Divers with the U.S. Navy's Underwater Construction Team 2 remove corroded zinc anodes from an undersea cable at the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, Hawaii, on July 5, 2016.

Divers with the U.S. Navy's Underwater Construction Team 2 remove corroded zinc anodes from an undersea cable at the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, Hawaii, on July 5, 2016. U.S. Navy / Petty Officer 1st Class Charles

After suspicious incidents, NATO works to protect undersea infrastructure

Joint Forces Command leader has also been monitoring Russian activity in the Arctic.

NORFOLK, Virginia—NATO is working to strengthen its members’ abilities to defend their underwater infrastructure following a series of incidents that have damaged pipelines and communications cables, an alliance commander said.

“There are well-proven capabilities that are designed to attack that infrastructure. Some nations have the ability to interact [with that infrastructure] in very, very, very remote parts of the world,” Royal Navy Rear Adm. Tim Henry, deputy commander of the alliance’s Joint Force Command Norfolk, said in an interview.

As much as 95 percent of the world’s data passes through underwater cables, with some of the oldest connecting the United States and Canada to their NATO partners in Europe. Fishing vessels and commercial vessels occasionally cut such cables, as occurred in October 2022 near Scotland. 

Other incidents, however, appear to be intentional. In September of last year, three of four lines of the Russian-built Nord Stream pipelines were damaged. Sweden later discovered evidence that explosives were used. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that Ukraine was responsible, citing Ukrainian officials and “other people knowledgeable about the details of the covert operation.” 

The possibility of sabotage, meanwhile, has observers probing any cable-cutting incident for evidence that it may be intentional. 

This week, Finland reported that a Chinese vessel had cut several communications cables and a gas cable, apparently after dragging its anchor through them. While China is cooperating with Finland, Finnish police have not ruled out that the cutting was intentional. 

In response, Henry said, Joint Force Command Norfolk is advising NATO nations on how best to protect their cables. 

“We're in a position to say — do the navies of the nations of the Alliance have sufficient equipment and infrastructure to be able to understand what's going on on the seabed?” said Henry.  

Part of this effort includes an intelligence-sharing push, he added. “We can do that in a classified way, ‘Did you know that every X they do Y?’”

While NATO itself owns almost no military equipment, Henry pointed to Britain’s acquisition last January of one of two planned underwater surveillance ships. 

Joint Force Command Norfolk, launched in 2020, is responsible for the Arctic and trans-Atlantic routes that link North America to Europe. 

As such, Henry also has a front-row seat to the rising Russian activity in the Arctic. In recent years, Russia has strengthened and restored dozens of bases there, and is pushing to develop its northernmost territories with major oil and gas investments, some made with China. 

Although Russia withdrew forces to send to Ukraine, it has maintained a potent naval force in the Arctic, with the Northern Fleet fielding eight of Russia’s ballistic missile submarines. 

Henry said he saw “no diminishment of their intent. I see no diminishment of the capability.”

Even as U.S. commanders in the Middle East report Russian jets playing games of chicken with U.S. forces, Henry said the Arctic was calmer. 

While he said there were occasionally “changes in behavior, depending on the politics of the day,” most of the time there was a “recognition of what is correct.”