Russia could pose a major threat to the UK and other Nato nations by cutting underwater cables essential for international commerce and the internet, the chief of the British defence staff, Sir Stuart Peach, has warned.
Russian ships have been regularly spotted close to the Atlantic cables that carry communications between the US and Europe and elsewhere around the world.
Air Chief Marshall Peach, who in September was appointed chair of the Natomilitary committee, said Russia had continued to develop unconventional warfare. He added that threats such as those to underwater cables meant the UK and its allies had to match the Russian navy in terms of modernising its fleet.
“There is a new risk to our prosperity and way of life, to the cables that crisscross our sea beds, disruption to which through cable-cuts or destruction would immediately – and catastrophically – fracture both international trade and the internet,” he said.
The warning came a fortnight after the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange issued a report saying 97% of global communications and $10tn in daily financial transactions were transmitted through such cables.
The report, written by Conservative MP Rishi Sunak, cited US intelligence officials speaking about Russian submarines “aggressively operating” near Atlantic cables. Sunak added that when Russia annexed Crimea in 2013, an early move was to cut the main cable connecting it to the rest of the world.
Despite the warnings from Peach and Sunak, the Russian ships could just be engaged in tapping into the cables to intercept communication to gather intelligence – as the Americans and British have long done – rather than an attempt to cut or disrupt communications.
Peach’s warning came against a background of proposed cutbacks to the UK’s armed forces, including a reduction in the number of marines from 7,000 to 6,000 and the scrapping of two amphibious landing ships as part of a Cabinet Office security review scheduled to be announced early next year. He described the cuts as speculation and spoke instead about reducing overlap between forces.
“In response to the threat posed by the modernisation of the Russian navy – both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships – the UK and other Atlantic Nato allies have had to prioritise missions and tasks in order to protect the sea lines of communication.
“In addition to new ships and submarines, Russia continues to perfect unconventional capabilities and information warfare. Therefore, we must continue to develop our maritime forces with our allies to match Russian fleet modernisation.”
The UK, the US and other Nato countries have been warning of the danger posed by Russia since the Crimea invasion. Although a full-scale invasion by Russia of the Baltic states or elsewhere in eastern Europe is unlikely, the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, has steadily sought to reassert his country’s place in the world.
As well as conventional military involvement in Syria, Russia has been accused of engaging in hybrid warfare, including cyberwarfare, aimed at destabilising Nato.
Peach cited a battle in eastern Ukraine in 2014 that spooked Nato planners. He said Russian artillery, working with drones, had wiped out two brigades of the Ukrainian army within minutes.
He also cited how UK Typhoons had intercepted Russian aircraft operating close to UK airspace and how the UK had provided planes to support Romania and Estonia.
“This is what I mean by [the UK] playing a leading role in Nato and it is essential to our security that we sustain our posture as Russia modernises its forces and flexes its military muscles with a higher risk appetite to achieve its national interest,” Peach said.
Russian tanks taking up their positions