ROME — Italian submarines are to monitor and deter attacks on undersea internet cables in the Mediterranean Sea as part of a new deal between the Italian Navy and the country’s largest private cable provider.
Amid fears of the threat of sabotage to undersea cables that carry most of the world’s internet traffic, the Navy is teaming with Sparkle to keep an eye on its fiber-optic bundles.
“Today, modern technology allows easy access to the underwater dimension,” said Rear Adm. Vito Lacerenza, the commander of the Navy’s submarine fleet.
“Even yachts can deploy submarines or undersea drones, so there is an increased need for more accurate situational awareness in the underwater environment to monitor and protect critical infrastructure such as these cables, which carry over 95% of the world’s internet volume,” he told Defense News.
In a statement, the Navy and Sparkle said they will undertake “joint reconnaissance and monitoring activities of Sparkle’s proprietary submarine cables and neighbouring areas,” adding that the service “will also provide cartographic support for the seabed of interest as well as assistance in emergency operational situations.”
Lacerenza said the Navy will “exchange information” with the firm.
“Their data will give us a better awareness of the network and its critical aspects to help us monitor it better,” he said. “Knowing where these cables [are] means we can offer better surveillance using submarine sensors.
“Crises all around the Mediterranean have increased the attention we pay to this infrastructure. What we are learning is that the undersea domain is as important as space when it comes to protecting national economies.”
NATO ministers in 2020 discussed the danger of Russian submarines cutting or tapping undersea internet cables, and the U.K. last year announced it would build a new surveillance ship to protect cables. At the time, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the “lights could go out” if “incredibly important” undersea cables were attacked, specifically noting that Russia had “taken a deep interest” in the cables.
In recent years, a growing number of cables were laid in the Atlantic Ocean, with some entering the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar and exiting through the Suez Canal to reach Asia and the Middle East. Some also come ashore at junction boxes in Sicily.
In addition to its four U212A submarines, the Italian Navy is now building four upgraded NFS — or Near Future Submarine — versions to replace its older Sauro-class vessels.
“The NFS submarines will be better able to network with sensors on other platforms, as well as using undersea drones, all of which will make them proficient at monitoring the cables,” Lacerenza said.
He also suggested cables themselves might act as sensors since they register nearby changes in pressure, offering the Navy the possibility of accessing an unforeseen network of sensors stretching across the seafloor.
“We are looking into that now,” he said.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.