The Terrorist Threat Beneath the Waves

The world’s vast undersea energy infrastructure—oil and gas platforms, wellheads, pipelines and pumps—is now vulnerable to attack by cheap submarines and unmanned vehicles.

Submersible ROV's, such as this one by VideoRay, have been used by the Department of Homeland Security to combat these types of threats. Image by Christian Skauge

By Andrew F. Krepinevich

Nearly 60 years ago the classic television documentary series “Victory at Sea” first recounted the U.S. Navy’s exploits during World War II. Several episodes highlighted the Battle of the Atlantic against German submarines that were waging guerrilla war at sea. Their objective: destroy allied cargo ships providing an economic lifeline from America to Britain.

The German submarines pursued a form of warfare known as commerce raiding, attacking the enemy’s economic assets at sea. The U.S., British and Canadian navies won the Battle of the Atlantic, thanks to their use of convoys and exploitation of advances in antisubmarine warfare technology and tactics—but only after suffering horrendous losses in blood and treasure.

At war’s end, the United States emerged as far and away the world’s predominant naval power. Since then the U.S. commitment to providing unfettered access to the world’s seas to all nations has enabled an era of economic globalization and growth.

Memories of a time when access to the seas was not guaranteed have faded. Yet much has changed in the past 60 years. Two developments in particular suggest a growing need for the United States and other peaceful nations to begin thinking anew about how to defend their maritime commerce, albeit under very different circumstances.

The first development is the emergence of an undersea economy. Two years after World War II, in 1947, the first offshore discovery of oil out of sight of land occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. Today nearly 30% of U.S. oil production and 15% of gas production is produced from wells on the Outer Continental Shelf. Globally, some 30% of the world’s oil output comes from offshore production.

An enormous amount of capital investment has gone into creating this undersea energy infrastructure. This includes the oil platforms that drill, extract and temporarily store oil and gas, as well as the oil and gas wellheads, pipelines and pumps required to transfer the product from its undersea location to shore.

This vast infrastructure was built with the assumption that while it would have to weather natural disasters, it would not be a target in war. In military parlance, much of the infrastructure comprises “soft” targets that would not require much in the way of explosives to cause significant, and perhaps catastrophic, damage. Fortunately many of these targets have not been easy to reach—until now.

This brings us to the second development: the diffusion of military technology and weaponry that can threaten the undersea economy with a new form of commerce raiding.

In recent years, Latin-American narco-cartels have begun moving their cargo by submarine. While not even remotely in a class with the U.S. Navy’s submarines, these simple boats are nevertheless capable of operating undersea in littoral waters while moving tons of cocaine. They have a range of up to 2,000 miles and cost but a few million dollars to build. These submarines can submerge to depths of a few dozen feet, which is sufficient to make detection difficult, allowing them to approach offshore oil platforms with little or no warning.

Even more disturbing is the proliferation of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, which were once almost exclusively operated by Western militaries. With the growth of the undersea economy, civilian development and production took off in the 1980s. UUVs are now widely used for a variety of commercial and scientific purposes.

These UUVs are perhaps best known for their role in locating sunken ships. Unlike the small submarines operated by narco-cartels, UUVs can descend to the ocean floor. If adapted for military purposes, they could carry mines and other explosives, as well as cameras and electronic sensors. They are also becoming cheaper, with a wide variety of systems available for sale in the private sector.

Then there are naval mines, now manufactured in more than 30 countries. Some producers, like Russia, are developing mines with better sensors, target-recognition systems, stealthy coatings, and self-propulsion systems to enable them to move about. But mines don’t need to be sophisticated to be effective, especially against the thousands of soft targets populating the continental shelf.

While narco-cartels are interested in making money, not war, this is not the case with radical nonstate entities or their state sponsors. Some groups, including al Qaeda, seek to achieve victory not by defeating their enemies on the battlefield but by inflicting unacceptable pain or damage, either against defenseless civilians or economic infrastructure. Toward this end, radical Islamists have undertaken attacks, employing far less sophisticated means and with minimal success, on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden in October 2002 and Saudi oil production facilities in February 2006. Should the U.S. find itself in a confrontation with Iran, it might employ proxies to achieve similar ends.

For a relatively small effort on their part, in short, America’s enemies could potentially impose enormous costs on its undersea economy, including loss of energy resources, damaged infrastructure and environmental degradation.

This nascent threat to America’s undersea energy assets demands attention before it arrives on the nation’s doorstep. The Department of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Defense Department, should explore the cost and feasibility of options for defending the undersea energy economy, so they can move quickly to build a defensive shield if the need arises. The intelligence community should monitor the threat by focusing on the proliferation of undersea means of attack, especially as it pertains to radical nonstate entities. On the diplomatic front, efforts should be made to engage in this effort friendly states that have significant undersea energy assets of their own, such as Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Norway and the United Kingdom.

Given the stakes involved, just as the U.S. and its allies developed the forces, capabilities and methods needed to defend their economic assets at sea during the Battle of the Atlantic, a similar effort is needed now with respect to America’s undersea economic interests. The alternative is to hope for the best—and hope is not a strategy.

Mr. Krepinevich is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

(c) 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.