Ireland 'obliged' to build naval capacity to protect underwater cables and pipelines

Ireland 'obliged' to build naval capacity to protect underwater cables and pipelines

A large disturbance in the sea off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm last Tuesday following a series of unusual leaks on two natural gas pipelines running from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany have triggered concerns about possible sabotage. Picture: Danish Defence Command via AP

There is a pressing need to build naval capacity to protect underwater energy and communication pipelines and cables vital for Ireland’s national security, experts have said.

The warnings follow highly suspicious leaks — three of them at the same time — affecting key sub-sea gas pipelines running from Russia into Europe.

Specialists in maritime security told the Irish Examiner that oil and gas pipelines, electricity interconnections, and internet cables were “critical infrastructure” for the State’s national security.

It is estimated about three-quarters of all cables in the northern hemisphere pass through or near Irish waters, most off the southwest coast and some off the northwest coast.

These cables carry 97% of global communications, including financial transactions, business operations, and everyday internet access.

It is estimated that four of these transatlantic cables physically connect to Ireland, with a further 12 connecting Ireland and Britain.

Interconnectors

In addition, there are two electricity interconnectors between Ireland and Britain, and one is being built with France, and two gas interconnectors between Ireland and Scotland.

Assistant professor Robert McCabe, course director in maritime security at Coventry University, said Ireland has a maritime jurisdiction “12 times” its landmass and was “obliged” to ensure international infrastructure, such as subsea cables, are protected.

“The presence of naval assets alone may be enough to deter a potential attack on a subsea cable or disrupt reconnaissance and intelligence gathering,” he said.

The issue is that the Irish Naval Service does not have the required subsurface capabilities or enough assets at sea at any one time to effectively undertake the maritime security responsibilities of the State.” 

He said while the recent defence budget was “promising”, more needed to be done, particularly in the current climate: “The apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline and increased Russian activity in Irish and European waters [including Russian exercises last January] means that there remains a pressing need to build the capacity of the Irish Naval Service to respond to maritime security threats.” 

Professor Ian Speller, director of the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies at Maynooth University, said: “The attack on Nord Stream 1 reminds us of the vulnerability of undersea pipes and cables, which represent critical infrastructure vital for national security and wellbeing.

“This is true of oil and gas pipelines, electricity interconnectors, and internet cables, including those transatlantic cables that run through Ireland’s maritime area of responsibility.” 

'Growing concern' about Russian naval activity

He said there has been “growing concern” about Russian naval activity in the vicinity of such cables.

“Unfortunately, the Naval Service currently does not have the capabilities required to closely monitor activity below the waves, a point identified in the recent report of the Commission on the Defence Forces (CDF), which called for the Government to enhance the capacity to monitor these cables.” 

He said ignoring the threats to cables “does not make them go away and neutrality provides no defence against covert deniable attacks”.

Failure to police and protect the maritime environment inevitably increases the potential for hostile activity.” 

He said the Naval Service has long held "a Cinderella status" within defence policy.

Serving and former Naval Service officers and commanders have repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of capacity to monitor sub-sea cables.

The Government announced in July it was adopting the CDF’s second of three investment proposals (LOA 2), with its action plan committing to upgrading the Naval Service fleet, but with no specific mention of sub-sea capabilities.

Budget 2023 saw a €67m increase in the defence budget, bringing the total to €1.174bn, but, again, there was no mention of sub-sea capabilities.

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