House Advances Bill Calling for Strategy to Defend, Retain Control of Subsea Cables

House Advances Bill Calling for Strategy to Defend, Retain Control of Subsea Cables
The very high speed submarine cable linking Singapore to France, during its installation in La Seyne-sur-Mer, southern France, on March 1, 2016. (BORIS HORVAT/AFP via Getty Images)
John Haughey
3/27/2023
Updated:
3/28/2023
0:00
Among the challenges presented by the decade-long military modernization and expansion of China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) is a “robust space program” potentially targeting more than 9,000 American-owned satellites orbiting the Earth.

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.

Overlooked, some say, by the United States and its allies is another realm the CCP and the Kremlin are preparing to dominate—the planet’s seabeds, where more than 550 active and under-construction fiber-optic cable bundles spanning about 750,000 miles across the world are vulnerable to sabotage and espionage.

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.

HR 1189, The Undersea Cable Control Act, cosponsored by Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) and Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), seeks to harden underwater networks from Russian sabotage and “to limit China’s economic and military reach to vital undersea cables.”

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.

The bill relates to Section 1752 of the Export Control Reform Act, which restricts the export of items deemed potentially detrimental to national security and the economy in an effort to thwart the CCP’s push to dominate the digital cable industry.

“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.”

The bill would “make the president develop a strategy to eliminate American technologies capable of supporting undersea cables from falling into the hands of our adversaries [and] blocking our adversaries’ ability to develop and perfect undersea capabilities,” Mast said. “It is a critical step for our own security.”

Russia Ready for ‘Seabed Warfare’

There are more the 750,000 miles of cyber optic cables tracing the ocean’s floors, including the Atlantic, according to a free and regularly updated ‘Submarine Cable Map’ published by TeleGeography. a telecommunications market research and consulting firm based in Washington. (Graphic courtesy of TeleGeography)
There are more the 750,000 miles of cyber optic cables tracing the ocean’s floors, including the Atlantic, according to a free and regularly updated ‘Submarine Cable Map’ published by TeleGeography. a telecommunications market research and consulting firm based in Washington. (Graphic courtesy of TeleGeography)

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 June 2022 European Parliament report estimated that undersea cable networks are cut or damaged by ship traffic, commercial fishing, and natural events such as earthquakes between 150-200 times a year.

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.

France earmarked more than 3 million Euros, or about $3.235 million, for “ocean floor defense” in its 2023 defense budget. Italy, India, and Taiwan are also increasing surveillance and security of underwater cables.

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.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has, for years, warned about the vulnerability of trans-Atlantic cables, calling it an existential threat to United Kingdom in a 2017 Policy Exchange analysis.

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.

But the CCP presents additional threats beyond sabotage, and it is those challenges that are primarily addressed in The Undersea Cable Control Act, which seeks to “limit China’s economic and military reach to vital undersea cables.”

Countering CCP Control, Espionage

China Mobile Communications Group Co., a CCP state-owned company, is among Chinese companies aggressively seeking to eclipse the U.S. in undersea cable development. (Daniel Sorabji/AFP via Getty Images)
China Mobile Communications Group Co., a CCP state-owned company, is among Chinese companies aggressively seeking to eclipse the U.S. in undersea cable development. (Daniel Sorabji/AFP via Getty Images)

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.”

John Haughey reports on public land use, natural resources, and energy policy for The Epoch Times. He has been a working journalist since 1978 with an extensive background in local government and state legislatures. He is a graduate of the University of Wyoming and a Navy veteran. He has reported for daily newspapers in California, Washington, Wyoming, New York, and Florida. You can reach John via email at [email protected]
twitter