Space will be a battleground, Pentagon officials have repeatedly warned in Congressional hearings since February regarding President Joe Biden’s $863 billion Fiscal Year 2024 budget request.
These undersea cables, often no wider than a garden hose, carry an estimated 95 percent of the world’s internet traffic, including $10 trillion in daily financial transactions and sensitive military communications.
The full U.S. House of Representatives on March 27 advanced in a two-thirds voice vote a bill that elevates and addresses growing concerns about the security of these undersea cable networks.
The bill was fast-tracked to the chamber floor following one hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It now moves onto the Senate, where a companion bill has not been filed.
“Everything with China, everything with Communists, is competition—it’s competition against America, competition against our Democratic values, our way of life, the way we operate, the way we pride ourselves on freedom,” Mast said. “I don’t kick well but I’m prepared to kick their ass in anything.”
Although 45 minutes was set aside for debate on the bill—which began nearly an hour before originally scheduled—it advanced in less than 10 minutes with only Rep. Susan Wild (R-Pa.) raising to speak favorably on a bill that apparently has overwhelming bipartisan support.
“H.R. 1189 is a timely and forward-thinking bill,” Wild said. “The United States is already engaging in a commercial competition with the PRC to win contracts to build undersea cables and create the technologies that power this vital infrastructure. It is important that the United States government have a proactive strategy to win this critical area of competition with the PRC,” she said, referring to China by its official name, the People’s Republic of China.
“Some PRC companies involved in undersea cable development are actively engaged in helping to modernize the Peoples Liberation Army as part of China’s civil-military fusion strategy,” Wild said. “This raises clear national security concerns that warrant the eyes of export controls to ensure American goods and technology are not contributing to that effort.”
Russia Ready for ‘Seabed Warfare’
On June 7, 2022, the Asia-Africa-Europe-1 Internet Cable (AAE-1), which traces the seabeds of three oceans for 15,500 miles to link Marseille, France, to Hong Kong, was cut in Egypt for reasons still unknown, leaving millions in seven countries suddenly without access to the internet.
While the temporary disruption was unlikely caused by sabotage, the incident is among those being cited in Europe and North America as examples of how vulnerable subsea cables can be.
A 2021 Center for Strategic & International Studies report documented how a 2008 undersea cable break between Italy and Egypt forced the U.S. military to cut drone flights in Iraq from hundreds daily to about a dozen a day.
The primary sabotage threat identified by U.S. and European intelligence agencies is Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, which agencies say has been preparing for “seabed warfare” for decades.
The United Kingdom reports Russian submarines routinely patrol along Trans-Atlantic cables and practice dropping submersibles to the ocean floors to target cable networks owned by private companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon.
Trans-Atlantic communications cables have been a military target since the first one was laid between Ireland and the United States in 1857-58.
During World War 1, Britain cut all but one of Germany’s undersea telegraph cables in the English Channel, tapping the remaining line to read messages. In 1918, a German U-boat severed links between New York and Nova Scotia, and New York and Panama.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy’s “Operation Ivy Bells” tapped cables around the Soviet Union’s Pacific fleet base in Vladivostok for more than a decade before the espionage was discovered in 1981.
Among ways the United States, United Kingdom, and Western European nations have countered any sabotage threats is through redundancy: so many TransAtlantic cables link the continents, it would be difficult to completely shut down communications.
Countering CCP Control, Espionage
Although the CCP also presents a sabotage threat—especially along the 12,500-mile Asia-America Gateway (AAG) seabed cable network—U.S. and western intelligence agencies say the regime is advanced in its espionage efforts and is actively seeking to dominate the cable-building industry.
“In recent years,” Mast said, “Chinese companies—heavily subsidized, of course, by the PRC—have started investing heavily in owning and supplying subsea cables.”
The CCP is investing heavily in the global fiber-optic cable sector beyond the Pacific, particularity in “techno-diplomacy” overtures in Africa, South America, and increasingly, Central America.
With Chinese companies participating in undersea cable projects worldwide, the CCP is also insisting it will control all seabed development in the South China Sea as part of its territorial claims, which are challenged by surrounding nations and the United States.
The CCP, for more than a year, hampered Meta Platforms Inc.’s SJC2 seabed cable project linking Japan with Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, until it could gain an element of administrative authority by requiring a partnership with China Mobile Communications Group Co., a CCP state-owned company.
The CCP’s investment and strategy has created, according to intelligence agencies, the potential for a “nightmare scenario” of cable networks being monitored and accessed by the CCP due to its owning “administrative rights” to network management systems. There is also risk of the network surreptitiously being hijacked by CCP hackers to disrupt or divert data, or agents pulling networks’ plugs via a “kill click” that could isolate or blind a potential adversary.
Rather than destroying networks, the CCP appears more invested in developing proficiency in tapping into them to record, copy, and steal data by dominating the cable manufacturing process and installing seamless, hidden “back door” access to the flow of information.
“This is not just an economic issue,” Mast said. “The Chinese, they will steal information. They will make it insecure. They want our transmissions. They weaponize all forms of telecommunications that they can. They try to make these capabilities fit their own nefarious ends. So, do we really think for a second they would not do that with undersea cables?”
Mast said the United States must thwart the CCP’s efforts to control the fiber-optic cable industry.
In introducing the bill, he asked, “Why on earth would we want China to control one of the most powerful communications tools on the planet?”
Allowing the CCP to control the cyber-optics cable industry would be akin to allowing the Soviet Union during the Cold War “to buy up radio component companies in the United States and other places,” Mast said.
“What would that have been like? What kind of danger would have been seen?” he said. “That’s how you look at this.”