‘Nord Stream’ – the need to prioritise security of critical infrastructure at sea

‘Nord Stream’ – the need to prioritise security of critical infrastructure at sea

The recent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline, a key piece of critical infrastructure in which Europe energy sector depends, highlights the requirement to prioritise security underwater infrastructure.

At the very least, such events involving intentional destruction, illustrate how the energy sector and critical infrastructure has become a weapon in modern warfare.

Clearly, there is a security vulnerability when looking at underwater infrastructure. It is presented here that while unmanned maritime systems (UMSs) (eg: underwater drones) can pose a threat to such infrastructure, they can also offer a solution in providing security.

The 21st century has seen a range of events in which critical infrastructure and the energy sector have been targeted in conflicts (Syria, Gulf War) to achieve a military advantage. The recent sabotage of the Nord Steam pipeline highlights how targeting critical infrastructure for a military objective is no longer limited to the territorial boundaries of a conflict zone. Notably, the Nord Stream incident happened in international waters of the Baltic Sea at a heightened time of political instability.

Here, in Australia, an island nation that is surrounded by some of the most regionally significant waters remains vulnerable. The infrastructure in which all Australians depend sitting on the ocean’s floor must have its protection prioritised and its strategic criticality emphasised.

Nord Stream and underwater drones

Around the time of the Nord Stream incident, there had been reports by the Norwegian authorities of a suspicious amount of drone activity surrounding Nord Stream I. And, in response to this incident, it has been highlighted that “there is a vulnerability around anything that sits on the seabed, whether that’s gas pipelines, whether that’s data cables that places an obligation on organisations like the Royal Navy – but not just us – to have a means of monitoring and providing security around it”.

Whilst militaries around the world have been engaged in research and development of unmanned maritime systems for approximately two decades, there is now an increasing need to ensure operational capability.

At the time of writing this article, the definitive cause of the damage to Nord Stream was yet to be determined, however, certain militaries had taken steps to keep a watchful eye on the situation given associated ambiguities. Whilst the British Royal Navy would not disclose the countermeasures which they had employed in response to the incident, it was noted that there had been recent commission of “a specialised vessel, the multi-role ocean surveillance ship, for patrolling and protecting underwater infrastructure using sensors and autonomous underwater drones.” In Norway, Norwegian authorities have started to place drone detection systems on offshore oil and gas platforms to investigate recent safety breaches.

With the cause of the damage to Nord Stream remaining underdetermined, some defence analysts have stated that underwater drones could have been employed to commit the possible sabotage.

Regardless of whether underwater drones were responsible for the damage, this incident highlights how such vehicles could be conversely used in the future to actually ensure and maintain the security of underwater infrastructure.

Australia – securing critical infrastructure at sea

Aside from the Nord Stream incident itself, one lesson to be learnt it is that militaries, governments, and organisations must ensure and prioritise the security of critical infrastructure and energy infrastructure at sea.

Surrounded by ocean, Australia’s maritime security is crucial. We are almost entirely dependent on ocean trade and exports. Nearly 99% of our trade occurs by sea through the Indo-Pacific region, with 2/3 of our exports occurring through the South China Sea.

When we look below the ocean’s surface itself, Australia’s connectivity to the rest of the world relies on vast network of cables sitting along the seabed. Although difficult to access, internet cables running along the seabed are extremely vulnerable, and often irreplaceable. Notably, Australia’s vulnerability below the ocean surface is well-known.

Already, several nations in the Indo-Pacific have the technology and vessels capable of tampering with such infrastructure in a stealthily manner. And, whilst damage caused by natural disasters cannot necessarily be prevented, damage undertaken by malicious actors can be mitigated.

In 2019, it was announced that the presence of unmanned maritime systems the Indo-Pacific was likely to increase as a result of development plans announced by Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Singapore has tested maritime surface vehicles, with Japan and South Korea investing in underwater maritime systems for surveillance purposes.

Investment in unmanned maritime systems (UMSs)

Given the broader deterioration in global security and the advent of tensions in the Indo-Pacific and the Ukraine, more needs to be done to secure critical infrastructure, particularly at sea. Unmanned maritime systems can be one part of the solution.

When we discuss unmanned maritime systems, we are collectively discussing those which can remain on the water’s surface, and those which can dive deep below, where it would otherwise be inaccessible by humans.

Carrying a vast array of security benefits due to their operational capacity, the depth they can achieve, and the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) they can gather, their agility also rests on the fact that they can be operated remotely, semi-autonomously, or (with technological advancements) autonomously.

Such vehicles located around Australia’s maritime borders and more broadly, the Indo-Pacific have the potential to contribute to regional surveillance, mine detection, coastal patrols, combatting illegal fishing boats, monitoring oil pollution, and potential human trafficking.

Additionally, such systems can be equipped with sensors, weapons, or other payloads and can have extended endurance. They are also in many respects more cost effective, as they do not depend on a manned crew.

With the rapid development of malicious underwater drones, it is even more crucial that governments and militaries counter emerging threats by equally developing UMSs that can mitigate the threat posed by malicious attacks by foreign entities, and malicious underwater drones.

Already drones are being deployed for ISR, mine detection, search and rescue, military operations and maritime countermeasures. It makes sense that such technologies can be employed to secure infrastructure in which Australia’s trade, economy and security depends.

Investment in unmanned drones is already underway by the Australian government and the Australian Defence Force, with several projects in development to increase Australia’s surveillance capabilities at sea. An example includes the Triton Unmanned Aerial System, that will be used for maritime patrol and other surveillance roles. Other capabilities being funded in a maritime context include submarines and forms part of the AUKUS agreement entered under the last government. However, most projects are largely aerial rather than surface or underwater.

Pleasingly, the Australian Government and Defence Force have made positive steps in securing underwater capabilities, yet we remain somewhat behind our regional counterparts. The need for such capabilities is not a new one, with academics and specialists urging further investment in this field since the mid 2010s.

Development of UMS capabilities in Australia

Whilst it has been announced that Australia would be developing and funding unmanned submarines, more needs to be achieved in order to properly secure Australia’s critical infrastructure at sea. Critical infrastructure in which the entire nation depends.

It was noted back in 2015, that whilst the Triton is an agile capability for aerial surveillance, it is not without its limitations, with the suggestion that alternative technologies also be considered. One such technology, which is proving to be a very capable technology, with significant strategic benefits, includes the Ocius Bluebottle USV. The Bluebottle, which is Australian-built, unlike other UMSs does not rely on fuel, but instead is operated through the use of solar and wave energy. This allows the Bluebottle to remain at sea for weeks or months at a time. In fact, it has been argued that:

The Ocius Bluebottle USV is a great example of a low-cost local solution that could provide a network of hundreds or even thousands of autonomous surface platforms to undertake ASW and ensure network connectivity with undersea platforms.

Further, again highlighting Australia’s investment in UMSs, and also the recognition that maritime security remains a national priority, Australia’s Department of Defence have recently partnered with Anduril, a global tech company to design extra-large autonomous undersea vehicles (XLAUVSs). These vehicles are typically between 10-30m in length and are able to carry various military payloads. Their aim is to deliver a manufacture-ready vehicle by 2025.

This particular project/contract forms part of a larger commitment to securing Australia’s infrastructure at sea and its maritime capabilities, specifically, Remote Undersea Surveillance – StaR Shot.

It was noted in 2020, that there was an increasing need to deploy UUVs to undertake mine countermeasures, due to difficulties in communicating through water. Currently, autonomous capabilities for the detection of mines are currently underway within the Australian Defence Force (ADF). 

As outlined in the RASI-AI Campaign Plan 2025 – Warfare Innovation Navy, published but the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Australian Government and RAN are actively exploring current coalitions to develop autonomous underwater vehicles. Currently, RAN is actively involved in the NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative which is managed by both the US and UK navies. Further to this:

Navy also contributes to coalition Operational Experimentation (OPEX) through activities such as Autonomous Warrior and collaborates with coalition partners through numerous working groups, notably the AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems (AURAS) project. This collaboration supports the development of doctrine, concepts and tactics; standards and data sharing; test and evaluation; and common frameworks and capability maturity assessments” (RAN, 2020:31).

The RASI-AI Strategy 2040 – Warfare Innovation Navyclearly articulates current capabilities of USVs and UUVs being deployed by RAN. Further, it highlights the path forward, and potential capabilities. The RASI-AI Strategy 2040 also highlights how autonomous systems would allow RAN to operate on a scale that would not be able to achieve purely with manned/crewed platforms, stating that:

RAS-AI capabilities enhance Navy’s persistent ISR coverage, situational awareness and operational reach in all domains and the full spectrum of operations.

Conclusive Remarks

Positively, Australia has made waves in its commitment to secure underwater capabilities. However, with many of these capabilities not being operational for several more years, there must be consideration on how Australia can, in the interim, defend and secure critical infrastructure at sea.

Critically, we remain well behind our regional counterparts, and our strategic partners. Afterall the United States Department of the Navy launched their Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) Master Plan in 2004.

Meredith Primrose Jones & Aiden Warren
05 October 2022


05 October 2022


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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.