Underwater Submarine Cables.

Lima Charlie: New Royal Navy ship that will safeguard the internet

Underwater Submarine Cables.

The Royal Navy is to acquire a new Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship (MROSS) as one of the biggest outcomes of the recent Integrated Review.

This ship will be used to help the Royal Navy monitor the situation below the surface of the ocean and ensure that cables and pipelines are safe and secure.

This sounds a relatively mundane task, so why has the British Government deemed it to be of such critical importance?

The answer is that the world of subsea cables has quietly become one of the most important parts of the UK’s critical national infrastructure in recent years and is a high priority target for hostile state interference. 

Cables have long been an important strategic asset, used for the passing of information and communications between nations. At the outbreak of both World Wars, some of the earliest aggressive acts carried out by British Forces were cutting German cables around the world, preventing secret messages from being passed.

Throughout the Cold War, cables were a crucial target for espionage and intelligence operations. The US Navy routinely tapped Soviet cables, using nuclear submarines operating inside Soviet waters to send out divers to place wiretaps and collect all manner of recordings that was a priceless intelligence prize.

After the end of the Cold War, the rise of the internet meant that deep-sea cables played an increasingly important part in global commerce and trade. Fibre optic cables have been laid across the world’s oceans, carrying data between nations that permits everything from financial traffic and stock trading through to the ability to watch movies or read websites. There are more than 380 cables in use today, forming a series of networks that is well over 750,000 miles long in total.

At the moment some 99% of global internet data is transmitted via subsea cables, and the potential for damage to the global economy if they were to be damaged is huge.

If, for example, a cable were to be broken or tampered with, it could take days or weeks to fix.

Yantar Russian Ship
Yantar - Russian intelligence gathering ship. Copyright: Russian Ministry of Defence.

Although there is some resilience in the system, for example, to reroute data when a ship's anchor lands on a cable and breaks it, if there was widespread loss of cables then the damage to the global economy could be enormous. Protection of these cables is vital to ensure that the Western economy can survive.

The biggest threat to cables comes not just from underwater earthquakes or accidents, but intentional sabotage and disruption. The Russians are known to be extremely interested in monitoring cable routes and have invested heavily in a new series of ships that seem to be capable of conducting missions to these cables.

For example, the Russian spy ship Yantar has featured a lot in the news in recent years. Entering service in 2015, she has been seen operating around the world near various key communication cables and is believed to possess the ability to launch and recover deep-diving submarines and remotely operated vehicles that can be used to reach the cables. 

The worry for the West is that the Yantar has been seen operating globally and could be being used to carry out both intelligence collection work, and possibly prepositioning sabotage missions, that could destroy the cables if needed. While this may sound a bit ‘spy movie’ like, the stakes are high – if the cables are destroyed, then the West could lose vital communication links, while Russia would not experience the same problem. In wartime, this could make a massive difference to operations, particularly if NATO military communication links were disrupted.

The Russians have invested a great deal in this area. Yantar is believed to be the first of at least three ships, while the Russian Navy is known to have an underwater reconnaissance organisation, nicknamed ‘GUGI’ which specialises in deep-sea missions. 

HMS Protector
HMS Protector. UK MOD © Crown copyright 2020

During the Cold War, a number of nuclear submarines known as the ‘INDIA class’ were built that were used to carry out special operations at sea, possibly including cable taps. Today it is likely that there are all manner of new submarines and other technology entering service that could be used to access and disrupt cables if required.

Ships like the Yantar are known to operate in places where cables are located but getting down to the cables to check what has been done to them is more difficult. It is technically complex and time-consuming to carry out a cable inspection and spot whether there are any wiretaps or signs of tampering in place. Very few nations possess the ability to operate at these sorts of depths, which can be thousands of metres below the surface, in the pitch black and where the pressure is so severe it would destroy any submersible almost instantly.

For the West, this poses a major problem. The risk is that the Russians have been carrying out espionage work, but trying to work out what, where or how much of a threat it poses is much more difficult to determine. This is why the Royal Navy is in the market for a new ship to help try and monitor what is going on beneath the surface. 

This will not be the first vessel operated by the RN that has been used for undersea diving and surveillance operations. Currently, the Hydrographic Squadron has five ships, the most prominent of which is Ice Patrol Ship HMS Protector, used to carry out patrols and scientific research in the Antarctic, and whose hull is painted bright red. 

There are two ‘E’ class ships – Echo and Enterprise, which function as general-purpose hydrographic ships, that can produce charts and carry out a wide range of other technical activity, as well as support Mine Warfare operations by acting as an HQ ship for task forces. 

HMS Enterprise
HMS Enterprise. UK MOD © Crown copyright 2020.

One of the smallest ships in the Royal Navy is HMS Magpie, a catamaran design used for conducting inshore surveys around UK waters. Some of her work has been critical in helping ensure that Portsmouth harbour is properly surveyed to enable the new Royal Navy aircraft carriers to enter and leave harbour safely – as the largest warships ever built by the UK, they need a precisely charted approach route to prevent them from running aground. 

Finally, HMS Scott is one of the larger vessels in the Royal Navy and is used for a wide variety of deep-water surveys and has also acted as Antarctic patrol ship. Scott has been in service for 24 years, but it is hard to find out much on her career – much of it seems to have been spent in the Atlantic, but she retains a relatively low profile for such a large vessel. 

The Royal Navy has previously had vessels that conducted underwater support – for much of the Cold War this was the diving support vessel HMS Reclaim, which was the last Royal Navy vessel to have sails, and only paid off in 1979.

She was used to supporting diving work around the world, and helped support several operations, and even starred in an episode of Doctor Who.

Her successor was the seabed operations vessel called HMS Challenger. Rarely has there been a more mysterious vessel used by the Royal Navy. Fitted with a very precise propulsion system that allowed her to maintain station in one spot, and with a variety of very specialist diving capabilities (including a ‘moon pool’ to operate remotely operated submersibles), the Challenger was built towards the end of the Cold War. It remains unclear precisely what Challenger did during her life, but there are a variety of rumours on the internet, most of which seem to be based on bad Cold War novels and movies.

Her actual roles and missions remain extremely sensitive to this day, and she only had a noticeably short life, entering service in 1984 and paying off at the end of the Cold War in 1990 and then being resold, remaining in service to this day for diamond extraction off the coast of Namibia.

The loss of Challenger led to the end of deep diving operations in the Royal Navy and created a gap that has never quite been filled in the same way. It is likely to be this gap that the MRSS fills, trying to provide the ability to operate a range of submersibles and other advanced equipment to monitor cables and other undersea infrastructure properly.

HMS Challenger
HMS Challenger © Kev Slade

The Newton paid off in 2010 but was reportedly replaced by the new build vessel ‘SD Victoria’. This 3600-tonne vessel is used as a support craft in a similar way, although there is very little publicly available information about her. It is known that she has been seen in Gibraltar and other locations carrying special forces insertion craft, so she is likely to be used in a similar way to the Newton. 

It may be many years, if ever, before the public learn of the sort of missions carried out by the Newton and Victoria, but it is likely that they have been used for all manner of work that is instrumental in keeping the UK and allies safe.

The planned acquisition of the MROSS then should be seen as the latest in a long line of new technology for the Royal Navy that is intended for use in some extremely challenging environments. The ability to operate at great depths to monitor Russian and others activity below the water and secure the security of cables is going to be vital for long term economic security. 

This is just the latest in a long series of ships in the Royal Navy whose work is shrouded in mystery and shadows, carried out away from the glare of publicity, but which plays an utterly crucial role in defending the UK and allies from harm. 

HMS Scott
HMS Scott. UK MOD © Crown copyright 2020

There is also a deterrent value too in this ship’s existence. Currently, the Russians know they can send Yantar and other ships out safe in the knowledge that the West would find it extremely difficult to work out what they have been up to. But, as the MRSS enters service, it helps provide a credible means of examining where Yantar has been and trying to work out what she has been doing. 

It is likely that the MROSS will live an existence that will be mostly in the shadows, probably attracting relatively little interest or publicity, but doing work that is vital to national security.

She will not be the first Royal Navy operated vessel to carry out this sort of particularly sensitive work, often hiding in plain sight. During the Cold War, the Royal Navy carried out a lot of sensitive submarine operations around the world, some are so secret that even now, 60 years after they happened, the files remain Top Secret. The National Archives in Kew lists a variety of interesting operational titles like Operation ‘Mizzen’ and ‘Scoop’, which refer to submarine operations from the 1960s, but will apparently never be opened to the public. 

We do know that more than one Royal Navy submarine engaged in very active missions during the Cold War. Trips into Soviet waters, particularly off Murmansk, home to the Northern Fleet, were routine and at times extremely risky. More than one Royal Navy submarine found itself the target of aggressive harassment by Soviet vessels because of its mission.

Other submarines carried out tracking of Soviet submarines out at sea, trying to ensure that they could be monitored, and their activity recorded, to help build a pattern of life that could be crucial in wartime to help find and sink them. This was often extremely risky, given that the two nuclear-powered submarines would be operating closely together, with one of them not knowing the other was there, and at any time could turn into a disaster if it changed course and steered unknowingly towards the British submarine.

One of the most audacious Cold War missions that has been publicly revealed is the efforts by the nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror, which later sank the General Belgrano, to recover a ‘towed sonar array’ off a Soviet intelligence collection vessel (known as an AGI) while the ship was at sea.

This plan required the submarine to covertly track a Soviet AGI at sea, while it was trailing a lengthy sonar array. These were crucial to Soviet efforts to track Western submarines, and NATO did not know how effective the technology was. To help, Conqueror was fitted with bolt cutters and a TV camera and had to sneak up behind the ship and cut the towed sonar cable off, all without being detected. 

This was an audacious mission, and one that the MOD will neither confirm nor deny to this day.

But reports suggest that she was successful and was able to recover a length of cable prior to it being recovered by divers, who then returned it onboard the submarine, and then safely back to the UK. 

Other vessels that have conducted work in more mysterious circumstances include the old Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service vessel ‘Newton’ which was commissioned as a cable laying vessel in the 1970s, and used throughout the 1980s for support to oceanographic research at sea. 

It is not entirely clear what missions she was used on, but during the 1990s she underwent a lengthy refit that turned her from a cable ship into a special forces support ship. Information on this role is sketchy, but it appears that she spent about a decade acting as a mothership for all manner of operations linked to the SAS and SBS

There are suggestions online that she may have carried mini submersibles, used by the SBS for inserting troops ashore covertly, and a variety of other raiding craft. There are pictures on the internet that show she used to carry some special forces insertion craft, and presumably carried out a variety of sensitive missions around the world. 

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.

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