How does underwater sabotage work?

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A GIANT WHIRLPOOL raiding in the Baltic Sea, off the Danish island of Bornholm. It is the result of explosions that tore through the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which carry gas from Russia to Europe, early on September 26. The reason was “obvious sabotage”, said Jake Sullivan, America’s national security adviser. It was “deliberate, reckless and reckless”, NATO said. One European official says Russia is the suspect. How does submarine sabotage work?

In recent years, Western officials have become increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of undersea cables, which are estimated to carry 95% of the world’s international digital data. “We are now seeing Russian underwater activity near submarine cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen,” he warned the head of NATO’s submarine forces in 2017, saying “It is clear that Russia is interested in NATO…” This January, the head of the British armed forces noted a “dramatic increase in Russian submarine and underwater activity” over the last two decades, with a particular threat to cables.

Russia has different ways of targeting underwater infrastructure. One threat comes from the Main Deep-Sea Research Group, known by its Russian acronym GUGI, which is separate from the navy and reports directly to the Russian defense ministry. GUGI has a variety of spy ships and specialized submarines that can operate at great depths. They can use divers (called hydronauts), small submarines or underwater drones. In 2019 a fire on board the Losharik, one of GUGI’s small submarines, killed 14 Russians in the Barents Sea – that all of them were officers shows the special nature of the group’s work.

But GUGI is unlikely to be the culprit in this case, argues Bryan Clark, a naval expert at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank. Its submarines are based in the Arctic and focus on the North Atlantic, Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea. To send in divers, drones or torpedoes they would have to cross the North Sea and enter the Baltic, whose narrow entrance is suitable for acoustic surveillance by NATO . Large cream mothers would also be seen.

It would be easier for Russia to deploy autonomous or remotely operated drones from Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic, which hosts the Russian navy’s Baltic Fleet and is based just 300km across the water from the area where the pipelines were damaged. Russia was believed to be pursuing 17 different underwater drone projects as of 2018. A surface ship could deploy a drone remotely, which in turn could launch a torpedo warhead. burst over the target. Another method of attack would be to lay mines, which could be activated remotely weeks or months after they are laid.

In practice, pipes and cables are different types of targets, Mr Clark said. Cables can be badly mapped, hidden by mud or moved by currents. Sometimes they are badly cut or damaged by fishing trawlers. In January a vital cable to the Norwegian island of Svalbard was severed, prompting rumors of Russian involvement; Norwegian police eventually decided it was an accident.

In contrast, pipes are easy to find, but are usually partially buried or protected by concrete, so damage requires a large explosive charge. Nord Stream 1, for example, has a concrete layer up to 11cm thick. Danish officials say each explosion caused a seismic event equivalent to 500kg of TNT. That’s about the same as a car bomb, although gas pressure in the pipeline would add to that effect.

What is not clear is why Russia would target pipelines that are largely owned by Russia itself. Nord Stream 2, due for completion in September 2021, was canceled by Germany in February shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. Nord Stream 1 was shut down on August 31 by Gazprom, the Russian state-owned company that has a majority stake in the pipeline. The pipeline explosion came when Russia escalated the war. On September 29, the Kremlin said that Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, would announce the annexation of four Ukrainian territories the next day – Europe’s biggest land grab since the second world war (although the Mr. Putin’s forces but part of the area).

Niklas Granholm of FOI, the Swedish defense research agency, notes that a pipeline from Norway to Poland via Denmark, which was intended to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, was completed on September 27, the day after the explosion. The attack on Nord Stream 1 and 2 may have been a “show what we can do to you” signal to dissuade the EU from further sanctions, he suggests. “But it’s very difficult to get into the Russian decision-making philosophy.”

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