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NATO steps up response to ‘clear and present’ undersea infrastructure risk


“Russia is actively mapping allied critical infrastructure both on land and on the seabed,”

The September 2022 Baltic Sea Nordstream gas pipeline ruptures – incidents NATO attributed to sabotage – shone political and public spotlights on the long-understood (in the naval world) risk to undersea infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines and data and power cables. In response to the Nordstream incidents, NATO stood up its new cell.

“We understand … the clear and present danger our critical undersea infrastructure faces,” Hans-Werner Wiermann, the cell’s head (and a retired German Army Lieutenant General, whose last military post was as Director General of NATO’s International Military Staff), told the briefing. “What is clear is that increasing the security of [this] infrastructure underpins NATO’s deterrence and defence – its core task – and the security and prosperity of our societies. The threat is real, and NATO is stepping up.”

The cell – established in February and headquartered in Brussels – is a civilian construct, and aims to address the risk by harnessing NATO’s military, intelligence, and planning capability to develop interaction between government, military, and industry stakeholders, with focus on sharing recognised maritime pictures and using data to improve maritime situational awareness. “NATO has convening authority, so can provide a platform … to build communities of trust, to exchange information, and to get a better understanding of what needs to be done,” Wiermann explained.

“NATO has been working to enhance the security of critical infrastructure for many years, but we are stepping up our role,” said Wiermann. “We have increased our vigilance and surveillance activities. We have significantly increased the number of ships patrolling the North and Baltic seas – but we need to do more.”

Through the cell, Wiermann continued, NATO is seeking to better understand, detect, deter, and respond to threats. “We aim to harness NATO as a platform to enhance information sharing, exchange good practises, and identify innovative technologies that can help us further boost the security of critical undersea infrastructure.”

Absalon patrolling Nord Stream

Royal Danish Navy frigate Absalon (F341) patrolling the Nord Stream leak area. Danish Armed Force picture.

“We want to add another layer of surveillance: we want to identify suspicious behaviour close to or above [such] infrastructure,” said Wiermann. Here, he explained, using traditional intelligence tools, leveraging signals and sensor data and technologies, and drawing on data and knowledge from industry, the cell will assess where a manipulation of critical undersea infrastructure may have occurred, could be ongoing, or is a potential risk. “We need to ensure we have actionable intelligence for our maritime commanders so they can use their assets in the most efficient and targeted way – to deter, and to respond if needed,” Wiermann added.

“Our adversaries have realised that being able to threaten the security of our information, energy, and financial systems is a huge strategic advantage. We assess there’s a persistent and significant risk that allied critical infrastructure could be targeted by Russia as part of its war on Ukraine, or indeed in any future conflict.”

David Cattler, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security

The cell will enable alliance responses to both the immediate and longer-term undersea critical infrastructure risks.

As regards the immediate term, “Russia is actively mapping allied critical infrastructure both on land and on the seabed,” said Cattler. “Russian military strategy calls for the rapid destruction of critical infrastructure in the early stages of a conflict, and this certainly includes undersea infrastructure.”

NATO stands up undersea infrastructure coordination cell

© Bundeswehr

Citing the well-documented increase in Russian naval forces’ presence around undersea infrastructure and more broadly across the undersea domain, and the concurrent risk of intelligence-gathering or sabotage activities, Cattler added “You should have no doubt they are closely monitored by NATO allies.”

As regards preparing for what the alliance sees as an enduring, longer-term risk, “It’s a continued evolution from a threat perspective – in technology and operations, the sorts of platforms and capabilities that [adversaries] will bring to bear, and [at] increasing pace,” said Cattler. “Just as the pace of the technological development in fielding the critical infrastructure increases, so do the potential adversary technical and operational developments to try to hold that infrastructure at risk.”