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Red Sea Telecommunication Cables

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 14 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what support they are providing to help protect telecommunication cables in the Red Sea.

My Lords, the Government take the security of the UK’s critical national infrastructure extremely seriously. We are working closely with private commercial interests to better understand the ongoing situation in the Red Sea and the resilience of telecoms networks. In recent months, Defence has acted decisively to protect international shipping in the Red Sea from the Houthi’s dangerous and illegal attacks, while continuing to apply diplomatic pressure.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. The Red Sea is particularly vulnerable to attack because of its narrow and shallow proximity to Iran’s naval bases. Digital data is not in the cloud but depends 97% on seabed cables, and trillions get transferred yearly. Unlike ships, there are no flags, and they are not legally registered to any country. They are easily cut, causing major disruption in the world. Their location is freely available, with scope for plausible deniability. Does the Minister agree that there have been two very good reports, one by our Prime Minister in 2017 and one this year, stressing that China, with its undersea great wall, and Russia, with its sensors and unmanned vehicles, pose a severe threat? What is the UK’s strategic doctrine guiding our seabed policy? With Russia’s aggressive behaviour in the European Atlantic, what is the UK doing to support NATO’s defence system?

My Lords, I will cut to the chase. We take all this extremely seriously, but it is important to contextualise the risk. The most likely cause by far of damage to subsea cables comes from accidental damage by industrial fishing and shipping and from underwater geological events. That is not to say that undersea cables are not prone to attack but it is extremely rare, and the commercial organisations can divert very quickly to alternative routes. Having said that, the Ministry of Defence has capabilities to monitor the seabed and has invested in a multi-role ocean surveillance programme which enhances our joint intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capability. We work collegiately with allies, including NATO, to ensure that subsea infrastructure is resilient.

My Lords, one issue is clearly the cutting of cables. The other is cyberattacks on undersea cables. What is the MoD’s position on that, and do we have adequate resilience?

My Lords, the question of resilience is one of ongoing technological change. However, through maritime domain awareness, which is a critical part of our maritime defence and is more specifically about the UK’s national waters rather than international waters, we collect an enormous amount of data to provide accurate information through surveillance software, coastal radars, aviation operations, space-based reconnaissance and government vessels. We get an enormous amount of data. Resilience is something which we consistently and constantly work on.

The Minister has said that physical attacks on undersea infrastructure are very rare, and this is true at the moment, but it is unlikely to be true in a period of heightened tension and approaching conflict. It is not just the Red Sea. Our undersea connections for communications and power supplies, such as for gas and oil with Norway, are extensive and are growing ever greater in the Arctic. The Minister mentioned some of the capabilities that the UK military has to defend them, but they are very few and far between. Given the proliferation of this entirely new and very challenging threat, is Grant Shapps not absolutely right to call for an increase in the defence budget to 3% of GDP?

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord West, I ask: what naval assets do we have to protect the underwater cables?

My Lords, our naval assets are substantial. In fact, there are new support ships coming in that have the specific capability of underwater surveillance, so it is well on the way.

My Lords, I will add some specifics to that. RFA “Proteus” is our multi-role oceanographic survey ship. Interestingly, its purchase was announced by Ben Wallace in November 2022 and it was in service less than one year later, which is really quite impressive. Will my noble friend say what the lessons of the speed of that procurement are and whether it is our intention to purchase any further vessels in future?

My Lords, the speed of that acquisition is a fantastic example of how when procurement goes right, the agility and ability to acquire, equip and train crews to man these sorts of vehicles is comfortably within our capability. I do not know precisely when the next ship is due to come, and I will write to my noble friend with that information.

What assessment have the Government made of the impacts of the cuts to these telecommunications cables on the telecommunications traffic from Asia to Europe or whatever? What are they going to do specifically to protect the workers needed to fix those cables?

The noble Lord makes a good point. On the whole, the cables themselves are not fixed but replaced. It is too dangerous and time-consuming to replace them because of the depth they are at and the danger from shipping. These are commercial decisions, and there are commercial sensitivities that we really cannot go into. Suffice it to say that we are acutely aware of what the risk might be in this area.

For UK data security, the rather unglamorous solution is the proliferation of these cables, which to a degree is already naturally happening commercially. Where there is real vulnerability is at landing sites, where there is a concentration of these cables. We need to diversify those landing sites on this side of the Atlantic. Does the Minister agree? If so, what action are the Government taking to make sure that takes place?

The noble Lord is right that proliferation is an issue. As has been mentioned, the amount of data that travels through these cables is so significant that it requires all the protection it can get. The question of landing sites is very much part of the overall security resilience that we have been talking about. I can only imagine that they are going to become more and more important as we continue to suffer such an unstable global situation.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the Houthis. What assessment have the Government made of the ability of the Houthis to replace the weapons they have used or those that have been destroyed by Royal Air Force and other allied attacks? It is important to know whether the Houthis will be able to continue the sorts of attacks that they started some months ago.

The noble and gallant Lord is right. The Government’s approach to addressing the issue of the Houthis has not really changed. It is all about increasing diplomatic engagement, ending the illegal flow of arms—I think we are all fully in support of that—cutting off the financial resources of the Houthis and helping the people of Yemen, who need support.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned diplomacy. Surely this brings into sharp focus the need for a robust and sustainable peace process. Obviously military action is part of what is needed, but can he give us an update on how the peace process is going at the moment and what role the UK is playing?

My Lords, that is not strictly within my brief. However, I am fully aware that my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and my noble friend Lord Ahmad have recently met the relevant parties, and the importance of the peace process could not be emphasised more.