingency plans should President Putin instruct his armed forces to engage in further acts of sabotage on pipelines or fibre optic cables that connect Ireland to Europe and the United States.

It follows the attack on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines connecting Europe and Russia in the Baltic Sea. The attack involved the detonation of large underwater explosive charges. The Kremlin has denied involvement.

The sabotage, which caused a huge gas leak, has raised concerns that Russia could launch similar attacks on western Europe as its invasion of Ukraine stalls. Norway, France, Italy and Britain have all stepped up maritime surveillance.

Ireland’s vulnerability to both surface and subsurface attacks around its coastline was raised at last month’s extraordinary EU energy council meeting held to discuss the bloc’s energy security in response to the Nord Stream incidents.

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The assessment by the military is expected to conclude that the data cables and energy pipelines are at risk but are more vulnerable at locations closer to the shore, where they could be damaged using an assortment of non-military methods, making attribution difficult. In shallow waters, the cables could be damaged by divers, small submersibles, trawlers or chartered vessels.

The Russian military has gone to considerable efforts to map Ireland’s critical infrastructure. The GU, the military intelligence branch of Russia’s armed forces, sent an undercover unit into the state in 2019 to map the landing points of all fibre optic and energy pipelines.

The Yantar, a Russian spy ship, was monitored off the coast of Donegal by the Defence Forces last year. The vessel is equipped with manned and remote-operated submersibles used to attach listening devices to undersea cables that carry internet traffic between continents. The Yantar was monitored traversing the seas to the north of Mayo and west of Donegal in a zig-zag fashion, suggesting it was searching for something beneath the waves. There is at least one commercial subsea cable in the general region where the vessel loitered. The Irish navy has also encountered civilian vessels and fishing trawlers which it believes are disguised military vessels.

Russian submarines have been monitored by Nato loitering off the west coast — a cause of concern, as some are capable of mounting attacks on subsea cables, according to Aaron Amick, a retired sonar engineer who served on submarines with the US navy.

“I’ve observed Russian submarines operate in international waters near Ireland,” Amick said, adding the subsea cables passing through Irish controlled waters would be considered a military target if there were a war in Europe. “Ireland’s handling of these vital communication cables makes her a critical asset in any European conflict,” he said.

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An attack on a single cable would not disrupt the internet or serve any strategic purpose but an attack on multiple cables could cause a temporary overload.

The government is now under pressure to improve its defence apparatus and amend existing legislation covering the protection of critical infrastructure.

The Defence Forces do not have below-the-surface surveillance capabilities nor aircraft or vessels capable of locating submarines, which are notoriously difficult to detect once they leave port. Responsibility for protecting subsea cables rests with the gardai, but the force does not have the ability or expertise to carry out this role.

Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in international studies at King’s College London, said Ireland can access assistance from other European countries and Nato to protect its offshore critical infrastructure. “It wouldn’t be difficult for Ireland to obtain help. There’s a whole set of mechanisms at EU level should they want it,” he said.

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MILITARYWarship protects North Sea pipelinesOctober 05 2022, 12.00amLarisa Brown, Defence Editor
Video IconWORLD NEWSRussia accused of Nord Stream sabotage over gas leaks in Baltic SeaSeptember 28 2022, 10.40amOliver Moody, Berlin | Emily Gosden, Energy Editor
Sweden tightens nuclear security after attacks on Nord Stream gasSeptember 29 2022, 5.00pmOliver Moody, Berlin | Bruno Waterfield, Brussels

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Defence Forces assess risk to subsea cables amid fears of Russian attack (2024)

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