Sunak Cancels Boris Johnson’s Yacht To Build Pipeline And Cable Protection Ships
by John Konrad (gCaptain) Monday, the UK announced it canceled Boris Johnson’s National Flagship project. The flagship was an elegant yacht intended to promote maritime trade and serve as a replacement for the famed Royal Yacht Britannia decommissioned in 1997. The money will be used to assure the funding of two subsea surveillance ships that can protect pipelines and undersea internet cables.
Boris Johnson announced plans for the national flagship in May 2021 as a showcase for UK shipbuilding and planned to name the yacht after Queen Elizabeth’s late husband Prince Philip but the UK’s new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak hopes to cut government spending. Sunak has also been a strong proponent of infrastructure security. In 2017 Sunak authored a study on the vulnerability of subsea cable infrastructure to foreign espionage and sabotage that included investing in new subsea capable ships. This might be why he asked UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace to shift funding from the yacht to subsea surveillance ships.
“In the digital age of cloud computing, the idea that steel and plastic pipes are integral to our life seems anachronistic. Nothing could be further than the truth,” wrote Sunak in his report. “In a single day, these cables carry some $10 trillion of financial transfers and process some 15 million financial transactions. While few realize it, our ability to transmit confidential information, to conduct financial transactions, and to communicate internationally all depend upon a global network of physical cables lying under the sea.”
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary will operate the two Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) ships that will replace the yacht in the defense budget. These ships will be tasked with protecting subsea cables and pipelines. The Royal Navy hopes the first MROS ships will be completed by January 2023.
The new MROS ships are designed to be adaptable and will include advanced systems to operate remotely and launch autonomous systems for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare.
“We will invest in MROS ships that protect sensitive Defence infrastructure, and civil infrastructure, to improve our ability to detect threats to the seabed and cables,” said Ben Wallace, UK Secretary of State for Defence. “I have therefore directed the termination of the National Flagship competition with immediate effect to bring forward the first MROS ship in its place and I shall make further announcements on our continued Naval investment in the coming weeks.”
The Sunak Subsea Report
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s 2017 report titled “Undersea Cables – Indispensable, Insecure” looks prescient in the wake of attacks on Nord Stream pipelines and, in addition to the development of subsea security ships, contains strategy on how the UK can better protect subsea infrastructure. A UK naval strategist gCaptain interviewed hope this is just the first in several announcements from the Sukak government on maritime security.
“The prospect of a Russian intelligence ship lurking near American waters – armed with submersibles capable of cutting undersea cables – might seem more at home in a Tom Clancy novel than the pages of The New York Times,” wrote Sunak in 2017. “Yet in late 2015, American military and intelligence officials spoke openly of a sustained pattern of Russian submarines and vessels ‘aggressively operating’ near cables, highlighting that the vital lines of communication are vulnerable to attack by Russian naval forces.”
One idea Sukak proposed was the adoption of Australian-style Cable Protection Zones (CPZs) around its coast in areas with high value communication corridors. CPZs ban certain types of anchoring or fishing and require greater disclosure by any vessels inside them and enjoy enhanced Coast Guard monitoring. They carry significant penalties for breaches of rules. Working with international partners, Sunak asked the UK to encourage the establishment of CPZs in the Mediterranean and Suez, in order to safeguard connectivity in strategically important theatres such as the Middle East.
The Sunak report also suggested developing monitoring devices… relatively cheap sensors that detect sonar frequencies near key undersea infrastructure and along cable routes. If the sensors are tripped, they could alert nearby coast guard or navy assets. He also proposed more expensive ideas like lying a network of “Dark Cables” that could serve as backup cable systems and bypass critical cable chokepoints.
“Undersea cables are the very definition of international infrastructure and an international response is needed if they are to be successfully safeguarded against military threats,” Sunak wrote in 2017. “The UK should press at the NATO level to promote the undertaking of naval exercises and war games to hone potential responses to an attack on undersea cable infrastructure. These exercises would work with the submarine cable industry to test protocols and defense strategies in an international setting.”
Sunak’s report also asked NATO to increase maritime capabilities to protect the freedom of the seas and our sea lanes of communication. It also focused on Russian anti-cable capabilities and warned about Chinese activities in the South China Sea and Iranian actions in the Arabian Gulf.
Only time will tell if Sunak will implement these ideas and strengthen the UK and NATO’s maritime security posture or, like most leaders of maritime nations including the United States, get too distracted by domestic concerns to focus on maritime strategy and strength.
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