Undersea cables and the future of submarine competition
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Given the likely economic and military impacts of cable breaks, the ability to threaten or protect submarine cables and their shore landings will be increasingly important in future conflicts. In a crisis, an aggressor could use multiple coordinated attacks on cables to compel an opponent to back down or employ them as part of an opening offensive to cut off the defender’s military forces from national commanders, intelligence data, and sensor information. Cable attacks could also be highly destabilizing, since they could prevent a nuclear-armed opponent from controlling and monitoring its strategic weapons and early-warning systems. In response, the country targeted could choose to place its nuclear weapons in a higher alert condition – or initiate a preemptive attack.
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Tapping today’s fiber-optic cables is theoretically possible, but it is easier to cut or damage them and significantly impact the cables’ users. And while the exact location of cables is not publicly available, improvements to “bottom survey” equipment and unmanned undersea vehicles are making finding cables easier and faster. In time-sensitive military or diplomatic operations, the loss of communications for a few minutes or hours can be catastrophic. With financial transactions, the loss of even fractions of a second can cost millions of dollars as high-speed trades miss their targets and other transactions fail to go through or are lost entirely. The dozens of cable outages that occur each year do not cause a complete loss of service, but they do slow data-transfer speeds as information is re-routed through fewer intact cables. Most of these cable breaks happen in relatively shallow water, when rough weather moves cables around until they break or fishing trawlers catch a cable in a net. Some outages, however, have more nefarious origins. In 2013, three divers with hand tools cut the main cable connecting Egypt with Europe, reducing Egypt’s Internet bandwidth by 60%.
Repairing a submarine cable at sea is difficult and time consuming. First the break has to be located using built-in monitoring systems that can indicate the cable segment in which the break is likely to have occurred. Cable repair ships then must go to that location and pull up the cable until they get to the damaged spot. A new section of cable can then be spliced in, which can take several days to complete.
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National economies now rely on undersea connectivity for a growing portion of their overall output. Today, essentially every consumer or commercial product contains commodities and parts drawn from dozens of separate countries in a “manufacturing chain” of subcomponent builders, product assemblers, suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers. These disparate players are able to seamlessly integrate their efforts using the Internet, enabling greater specialization and economies of scale within each step of the manufacturing process. This, in turn, promotes economic growth in countries that no longer have to either build an entire product domestically with great inefficiency or import it at high cost.
Global manufacturing chains and financial services are made possible by transoceanic cables, and more cable is being laid each year to meet the growing demand for bandwidth. The Asia Pacific Gateway cable, installed in 2014, transmits 55 terabytes of data per second (Tbps) – the equivalent of 100 computer hard drives – between East Asian countries from Malaysia to South Korea, funded in part by Facebook. Similarly, Google helped fund the installation of the FASTER cable between the United States and Japan, which will carry 60 Tbps, and is bankrolling a new 64 Tbps submarine cable between the United States and Brazil. Both content companies are hoping the new networks will increase their user rolls and reduce costs in underserved areas such as Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Data transmission to these regions with older cables can cost up to 10 times more than to Europe or Japan.