Houthis could attack Britain’s underwater internet cables

Yemen's Houthi followers at a rally in solidarity with Palestinians on Sunday
Yemen's Houthi followers at a rally in solidarity with Palestinians on Sunday - MOHAMMED HAMOUD/GETTY

Houthi rebels could attack Britain’s underwater internet cables, a new report has warned.

The Iran-backed militia have conducted drone and missile attacks against ships in the Red Sea, disrupting global shipping, in response to the war in Gaza.

A report by Policy Exchange has warned that the Houthis could “broaden” their response to the conflict by taking it “to the subsea domain” and targeting underwater cables.

Undersea cables are vital digital connectivity infrastructure with some 500 fibre-optic cables crossing the ocean floor across the world.

British companies are among the consortia which own Red Sea cables, with British Telecom owning a stake in the major AAE-1 cable that runs from Europe through Africa to Asia.

Policy Exchange has warned that Iran-backed groups, including the Houthis and Hezbollah, have indicated on official social media channels that they could target the cables.

Fibre optics such as these are laid down by cableships across the seabeds of the world
Fibre optics such as these are laid down by cableships across the seabeds of the world - ABACA PRESS/ALAMY

It further warns that the Houthis have had combat diver training and possess an array of naval mines which could “damage cables at shallower depths”.

The report said: “Whilst these groups are not thought to possess the equipment necessary to conduct sophisticated subsea warfare, Iran could provide such capabilities.

“In any case, cables passing through the shallower waters of the Red Sea are exposed to far more rudimentary methods, such as cutting and mines.”

It added: “Whilst Iran depends on this infrastructure for its own connectivity, any conflagration which threatens the regime’s survival may lead it to calculate that the cables have become a strategic target.”

The new report highlighted the importance of protecting the cables, upon which “99 per cent of the UK’s digital communications with the outside world depend”.

Our social, economic, political and military systems are therefore entirely reliant upon our ability to police and protect the cables which run in and beyond our territorial waters,” it added.

Bulk sub-sea industrial glassfibre optic cable on a metal spool on a ship's stand. The orange data line is coiled around a black reel in storage
Bulk sub-sea industrial glassfibre optic cable on a metal spool on a ship's stand. The orange data line is coiled around a black reel in storage - DOLORES HARVEY/ALAMY

Air Chief Marshal Lord Peach, former chairman of the NATO military committee, said in Monday’s report: “The Iran-backed Houthis assault on global maritime shipping has already demonstrated the ease with which our adversaries can wreak havoc on the water’s surface; there are growing concerns that they might also start doing so below it.”

He described undersea cables as “the unseen arteries of global communication”, the significance of which “extends far beyond digital connectivity, underpinning the resilience of our economic systems, the efficacy of our defensive frameworks, and the cohesion of our modern societies”.

The new report, backed by several senior political figures including Sir Michael Fallon, the former defence secretary, and ex-Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, urges the Government to develop a strategy to “achieve defence and deterrence in the undersea domain”.

It also recommends that the Government offer “clearer guidance” to the Ministry of Defence and cable owners, often private sector stakeholders, “where their respective duties to protect cables begin and end”.

‘Seabed warfare era has arrived’

Also among the recommendations is further cooperation with allies to deter hostile undersea activity further afield, citing Iran and China as nations with means to disrupt cable networks.

“The UK and its allies must not be caught flat-footed, and unable to deter and disrupt aggression against our critical maritime infrastructure along the seabed,” it added.

Jeremy Quin, Tory MP and chairman of the defence select committee, said in response to the report: “The era of seabed warfare has arrived in the Euro-Atlantic, and other contested regions may soon follow suit.”

The US and UK have conducted military strikes on Houthi bases in Yemen to try and deter the attacks.

It comes as the Pentagon confirmed on Sunday that US and British forces had conducted a further five “self-defence strikes” against the Houthis.

According to a statement from US Central Command, these included targeting “the first observed Houthi employment” of an unmanned underwater vessel since attacks began.

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