TechSubmarine Cables: Uncovering the Complexity Behind Global Communication Breakdowns

Submarine Cables: Uncovering the Complexity Behind Global Communication Breakdowns

The last moments of the ship Rubymar (Photo by Al-Joumhouriah channel via Getty Images)
The last moments of the ship Rubymar (Photo by Al-Joumhouriah channel via Getty Images)
Images source: © Getty Images | Mohammed Hamoud
2:44 PM EST, March 9, 2024

According to an analysis by the German company DE-CIX, it's unlikely that the Houthi were responsible for the destruction of cables on the bottom of the Red Sea. The severed cables underline the vulnerability of infrastructure that is crucial to the modern world. But why are these submarine cables so vital?

Recent reports revealed that three significant telecommunications cables at the bottom of the Red Sea were deliberately cut, with global media quickly pointing fingers at the Houthi - a Yemeni armed group known for its solidarity with Hamas and for disrupting world trade by attacking cargo ships in the Suez Canal and Red Sea areas.

While the Houthi have previously been identified as a potential threat to undersea infrastructure, this situation appears to be more complex than initially thought.

The final voyage of the Rubymar

DE-CIX's analysis suggests that the Yemeni group may not be directly responsible for the communication breakdown. Instead, the crew of the Rubymar seems to have inadvertently caused the problem.

Struck by an anti-ship missile on February 18th, this Belize-flagged, 561-feet long bulk carrier, with a displacement of over 35,273 tons and a cargo hold full of fertilizers, suffered a fuel leak, creating a 25-mile slick on the Red Sea's surface. Most concerning, however, was when the damaged ship, abandoned by its crew, drifted for days, its anchor unknowingly scouring the seabed and severing the cables, before finally sinking on March 2nd.

Chinese Anchor

This isn’t the first instance of a dragged anchor causing havoc on underwater infrastructure. In October 2023, the gas pipeline Balticconnector was similarly damaged in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Estonia. The likely culprit: the Chinese ship Newnew Polar Bear, whose anchor was found at the damage site. The ship, having departed Kaliningrad for St. Petersburg with all anchors accounted for, arrived missing one. Whether this was an unfortunate mishap or a deliberate act of sabotage remains to be determined.

Fuel leakage from the ship Rubymar after being hit by a rocket
Fuel leakage from the ship Rubymar after being hit by a rocket© Public domain

Sensitive infrastructure

Damaging submarine cables or gas pipelines, as shown, doesn't require advanced sabotage techniques—a large ship and an anchor can suffice to disrupt data exchange between continents, significantly impacting communication channels, like those in the Red Sea, by approximately 25 percent.

With 35 cables, 15 of which are laid in the Red Sea, handling 90 percent of data exchange between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, the stakes are high. The ramifications of a ship inadvertently dragging its anchor across these seabed cables are considerable.

Information - the oil of the 21st century

Data is today's most precious commodity, fueling the global economy much like steel, coal, oil, and nuclear energy did in previous centuries. The global economy's vulnerability is highlighted by various potential scenarios, from attacks on the internet's core infrastructure to the physical cutting of crucial data centers and submarine cables.

The residents of the Shetlands faced their own information blackout in October 2022, when their communication services were abruptly cut off, likely due to a fishing vessel accidentally damaging a submarine cable. This incident briefly isolated the community of 23,000 people.

Submarine telecom cables exposed on the Orkney coast
Submarine telecom cables exposed on the Orkney coast© The text provided does not match a recognizable language for translation. Please provide a sentence or query for assistance in translation., Lic. CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

Russian marine bottom research

In a world facing the unpredictable threat of leaders like Putin, the presence of Russian "academic" fleets, formally tasked with marine bottom research, raises legitimate concerns. Ships such as the Akademik Boris Petrov and the Jantar, equipped with advanced underwater vehicles, have been closely inspecting the floors of the North Atlantic and near the US eastern coast, where critical submarine cables for Europe and America are located.

Russian hydrographic ship Jantar
Russian hydrographic ship Jantar©
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