Submarine Cable Security in the Indian Ocean

Summary and Recommendations

This report examines how Australia, France and India can work together in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and with regional states to reduce security risks to submarine cables.

Submarine cables form the backbone of modern communications infrastructure. Regional economic develop will increasingly depend on the availability of secure and dependable communications.

Each of France, Australia and India have unique and complimentary capabilities with regards to cooperation on submarine communication cables. France-based companies are leading players in cable supply and repair. France is developing military and civilian capabilities to monitor and take action to protect submarine cables. Australia has been at the forefront of efforts to create regulatory frameworks 2 for the protection of undersea cables and for cybersecurity of critical infrastructure.3 India’s proximity to many of the cables crossing the Indian Ocean and coupled with ready availability of skilled manpower in various engineering verticals including Information Technology makes India a preferred choice for creating a regional hub for cable laying and repairs.

This report includes a series of recommendations regarding cooperative actions at the trilateral level relating to security of submarine cables. Direct collaboration could include:

  • Establishing a communications TISN (trusted information sharing network) between the three countries to share information on matters relating to subsea cables threats.

  • Funding for new island cables in the Indian Ocean.

  • Exploring opportunities to create a regional hub in south India for cable laying and repair facilities.

  • Investing in, and building the capacity of French, Indian and Australian companies engaged in submarine cables laying, repair, owning and operating.

  • Ensuring that any future military exercises that may involve India, Australia and France train on submarine cable contingencies.

  • Working together in the International Cable Protection Committee on international standards for the security of undersea cables.

  • There are several areas in which the Australian, Indian and French governments could commission collaborative research from relevant national experts.

Australia, India and France could also take a leading role in working with more vulnerable states in the Indian Ocean region on these issues, including:

  • Encouraging regional states to nominate a national lead agency when cable anomalies are detected.

  • Development of procedures for information sharing on suspected cable attacks and anomalies.

  • Encouraging cooperation in the event of an attack or other disruption to cables outside of territorial seas.

  • Sponsoring regional desktop exercises on cable breaks.

  • Sponsoring capacity building workshops and training for officials of vulnerable states.

  • Streamlining procedures which allow cable repair ships and their crews to be given timely approval to enter a country and repair damaged cables.

  • Ensuring that cable repair ships declare all relevant information to authorities.

The problem of ensuring the security of submarine cables in the Indian Ocean

Submarine cables form the backbone of modern communications infrastructure. More than 400 submarine cables containing optical fibres cross the globe, covering some 1.3 million kilometres.4 In the Indo-Pacific, submarine cables carry over 95 percent of international data including telephone and data communications traffic. Undersea fibre-optic cables are the backbone of the global economy, transmitting almost $10 trillion in financial transactions each day. The IOR is one of the most populous regions in the world and home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies. Economic growth, including the developing world’s transition to 5G, will greatly increase needs for access and bandwidth.5

However, these cables are vulnerable to a variety of threats, which pose both grave security and acute economic consequences. Highlighting the criticality of undersea communication cable infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, in May 2021, Indian ambassador to France Jawed Ashraf and Australian ambassador to France, Gillian Bird, wrote in a joint oped:6

“The Indo-Pacific region has the busiest international shipping lanes, a dense network of submarine cables, and a growing constellation of satellites in space. These assets face threats that will have consequences for global security and the economy.”

Context and Issues In December 2011, the United Nations through a General Assembly Resolution, described submarine communications cables as “critical infrastructure” that is “vitally important to the global economy and the national security of all States”.7 Despite this recognition, submarine cables have received relatively little attention from policymakers or analysts despite their critical role in enabling global telecommunications, and underpinning the global rise of cloud computing, by providing low-latency and high capacity connections.8

Submarine cable security is not just a matter for the states which cables connect directly, but is a shared responsibility, as cable faults affect a myriad of downstream users in multiple states. Vulnerabilities to cable failures also differ between states, with small island nations being particularly vulnerable due to a lack of redundancy.

New risks are emerging that threaten the physical integrity of cables in the ocean (such as the development of submarine drones) and the information systems that are critical to their functioning (as recently demonstrated by a cyberattack on a submarine network in Hawaii).

While submarine cables are laid, owned and maintained by the private sector, governments have a responsibility to ensure the infrastructure conforms to security standards and that there is sufficient redundancy to ensure resilience, but also to protect it from external threats. Currently, an array of international and national agencies are involved in submarine cable policy across Australia, France and India, with only limited co-ordination among them. These include:

Multilateral

  • European Subsea Cable Association

  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

  • International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC)

  • International Telecommunications Union (ITU)

  • The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Australia

  • Australian Communications and Media Authority

  • Department of Home Affairs

  • Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

France

  • French Ministry for the Economy and Finance

  • Secretary general of the Sea

  • Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs

  • Ministry of the Interior

  • French Ministry for Armed Forces

India

  • Ministry of Communications, Department of Telecommunications

  • Ministry of Home Affairs

  • Ministry of Defence

  • Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change

  • Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways

  • Ministry of Finance

Risks Posed to Submarine Cables

There are many instances of submarine cable failures in recent years, caused by natural hazards, negligence, and intentional acts.9 For example, Somalia was left Internet-less for weeks in 2017, parts of Egypt and India were cut off in 2008, and Tonga was disconnected in 2019, hampering airline and hotel bookings, money transfers, phone calls and social media access for several weeks.10

Natural, Commercial and Recreational Hazards

Natural, commercial and recreational hazards are responsible for the majority of submarine cable failures. According to the ICPC, fishing and anchoring accounts for approximately 70 percent of damage to submarine cables.11 Damage can also be caused by natural phenomena such as earthquakes, landslides, volcanic activity and extreme weather. The persistence of these threats means that prompt access submarine cable repair capabilities is critical.

Human-Induced: State and Non-State

Purposeful acts of sabotage, interference, tapping and terrorism are also persistent threats.12 Submarine cable locations (including landing sites) are publicly known, allowing interference by adversaries. During both world wars, belligerents prioritised the severing of undersea communications cables and in the 1970s the United States tapped Soviet cables in the Sea of Okhotsk. Several regional states currently operate submarines that are capable of stealthily tampering with, and tapping, submarine cables. There are several recent incidents involving suspected state-based interference in submarine communications cables, including Norway in January 2022 13 , UK’s Shetland islands in October 2022 14 , and southern France in October 2022.15

Submarine cable landing stations, also represent key vulnerabilities to data transmission security, as tapping could permit access to data state-based actors, potentially with the knowledge and permission of the cable operators. The difficulties of interfering with submarine cables deep underwater makes landing sites and shallow choke points more vulnerable to interception or other interference.16

Delays in Maintenance/Repair Services

In the event of submarine cable damage, disruption, faults or breakage, prompt access for repair crews is critical. However, often repair vessels are delayed not only by lengthy travel times to often distant fault locations and weather conditions, but also by a myriad of bureaucratic barriers, including immigration, customs and excise procedures, security checks and approvals/permissions. These impediments, which need to be negotiated between the cable repairers and the government in which the fault occurred, often creates long delays to cable repairs, affecting various downstream users.

Regulatory Inadequacies

Regulatory gaps exist in submarine cable protection. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the primary international legal regime for regulating submarine cables in international waters. However many states do not fulfil their obligations under UNCLOS, including criminalising conduct which has the potential to damage cables.

Furthermore, existing international legal protections are inadequate to regulate the complex ownership structure of submarine cable infrastructure, which do not clearly fall under the jurisdiction of any one country, as does a flagged ship, for example. Further legal issues arise when submarine cables traverse contested and disputed maritime boundaries.

China as an Emerging Submarine Cable Supplier Globally, the four largest submarine cable contractors are SubCom (United States), NEC (Japan), Alcatel Submarine Networks 17 (France), and HMN Technologies (formerly Huawei Marine Networks).18 HMN, majority owned by Shanghai-based Hengtong OpticElectric Co Ltd, has a global market share of approximately 10%, including reportedly building or repairing almost 100 of the world’s 400 submarine cables. Several countries have raised security concerns regarding HMN. In 2021, the World Bank-sponsored East Micronesia Cable system was cancelled from fears that HMN would win.19

China substantially increased its investment in the market between 2015 and 2019.20 The Chinese strategy documents on the Belt and Road Initiative also refer to the role of the digital domain and submarine cables in China’s axes of influence.21 This political desire to assert itself in the cable domain is manifested in the development of submarine lines physically linking China to foreign territories, in the installation further afield of lines in which Chinese telecommunications operators are stakeholders (owners, financiers, or ship owners), and in the manufacture of cables in China or by Chinese actors.

Capabilities of France, Australia and India in Submarine Cables

Each of France, Australia and India have unique and complimentary capabilities with regards to cooperation on undersea communication cables:

  • France-based Alcatel Submarine Networks is a major supplier of these cables and along with Orange Marine makes France a lead player in the cable repair domain. France is also rationalizing its administrative procedures to make its territories more attractive to new submarine cable projects, so as to increase the redundancy of its international communications.22 France is developing civilian and military capacities to travel into the depths to monitor maritime infrastructure and take action if required: its new seabed strategy, published by the French Ministry for Armed Forces on February 2022 23, aims to increase national undersea research, surveillance and intervention capacities that can go down to 6,000 meters deep.

  • Australia has been at the forefront of efforts to create regulatory frameworks 24 for the protection of undersea cables and for cybersecurity of critical infrastructure.25 Thus, Australia’s central role in the Indo-Pacific’s digital capacity is set to grow over the coming years, in particular as a result of the growth in India’s digital market.26

  • The Indian peninsula jutting out into the IOR sits strategically adjacent to the vast network of undersea cables in the region. This proximity coupled with ready availability of skilled manpower in various engineering verticals including Information Technology makes India a preferred choice for creating a regional hub for cable laying and repairs.

France, Australia and India are also part of many multilateral institutions/frameworks that could be leveraged to cooperate on the undersea communication cable infrastructure. For the Indian Ocean, this could include the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI).

Recommendations

Trilateral Consultation

Australia, India and France should identify what actions might be taken on submarine cable protection in the Indian Ocean region, including sharing threat perspectives and analysis around submarine cables, risk assessments on cable routes, respective cable projects, how cable protection is incorporated into respective maritime domain awareness programs, and what national measures are being put in place to protect cables.

A submarine cable working group should be established to develop contingency planning with industry on standard operating procedures, how to respond to possible attacks on cable networks or major breaks caused by natural phenomena or accidents and what financial and diplomatic support might be offered to smaller countries in the region.

Cooperative actions at the trilateral level could include:

  • Communications TISN (trusted information sharing network) between the three countries to share information on matters relating to subsea cables threats.

  • France, India, Australia funding for new island cables in the Indian Ocean. Establish an Independent Infrastructure Provider (IIP) as a public-private-partnership that will provide affordable financing as well as services for the design, build, operate and management of new cable projects. This will increase competitiveness and drive affordability in providing much needed digital connectivity within the Indo-Pacific region, without the burden of ownership, maintenance and operation. The Palau Spur Cable, which will be the first project under the Trilateral Partnership for Infrastructure Investment in the Indo-Pacific between Australia, Japan and the United States is a very good model for pooled financing for subsea cables.27

  • Explore opportunities to create a regional hub in south India for cable laying and repair facilities.

  • Invest in, and build the capacity of, French, Indian and Australian companies engaged in submarine cables laying, repair, owning and operating.

  • Ensure that any future military exercises that may involve India, Australia and France train on submarine cable contingencies.

  • Work together in the International Cable Protection Committee on international standards for the security of undersea cables.

Cooperation with Regional States

Australia, India and France could take a leading role in working with more vulnerable states in the Indian Ocean region. Potential initiatives could be undertaken within or outside the Indian Ocean Rim Association. These include:

  • Encouraging regional states to nominate a national lead agency whenever there is a cable break or they detect cable anomalies.

  • Development of procedures for information sharing by regional states on suspected cable attacks and anomalies. The Information Fusion Centre -Indian Ocean Region (IFC -IOR) at Gurugram, Delhi hosts liaison officers from France and Australia, and other regional countries as well. This platform could be expanded to bring under its ambit information exchange with regards to submarine cables.

  • Encourage cooperation by regional states in the event of an attack or other disruption to cables outside the territorial sea of any partner state.

  • Sponsoring regional desktop exercises on cable breaks (combining government officials and industry representatives) to plan and develop protocols for quick repairs and responses to cable disruptions. A focus should be on scenarios where many cables are severed in a short time period.

  • Sponsoring capacity building workshops and training with the officials of vulnerable states. These workshops could also assist smaller and vulnerable regional states to risk assess different cable suppliers, in line with national interests and risk tolerances.

  • Streamlining policies and procedures which allow cable repair ships and their crews to be given timely approval to enter a country and repair damaged cables. These delays can add to the time taken to repair cables.

  • Assist small island states to institute specific (lesser) permissions and approvals for cable repair ships should access only be needed to EEZ and should ships not need to land. A simple notification could suffice. This would further speed up repairs and save days of paperwork.

  • Ensure cable repair ships transparently and quickly declare all relevant information to authorities, such as vessel equipment, crew, operating zones and procedures. Such transparency would speed up approval processes and help to ensure that survey equipment does not infringe on national security and military infrastructure near the cable repair site.

Collaborative Research

There are several areas in which the Australian, Indian and French governments could commission collaborative research from relevant national experts. These include:

  • Commissioning guidelines on best practices in cable governance and protection regimes and best practice arrangements between governments and industry on cable repair, specifically for small and vulnerable states.

  • Commissioning a study on legal options for cable protection in the Indian Ocean Region, such as establishing cable protection zones under national and international law. This would also clarify responsibilities, obligations and compliance measures.

  • The IOR is prone to oceanic earthquakes and tsunamis. Commissioning a study under the Science, Technology and Academic cooperation pillar of IPOI in collaboration with CDRI on submarine cable seismic and tsunami observation system will aid in improving real-time monitoring, assessment and early-warning capabilities of such undersea activities.

Appendix

FRANZ Agreement

JOINT STATEMENT ON DISASTER RELIEF COOPERATION IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC

On the occasion of their meeting in Wellington on 22 December 1992, the New Zealand Minister of External Relations and Trade, Rt Hon Don McKinnon, the French Minister for Overseas Departments and Territories, Mr Louis Le Pensec and the Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade The Hon Stephen Martin MP, reviewed progress in disaster relief cooperation in the South Pacific. They saw value in these arrangements as providing more effective assistance to the region in disaster relief operations.

The three representatives noted that Cooperation was proceeding well. In New Zealand, Emergency Task Force arrangements were in place. France had also established Task Force Committees in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and Australia had its own coordination structures which had been developed over the years. They agreed it was essential to maintain pragmatic, flexible arrangements to allow for a speedy response. It was agreed the three countries should exchange information to ensure the best use of their assets and other resources for relief operations after cyclones and other natural disasters in the region. A continuing role was seen for Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand International as well as, according to their future capacity, Radio France International and Radio France Outre Mer, in relaying warnings from the Nadi Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre to local communities as well as national disaster authorities in the region.

It was agreed in principle that it would be useful for officials to meet on a regular basis, at a technical level, to review operational requirements and further strengthen - bilateral cooperation in preparing for and responding to natural disasters in the South Pacific region in close consultation with the countries concerned.

It was noted that the vital task of forecasting and tracking tropical cyclones involved complex and technical issues. Training was identified as the top priority for assistance from Australia, France and New Zealand in helping bolster meteorological services in the region. There were problems also with outdated equipment and difficulties with satellite coverage, particularly in the eastern Pacific.

It was agreed that New Zealand, Australia and France should continue to work closely with Pacific Island Governments through the appropriate regional agencies to strengthen the meteorological network in the region in recognition of the linkage between meteorological services and disaster preparedness and prevention functions.

Signed at Wellington on 22 December 1992.

Mr Louis Le Penec For the Government of France

Rt Hon Don McKinnon For the Government of New Zealand

Stephen Martin MP For the Government of Australia

About the authors

Samuel Bashfield is a PhD candidate and research officer at the ANU National Security College. His research interests include (modern and Cold War-era) Indo- Pacific security, defence and foreign policy, Indo-Pacific security architecture, maritime security, nuclear issues, strategic implications of the rise of China, the rules-based order and technology governance. Sam’s PhD examines the British Indian Ocean Territory’s Cold War history, focussing on Anglo-US military, diplomatic and political cooperation. Prior to joining the ANU, Sam interned at the Jakarta Globe newspaper in Indonesia, worked at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, and at Australia’s Attorney General’s Department.

Dr Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), an independent think tank. He was formerly the research director and deputy director at ASPI. For 20 years Dr Bergin served as an academic at the Australian Defence Force Academy teaching military officer cadets and senior officers. His academic training is in law and international relations and he holds a doctorate on the law of the sea. He served for four years as adjunct reader in law at the ANU Law School. He has been a consultant to a wide range of public and private sector clients on matters related to maritime security.

Commander Amrut Godbole, is a senior serving officer in the Indian Navy. 1 A mechanical engineer by profession for the last 20 years, he has served on a variety of war ships as Engineer Officer, looking after the operation and maintenance of propulsion (gas turbine engines), power generation and auxiliary systems. Six years into his naval career, Commander Godbole did his master’s in marine engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (2008). He was soon after appointed to the Navy’s premier technical training institute, INS Shivaji, Lonavla, as senior instructor of the gas turbine division where he guided the project for the development of controllers for gas turbine generators. He was also associated with the operational audit of warships and the training of their staff at the Sea Training Division, Mumbai. He has also been Manager (Quality Assurance) at the Gas Turbine Repair and Overhaul Facility of the Navy in Visakhapatnam. He is an alumnus of the Naval College of Engineering, INS Shivaji, Lonavla. Any views expressed in this report are personal. The contents of the report are his personal views, and do not reflect the official position of the Indian Navy or the Government of India.

References

  1. The contents of the report are Commander Godbole’s personal views, and do not reflect the official position of the Indian Navy or the Government of India.

  2. Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013, Parliament of Australia, 46, 2013–14, 27 February 2014: https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/billsdgs/30225... binary/3022582.pdf;fileType=application/pdf

  3. Australian Cyber Security Strategy 2020. https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/cyber-security-subsite/files/cyber-securi...

  4. Pierre Morcos and Colin Wall, ‘Invisible and Vital: Undersea Cables and Transatlantic Security’, Think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11 June 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/invisible-and-vital-undersea-cables-and-tr...

  5. Quad Economy & Technology Task Force: A Time for Concerted Action, Gateway House, Undersea Communication Cables, https://www.gatewayhouse.in/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Quad-Economy-and-...

  6. Gillian Bird and Jawed Ashraf, “Grandstand: Australia, India and France are united in the Indo-Pacific”, https://www-lejdd-fr.translate.goog/International/tribune-laustralie-lin...

  7. UN General Assembly Resolution, A/RES/66/231, Oceans and the law of the sea, https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassem...

  8. Jonathan E. Hillman, ‘Securing the Subsea Network: A Primer for Policymakers’, Reconnecting Asia Project (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2021), 3, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/21030...

  9. Robert Beckman, ‘Protecting Submarine Cables from International Damage: The Security Gap’, in Submarine Cables: The Handbook of Law and Policy, ed. D.R Burnett, R. Beckman, and T.M. Davenport (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 282.

  10. Tom Westbrook, ‘Severed Cable Sends Tonga “Back to Beginning of the Internet”’, Reuters, 24 January 2019, sec. Media and Telecoms, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tonga-internet-idUSKCN1PI0A8.

  11. ‘Government Best Practices for Protecting and Promoting Resilience of Submarine Telecommunications Cables’ (Lymington, United Kingdom: International Cable Protection Committee, 13 July 2021), https://www.iscpc.org/publications/icpc-best-practices/

  12. Camille Morel, “A Jeopardised Global Network of Undersea Telecommunications Cables” Flux, vol 118, Issue 4, 2019, pp 34-45.

  13. https://warsawinstitute.org/russia-cripples-natos-undersea-communications/

  14. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-threat-to-britains-undersea-cables/

  15. https://sundries.com.ua/en/in-france-large-underwater-internet-cables-we...

  16. Olga Khazan, ‘The Creepy, Long-Standing Practice of Undersea Cable Tapping’, The Atlantic, 16 July 2013, https:// www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/07/the-creepy-long-standi....

  17. Alcatel Submarine Networks has 33 percent market share, which consists of over 600,000 kilometres of laid cables. It is part of Nokia.

  18. Huawei sold HMN following the US blacklisting of Huawei in 2019.

  19. Jonathan Barrett, ‘EXCLUSIVE Pacific Island Turns to Australia for Undersea Cable after Spurning China’, Reuters, 24 June 2021, sec. Asia Pacific, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/exclusive-pacific-island-turn....

  20. Major M. Yeng Seng Chan, Republic of Singapore Navy, “The Undersea Cauldron: China’s Rising Challenge to U.S. Undersea Dominance”, The Submarine Review, December 2018, pp. 7–23; p. 15.

  21. S. Siddiqui, “BRI, BeiDou and the Digital Silk Road”, Asia Times, 10 April 2019.

  22. Secretariat General for the Sea, Prime Minister’s Office, French Republic, Instruction n° 142, November 13, 2020: https://www.gouvernement.fr/sites/default/files/contenu/piece-jointe/202....

  23. French Ministry for Armed Forces, Stratégie ministérielle de maîtrise des fonds marins, February 2022.

  24. Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013, Parliament of Australia, 46, 2013–14, 27 February 2014: https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/billsdgs/30225... fileType=application/pdf

  25. Australian Cyber Security Strategy 2020. https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/cyber-security-subsite/files/cyber-securi....

  26. Camille Morel, “The Pacific caught in the World Wide Web? Geopolitics of Submarine Cables in Oceania”, Etudes de l’Ifri, IFRI, September 2022.

  27. ‘Australia Partnering with Japan and the United States to Finance Palau Undersea Cable’, Government, Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, 28 October 2020, https://www.aiffp.gov.au/news/australia-partnering-japan-and-united-stat....

This report was produced with support from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is part of a project on Australia-France-India Trilateral Cooperation, led by Dr David Brewster.
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