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UK Undersea Infrastructure: Hostile Activity

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the risk to the UK’s undersea cables, interconnectors and pipelines from hostile activity.

My Lords, the Government take the security and resilience of undersea infrastructure, including cables, interconnectors and pipelines, very seriously. These are critical to our national infrastructure and we monitor the full range of threats and risks, including supply chains and repair arrangements. As the House would expect, the details of any specific assessment of risk from hostile states would be held at high classification for national security reasons.

My Lords, the actions and statements of President Putin would seem to indicate that he already considers he is at war with this country and the West, if you just look at the raft of things he has done. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union, when it existed, was very interested in what was going on under the sea—I was very involved in countering that—and Russia today is probably even more interested in it. Just to give an idea of the costs, if those cables stopped working, £7.4 trillion-worth of financial activity each day would be cut, 25% of our electricity would go, and so on. We put in place the National Maritime Information Centre in about 2010 and we needed the Joint Maritime Security Centre alongside it, because we said firmly that we had to take threats to our territorial seas and exclusive economic zone very seriously. They are now in place, which is good, but they need to be reinforced—and the departments involved need to fully man them—because otherwise we will not be able to counter what is a very real and present threat, which could cause major damage to our nation.

I in no way disagree with the noble Lord’s final conclusion. It is recognised across government, which is why a number of government departments have a role to play in protecting that critical national infrastructure. We certainly regard these installations as essential to our national infrastructure and monitor a variety of risks that they face. The noble Lord will understand that these subsea cables are predominantly owned and operated privately, but key departments work closely with their owners. Supporting that is the national risk register, the National Protective Security Authority and the National Cyber Security Centre. There is a comprehensive framework to support the private owners and operators of these cables, but the MoD has and discharges a critical role in monitoring threat.

My Lords, if, as is reported in the newspapers today, the plan is now to turn the whole north Atlantic into one gigantic system of wind farms on an international basis, the effect would be to turn the whole seabed of the north Atlantic into a cat’s cradle of vital undersea electric power lines. Are we prepared, in moving forward to this fossil-free electric world that we are heading for, to safeguard those lines, since they could, if interfered with, put at risk not merely 25% of our electricity supply but our entire electricity supply when the wind is blowing?

I think we all agree that the overall objective of increasing our usage of renewable energy is laudable and to be commended, but my noble friend is correct that the installation of infrastructure brings with it an obvious degree of risk. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord West, across government there are a range of departments with responsibilities in this field. As far as the MoD is concerned, we actively monitor threat. When it comes to looking at, for example, Russian activity in either the Baltic Sea or the North Sea, noble Lords will understand that we regularly assess by our maritime presence what is happening. The Russians know that we know they know what we are doing.

My Lords, protecting against threats is clearly important but there is no such thing as perfect defence. With what degree of urgency are the Government addressing our resilience in this area of our critical national infrastructure?

The noble and gallant Lord will be aware that we have operational assets which we can deploy. For example, in the wake of Nord Stream we deployed HMS “Somerset” to monitor what was happening. We also have our MROS programme; one of those ships has been bought and is currently being readied for operational activity, and the other is to be built.

My, Lords, other noble Lords have asked about the national response to this international, shared problem, but it is very clear that what has to be done is a common effort by navies and air forces around the North Sea in particular. I am aware that there is very close co-operation between the Royal Navy and other navies around the North Sea, and with the Royal Air Force. I am also aware that Conservative Ministers prefer not to talk about it. Could the Minister try to encourage the Ministry of Defence to celebrate more the effectiveness of the co-operation we have with the armed forces of other countries in facing shared threats such as this?

I am not normally accused of taciturnity, so I shall try to encourage the noble Lord. He is aware, certainly, that in relation to recent activity for Ukraine the MoD has been outward facing. We have released intelligence that we have been prepared to comment on. The noble Lord is quite correct that we continue to invest in strong working relationships, partnerships and alliances, such as NATO. We co-operate on the development of new capabilities, such as the MROS vessel I just spoke about. We act in concert with our international allies. That is a very important part of the collective endeavour to try to manage risk.

My Lords, we are often quick to criticise defence procurement, but I commend the Government on the procurement of the new MROS vessel. It was announced in October by the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, and delivered to the Royal Navy at the end of January—in just three months. Is this not a lesson for us? All too often we try to procure the exquisite at an exquisite price, while here we have acquired the very good at a very reasonable price. What are the lessons for the future; for example, for littoral strike vessels for the Royal Marines, which can be, at the most basic, in effect, converted container ships?

My noble friend will understand that, coming from Scotland where ferries have become a very sensitive issue, I would applaud any approach which produced vessels where and when they were needed. My noble friend makes an important point. The commissioning and buying of this vessel—as I say, it is being refurbished in readiness for operational activity—is an important experience for the MoD. There are lessons we can learn. There may be merit, as my noble friend rightly says, in not looking so closely at the exquisite ultimate product but looking to what we need now and taking steps to get it.

My Lords, a couple of years ago the Government witnessed the cutting of a power cable to the Isles of Scilly, putting the mains off for about three months. I asked the Minister at the time whether they were going to claim compensation. They said, “No, it’s a private sector company so it can do what it likes”. I hope that things have changed.

That area of responsibility, the noble Lord will understand, is slightly outwith my ministerial bailiwick, but I am sure his remarks have been heard by the appropriate department.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that yesterday’s Ostend meeting showed how much overlap there is between EU and NATO responsibilities, particularly in the North Sea? Does she not feel that the NATO strategy adopted last summer—that non-EU members of NATO and EU members should be working together—applies precisely to this field? If it does apply to this field, what are the Government doing to take that forward in advance of the NATO summit in Vilnius?

We have to be clear that NATO exists for a specific purpose. It is a very effective defensive alliance. It is a militarily supported alliance. What I can say to the noble Lord is that I entirely agree with the kernel of his point: the more co-operation we have, the better. That will be more likely to secure a coherent approach to these threats. I am pleased to say that certainly the MoD enjoys extremely good relationships with other European countries, even those not in NATO.

My Lords, I was interested to hear the Minister commenting on our engagement with our European allies. However, with reports recently that submarine cables connecting the Taiwanese mainland with the island of Matsu have been cut by Chinese boats, this is an international problem. What consultations are we having with allies around the world; in particular, so that we can try to develop back-up systems when countries are put under threat by this sort of action?

There are two elements to the right reverend Prelate’s question. The first is about the operational resilience of the installations, which is a matter for the owners and operators of the systems. On the second and important point about the vulnerability of such systems to malign attack, we are certainly committed to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and non-state actors. The UK was explicit about this at the United Nations Security Council on 30 September last year, where we made it clear, in relation to NATO, that any deliberate attack against allies’ critical national infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.

My Lords, we recognise that this is a credible threat, and I congratulate the Ministry of Defence on having a ship with the capability to help, since it has already been built—well done. I understand that the second ship is in the concept stage. Is that concept not defined by that of the first ship, or are the Government contemplating a more offensive capability for the future?

I am not sure that I have the technical detail to respond to the noble Lord, but I will undertake to inquire. If I can disclose further information to him, I shall respond in future.

My Lords, in the absence of a full-scale parliamentary debate on the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committee report on defence priorities and procurement, will the Minister at least review the evidence that the Global Marine Group gave to the inquiry, which identified what it said was an “existential threat” to the United Kingdom because of potential attacks on our infrastructure? It referred specifically to Russian submarines “aggressively operating” in the Atlantic. Therefore, can she answer my noble and gallant friend’s question about what we are doing to ensure that we have the necessary resilience to resist those attacks?

To respond to the noble Lord, I have to return to the final part of my response to the noble Lord, Lord West: although I have information, I am unable to disclose it—it is held with high classification for national security reasons. As I indicated, the MoD operates a very effective surveillance programme: we have aerial surveillance over the North Sea and the high north and we have submarine activity, which shall be assisted by the MROS addition to its fleet.

My Lords, do the latest developments not show that we need to have diversity of supply? Does that not mean that the Government must look again at the current embargo on onshore wind farms and at developing nuclear power?

A critical element of this debate is resilience, which is partly a matter for government in consultation with industry and certainly a matter for individual private infrastructure operators. As my noble friend will be aware, a raft of government departments has responsibility for this: the Cabinet Office, the FCDO, DSIT, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero —for which I shall not try to use an acronym—and the MoD. While there is a holistic framework of government activity, my noble friend is correct that resilience is the key to good protection.

How significant do the Government consider the reports of the recent accelerated activity around our shores of Russian vessels, particularly those purporting to be either research or fishing vessels, but which are near oil installations?

We view that activity with great gravity. As I said earlier, we are aware of that activity and we constantly monitor it, but I am unable to disclose further information.

What specific co-operation is happening with the Republic of Ireland, which is not a NATO member? There is speculation that the Taoiseach was asked today about concerns that Russian naval exercises off the south-west coast of Ireland are being used as a pretext for the Russians to investigate underground cabling in the Atlantic.

That would be a matter for the Irish Government to assess and to determine their response to. This gets into an area of policy wider than that covered by the MoD; it would be a matter for discussion between the FCDO and its Irish counterparts.