NATO says Russian ships have mapped critical underwater infrastructure in Western military alliance waters.
Following the apparent attack on the Nord Stream gas pipeline, NATO has established a new center focused on protecting undersea pipelines and data cables, and there are growing concerns that Russia has mapped vital Western underwater infrastructure in Europe.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday that defense ministers from NATO member states approved plans for a NATO “maritime center for the security of critical underwater infrastructure” at a meeting in Brussels.
The center will be based at NATO’s naval headquarters in Northwood, near London, and will, among other things, be responsible for establishing a new surveillance system to monitor parts of the Atlantic Ocean as well as the North, Baltic, Mediterranean and Black seas.
The effort to protect critical Western underwater infrastructure comes in response to the alleged sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines in September. Who was behind the sabotage of the pipeline remains unclear.
“The threat is developing,” said former German three-star general Hans Werner Wellmann, explaining that NATO acted after Russian ships mapped out information on critical infrastructure in NATO-allied areas.
“Russian vessels are actively mapping our critical undersea infrastructure. There is increased concern that Russia may target undersea cables and other critical infrastructure to disrupt the lives of Westerners,” he told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Wellman said the new NATO center would bring together NATO members, allies and the private sector to help “improve information sharing on evolving risks and threats”.
Some 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) of oil and gas pipelines criss-cross the North Sea alone, making it impossible to continuously monitor other underwater data systems, networks and grids.
“It is impossible for NATO to have a presence along these thousands of kilometers of undersea infrastructure,” Stoltenberg told reporters after chairing the meeting.
“But we can do a better job of gathering … intelligence, sharing information, connecting the dots, because in the private sector, there’s also a lot” of information on ship movements and maritime surveillance, he said.
Instead of trying to sit on the sidelines, the new center and NATO allies will focus on high-risk areas, such as pipelines in shallow waters that divers can easily reach. Potential damage to data cables can be mitigated more easily by simply plugging in more cables.