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The Russians Are Coming?!: Cables and the Internet, Part 3

The worldwide network of undersea internet cables enables massive global transfer of data every day. It is in danger of attack from nations seeking to bring internet activity to a financially devastating standstill?

Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of an three-part series. To read Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here.


Russia doesn't have the military muscle that many suppose it does.Not since the days of the Red Scare have so many average American citizens suspected Russians of hiding behind every bush, and lurking beneath every bed. In the immediate wake of the 2016 election, there were outrageous and unsubstantiated claims from Secretary Clinton and her supporters that, “Russia had stolen the election!” To believe the talking heads, the largest country in the world is attempting to conquer the United States by means fair and foul.


A quick read about Russia, particularly their military, is all it takes to see that Putin and company are little more than a “paper tiger.” While they are attempting to modernize their armed forces, Russia isn’t the Soviet Union of yore. They simply lack the population and industrial base to be a military juggernaut. Even their nuclear forces are outdated and questionable as to their ability to function.


Still, for reasons no one has yet clearly explained, the specter of the “evil Russkie” endures. The most recent iteration comes from the United Kingdom’s top military officer, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach (great name for a warrior). In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute last year, Peach warned that Russia could strike a "catastrophic blow to the world economy by cutting or disrupting the internet cables that run under the sea.”


Peach isn’t alone in his warning. NATO’s former top military chief, Admiral James G. Stavridis (Ret.) is also concerned. In an interview with BBC, Stavridis said, "We've allowed this vital infrastructure to grow increasingly vulnerable, and this should worry us all."


Their concern is based on Russian attempts to modernize their navy, and a growth in (and predilection toward) use of their burgeoning cyber forces to engage adversaries, as they struck at Ukraine, prior to invading. NATO has also been tracking unusual amounts of Russian subs snooping around cables in the North Sea and northern Atlantic Ocean.


Danger from Cable Cutters?


Undersea cables are most definitely vital infrastructure, especially for the international financial system. Presently, these cables contain 688,000 miles of fiber optics that carry 99 percent of international communications around the globe.


Each day alone sees more than 15 million financial transactions, totaling $10 trillion, completed via these cables. A disruption of significant size could cause damage to the world economy. Problematically, none of the experts sounding the alarm seem inclined to explain how Russia would avoid the accompanying economic upheaval.


How much damage could the Russians, or anyone else, cause, however, by disrupting the world’s network of undersea cables? The answer ... not much. The fact is that there are just too many connections that would have to be severed at one time to cause much damage. To get an idea of just how many cables connect our world, check out this interactive map.


It is the redundancy of the cable network that prevents anyone from cutting off the internet to most countries. For example, assume the Russians cut all the Atlantic-based cables linking the U.S. to Europe. No big deal — messages would simply be rerouted across the Pacific onto land based cables that would connect to Europe. Sure, you may not receive your emails as quickly, or be able to watch a movie on YouTube as smoothly, but things would still operate.


If all the cables to and from the U.S. were cut, we would still be able to function quite smoothly utilizing our land networks that connect the continent; it would only be overseas communication that would be affected.


Certain areas of the world and certain countries that have just a few cables connecting them to the internet would be impacted more easily and, in some instances, completely severed by the loss of a cable or two. Cable disruptors need not be a hostile government or terrorists. All it takes is a little ingenuity and determination for individuals can cause a significant disruption.