NATO has announced the establishment of a Critical Undersea Infrastructure Co-ordination Cell, to be set up at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.
In a move responding to recent emerging threats to critical seabed infrastructure, NATO’s new centre is designed to be a hub for sharing best practice, leveraging innovative technologies, and boosting undersea infrastructure security for NATO and its member states, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, in a statement on 15 February. “The centre will facilitate engagement with industry and bring key military and civilian stakeholders together,” the Secretary General added.
The co-ordination cell will be led by Lieutenant General Hans-Werner Wiermann, a retired German military officer and formerly Director General of the NATO International Military Staff at NATO headquarters. “[The centre] will enable better co-ordination between key military and civilian stakeholders and with industry, on an issue that is vital to our security,” Lt Gen Wiermann added, in the statement.
Engagement with industry is crucial, as (for example) the oil and gas commercial sector holds significant capability and knowledge relating to seabed operations and security, in particular using sensors and uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs).
Recent incidents have highlighted the emerging threats to critical national infrastructure at sea and on the seabed. In September 2022, two Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea suffered explosions, which NATO attributed to acts of sabotage. In response, NATO member states have increased military presence around key facilities on the surface and on the seabed, the alliance’s statement noted. Platforms deployed for such operations likely would include surface ships, maritime patrol aircraft, UUVs, and possibly submarines.
While the Nord Stream attacks prompted particular focus within the NATO community and elsewhere on this risk, other unexplained incidents have highlighted the prospective extent of the problem. Since November 2021, incidents have included seabed cables being severed off Lofoten, Norway, Svalbard, Norway, and the Shetland Islands, UK. The very nature of the maritime domain means the source of any such incident – if a malicious act – would very likely be unattributable. However, improving collaboration through a co-ordination cell will help broaden coverage, enhance deterrence, augment response capability, and – perhaps most significantly – increase opportunities to identify risks in the first place.