Words beneath the waves
Damage to two undersea cables in the Mediterranean, Flag and Seamewe 4, has cut off communications to Egypt and other areas in the Middle East. It also highlighted the degree to which entire countries are dependent on high capacity underwater cables for their connection to the global economy. "TeleGeography, a U.S. research group that tracks submarine cables around the world, said the severed lines account for 75 percent of the capacity connecting Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries to Europe." This level of dependence is not unusual. For example the Australian Government reports that "submarine cables carry about 99 per cent of Australian international telecommunications traffic."
Today, submarine cables carry the bulk of all international telecommunications traffic. They can be damaged by earthquake, as was the case when a "7.1-magnitude earthquake just south of Taiwan knocked an unprecedented seven submarine communications cables out of service on December 26, impairing international communications to Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Korea, and Singapore." They can be damaged by accident. The outage in the Mediterranean was thought to be caused by "an illegally or improperly anchored ship". Or they can be cut by belligerents in time of war. During the first and second World Wars, the allies imposed an information blockade on Germany by cutting its submarine cables or re-installing them under Allied control.
Submarine cable communications are a strategic asset whose value has only increased with the growing importance of information in the world economy. The Australian Government says it is "concerned about security for international submarine fibre optic telecommunications cables, which are vulnerable to damage from several sources, particularly some kinds of fishing, anchoring and dredging." Among the most important ships in the world today are the fleet of cable-laying and repair ships which are equipped with the unique ability to hover above a particular spot and lift underwater cables by grapple to effect a repair.
This map of the world underwater cable network reveals one of the least appreciated aspects of seapower. The United States Navy, by its control of the oceans, has the potential ability to impose an information blockade on any country on earth in time of war and force any belligerent into using communications channels which it physically controls. Air Force control of outer space means that this blockade ability also extends to the use of communications satellites.
One reason why sea control and space control can be so effective in maintaining a communications blockade is that a naval force can prevent cable repair ships from fixing breaks to enemy cables while escorting the same repair ships to maintain its own network. Even without enemy action, cables routinely suffer breakdowns from natural events. By simply denying freedom of movement to cable repair ships, a dominant navy can effectively cause enemy comms to degrade. The same principle applies to satellite communications. The nation with the ability to launch spare satellites and defend them against enemy action can extend an information blockade into outer space.
But the flip side of the coin is this: unheralded and unnoticed the USN and USAF maintain the "freedom of navigation" not only of the ocean waves but of the ether. It is behind their shield that the world economy literally lives. The cars people drive, the fuel that propels them, the food they eat, the conversations they have, the television signals they receive, all travel the broad highways of sea and sky that men unsung defend.