Thursday, June 20, 2024
 
 

Tackling new threats to critical energy infrastructure

Interview with Professor James Bergeron, Political Advisor at NATO Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM)
James Bergeron, Political Advisor at the NATO Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM).

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The explosions that targeted the Nord Stream pipelines from Russia to Germany in September 2022 and the suspected sabotage of Baltic-connector pipeline, which supplies Finland with gas from Estonia, almost a year later, have put the question of protecting critical energy infrastructure to the forefront.

“The problem of a plausibly deniable attack is that it is a plausibly deniable attack and oftentimes we won’t have the evidence until much later,” James Bergeron, Political Advisor at the NATO Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) in Northwood, United Kingdom, told NE Global in an exclusive interview. He noted that, unlike Nord Stream, it was harder to prove whether the damage to the Baltic connector was deliberate. “Was that just an anchor dragged across the seabed in high seas, or something more malevolent? There may well be an answer, but we have to accept early on in any such event that we probably won’t know unless we are very lucky, and we have human intelligence that will tell us.

What Russia has often done and deliberately – I coined the phrase some years ago – is practice implausible deniability. After all, they want you to know it’s them. They get no benefit if you honestly don’t think they were involved. They get nothing for it. They want you to think they were involved but you can’t quite prove it. Or you’re not willing to take the risk. That’s the nature of hybrid conflict in the grey zone,” Bergeron said.

“Nord Stream, Baltic Connector and all the rest of it woke NATO up to the challenge of critical infrastructure at sea – underwater infrastructure but also other critical infrastructure at sea. So, now the debate is widening. We’re starting to ask questions about wind farms. Is it practical to attack wind farm energy generation by taking out individual masts? No, that’s highly inefficient but the junction boxes are a more vulnerable and effective target. Offshore oil rigs, offshore gas rigs are proliferating. The Norwegians are the best country in NATO for protecting these and taking them as a serious national security concern. We’re learning from them,” he said.

Learning from the Nord Stream and Baltic Connector damage

Bergeron said most of the industry players need to enhance the resilience of their networks from the design stage. “You’ve got to incorporate protection. If you can build monitoring into the cable or pipeline itself do so that’s a major step forward. Then you need to think about how you protect the system, how you surveil it and how you surveil the wider area. There are two fundamental choices here. Neither are perfect. One is trying to protect the critical infrastructure by monitoring the critical infrastructure. The other is monitor those who might do damage to it and that’s not just warships, that’s commercial ships, research ships, it could be tugs,” he said.

Bergeron said he still does not know who blew up Nord Stream. “My personal view though is that Russia had the most reason to. It made sense for them to do it.”

He noted that the recent attacks on undersea energy infrastructure occurred in areas where expertise in the threat is high. “The areas where those attacks occurred are off the shores of some of the countries with the most robust policies and capabilities to protect – Norway, Sweden, Denmark. These countries understand this threat extremely well. They have very good capabilities.”

F 311 HNoMS Roald Amundsen. Photo: NATO MARITIME COMMAND

Bergeron noted that Nord Stream is an interesting problem from a collective defense point of view. “It raised all kinds of interesting questions. First, does an attack on a pipeline trigger the Article V collective defense commitment of NATO? Several nations are impacted but what nation could claim to be the victim in the sense of armed attack under Article 51 of the UN charter? Answer: Russia. It was Gazprom that had majority ownership, via a Swedish intermediary, but it was Russia. The financial interests of minority shareholders in a multi-national contract, if there is an attack on a pipeline, are resolved in a court of law.

That begs one of the wider problems of critical infrastructure protection, which is the law of complex multinational ownership, how do you relate that to national sovereignty? A multinational, commercially owned asset on the high seas connects to any one of a number of states, how do you put that into the armed-attack language of Article 51 of the UN Charter and Article V of the Washington Treaty? What legal rights would NATO or even national warships have to intervene on the high seas? We’ve debated this. Let’s assume we have NATO warships sitting in the middle of the Baltic and we see a Russian research ship and several frog men jump over the side… Legally what are the limits of protective action?” Bergeron asked.

Protecting Black Sea energy infrastructure

He noted protecting energy infrastructure is also going to become an issue in the Black Sea as projects develop. “The output that is going to start next year and the number of ships and platforms that will be at sea, changes the nature of naval presence and maritime security in the Black Sea. This is something that will go into both the general approach to Black Sea security and our increasing awareness in the need to help nations protect undersea and offshore things. On that, one thing we’ve learned in the last year is that companies are still the primary responsible actors, they are the ones who turn to nations to say they need help. Nations are then the responsible actor to exercise state power. But to the degree that nations seek NATO assistance, we need to be ready to help them using our networks and data, so that we’re not starting from scratch when we do try to help them,” Bergeron explained.

The political advisor at Allied Maritime Command argued that the war in Ukraine proved that nuclear peer competitors remain very reluctant to cross into direct conventional confrontation that might escalate. “Therefore, since both sides act for advantage below what they think they other side’s red line is, that creates the grey zone, what we call Hybrid Warfare. I tend to smile when I hear a discussion about deterring grey zone attacks. A contradiction in terms. You generally cannot deter them because they are already designed not to elicit that type of conventional military response, or at least if you do deter or dissuade them, it is more based on unconventional, economic, or other means. So, short of an unambiguous state of war, it’s highly unlikely there would be overt military aggression against energy offshore infrastructure. However, there could be quite a bit of hybrid aggression, intimidation, cyber attacks and lawfare,” Bergeron said.

He suggested that NATO and particularly the regional allies need to think deeply how to support the security of this emerging energy infrastructure, including the Black Sea. “One question we often we hear is “what is NATO going to do to protect underwater infrastructure”, implying all of it, every inch. That’s impossible. If we had a hundred times the warships we have, we would have to sit them over things and would lose all our naval agility because the entire fleet would be fixed doing guard duty.

Protecting everything is hard. But what we can do, and it’s a phrase we’ve used a lot lately, is try to deny deniability. If a malefactor is going to try to harass, undermine or clandestinely attack offshore infrastructure, undersea infrastructure, the main thing we seek to achieve is that they cannot get away with it. Instead, they will be spotted, the cameras will be snapping, the underwater sensors will be monitoring and there will be a signals trail of liability, so that they’re not going to be able to deny their actions and will ultimately be held liable,” Bergeron said.

“In terms of naval response, if NATO and Allies have enough situational awareness, they can have a degree of deterrable presence and indeed immediately after Nord Stream and after Baltic Connector, the NATO standing groups went out and covered the area, and made our presence known. But that’s not enough. Ultimately what we’re going to need here is advanced data sets which helps us predict where intimidation might come. And critically, 24/7, 365-day ISR (Intelligence Reconnaissance Surveillance) which effectively means surveillance, satellites, drones and to a degree eyes on ships but really this is increasingly the world of automation,” he added.

The Strait of Hormuz

Turning to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Aden, Bergeron noted that Iran’s navy is not a substantial threat. “It could be removed from the seas quickly in the event of a conflict. Therefore, it’s out there to posture, but I don’t think they will take on the world’s premier fighting forces at sea – that’s unlikely. Whereas the Houthis are an effective proxy given Iranian tools, targeting and weaponry to make these attacks on shipping,” he said.

The NATO maritime command advisor acknowledged that it isn’t economical to be taking out cheap missiles and drones with one million-dollar missiles. “On the other hand, I would point out that the Russian navy has been unable to even do that in the Black Sea. So, there is a difference. We’re spending a lot of money being very successful in the Red Sea. The Russians are not successful at all. That’s the worse situation to be in.

My personal sense is that Moscow is learning a lesson from what is happening in the Red Sea in that they’re watching Allied warships knock missiles out of the sky with very high success rates. The Russians know what that might mean for them and they also know that they can’t match that capability, otherwise they would not have lost all the ships they’ve lost to Ukraine,” Bergeron told NE Global.

“And so, on one hand I’m impressed, but it does beg a really important issue which is that western navies have developed exquisite technology and brilliant technological warfighting solutions that cost a lot of money. Now we are confronted with a new asymmetric challenge which has to do with low quality but effective missiles and drones produced in bulk and cheaply. We do need better responses to that. The wakeup call has happened but it’s going to take some time to process that through the system,” Bergeron said.

“This is relatively early days in the standup of the CUI mandate given at the Vilnius Summit. NATO now has a strategic coordination hub in Brussels and MARCOM hosts the operational coordination hub” he said. Like its land and air counterparts (LANDCOM & AIRCOM), MARCOM answers directly to NATO’s Allied Command Operations (ACO) which is in Mons, Belgium.

“We just filled out the staffing and we are building the data sets, building the network. And it’s a long process. It’s also not true to say we were never concerned before. The institutional structure is different. But in fact, CUI has always been part of maritime security, it’s always been part of maritime situational awareness, we have always been concerned, it’s always been a part of what ships do.

Today’s challenge is to put together more effectively a networking and knowledge center concentrating on CUI, that we didn’t have before, which assists Commander MARCOM in making decisions, deploying forces and coordinating action. It’s still a work in progress but it’s coming along well, and we’ve learned a great deal,” Bergeron said.

He noted that the full-scale war in Ukraine shifted the paradigm of corporate and commercial shipping risk. “Before 2022, when you used the term ‘risk’ in the commercial and financial worlds, it was always monetarized. Business risk was always financial loss – ‘don’t worry we’re insured anyway.’ Suddenly, the corporate, financial and commercial worlds are thinking about risk more the way that political advisors think about risk. Suddenly it is about geostrategic risk, geopolitical risk, reputational risk. Many firms are now setting up political, strategic risk forecasting and advice centers they never had before. So, there has been a shift. It’s another example of the shift from what we called the era of globalization to something else,” Bergeron said, adding, “In the post-Cold War era, you could put all those issues aside. Today that is not so easy.”

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Co-founder / Director of Energy & Climate Policy and Security at NE Global Media

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