Hybrid Warfare, Italy’s Rauti: EU Has Strategic Role in Wider Mediterranean

Politics - May 28, 2024

In the context of global security, hybrid warfare is a growing threat that combines traditional military operations with unconventional tactics to destabilise adversaries. A crucial element of this threat concerns submarine cables, vital infrastructure for global communications, which have become potential targets for hybrid attacks. Submarine cables are responsible for 93% of the world’s communications, including internet data, telecommunications and financial transactions. Stretching over 1.2 million kilometres, these cables form the backbone of global connectivity. Their strategic importance is immeasurable, and their vulnerability is a critical weakness for modern economies. Russia has developed advanced submarine capabilities, focusing on the ability to sabotage submarine cables as part of its hybrid warfare strategy. NATO has expressed grave concern about Russia’s ability to threaten this critical infrastructure, particularly after the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline, which highlighted the vulnerability of undersea infrastructure to external attack. In the Red Sea, the Houthi rebel group has shown an interest in sabotaging maritime infrastructure, including submarine cables. Attacks on commercial vessels and maritime infrastructure in the region underscore the risk posed by non-state actors who can compromise the security of global communications through relatively simple and inexpensive means. In addition to Russia and the Houthis, other state and non-state actors could exploit the vulnerability of submarine cables. Incidents involving this infrastructure can also result from natural causes, such as storms and earthquakes, or from accidental collisions with ships. However, the most worrying risk remains deliberate sabotage, which could have devastating consequences for global communications and national security. The European Union has recognised the importance of protecting submarine cables and has taken several measures to improve their security. Initiatives such as the National Underwater Domain Cluster, led by Italy, involve major technology companies and aim to strengthen the surveillance and defence capabilities of undersea infrastructure. The EU is also exploring the use of advanced sensors and other innovative technologies to monitor and protect these cables. The protection of submarine cables requires close international cooperation. NATO is enhancing its anti-submarine warfare capabilities, working with allies and partners to improve surveillance and rapid response to incidents. These joint efforts are essential to ensure the security of critical infrastructure worldwide.

Senator Isabella Rauti, Undersecretary of Defence in the Meloni Government, discusses this with us in this interview.

What are the key elements of hybrid warfare and how does it differ from traditional conflicts?

Hybrid conflicts involve state actors – such as regular armed forces – with unconventional instruments capable of politically destabilising and materially weakening the adversary, particularly in new domains such as cyber or space, and in emerging dimensions such as so-called “cognitive warfare”, an environment in which the threat consists of the distorting use of information or disinformation to condition opinions or behaviour in order to achieve political or strategic advantages. Hybrid tools range from cyber-attacks to acts of terrorism, covering a broad spectrum that includes disinformation campaigns based on fake news and generated through artificial intelligence applications; but also attacks on strategic underwater infrastructure such as cables and gas pipelines; the manipulation of collective perceptions; and malicious interference in electoral processes. Hybrid warfare involves a variety of state and non-state actors, from local militias and international networks of flankers and financiers to organised hacker groups for cyber attacks. From an operational point of view, a characteristic feature of hybrid warfare is the ambiguity of the attacks themselves and the difficulty of identifying agents and enemy subjects; this ‘fluidity’ makes defensive responses more difficult. Hybrid warfare is undeclared and can be conducted in a clandestine manner without crossing the ‘threshold’ of open, traditional conflict. The hybrid mode can subtly cross a context of apparent peace and is not costly in economic terms; in fact, it is easy to conduct and can be both effective and even capable of inflicting significant damage on the adversary without fighting on the ground, unlike traditional conflicts.

What are the main risks to submarine cables in a hybrid conflict and how can they be protected against this threat to communications and the economy?

The underwater domain – the so-called “undersea” – is a fifth physical dimension, in addition to land, sea, air and space. The sabotage of the North Stream gas pipeline under the waters of the Baltic Sea in 2022 – with the opening of at least three leaks in the North Stream 1 and 2 pipelines – caused severe damage to the energy infrastructure linking Russia and Europe and highlighted not only the consequences of energy dependence as a potential instrument of political blackmail, but also the importance of several strategic security infrastructures in the underwater dimension. Attacks on such undersea infrastructure – such as the cables that carry 98% of the world’s digital traffic, or the gas pipelines that guarantee energy supplies – are rightly part of hybrid warfare strategies, as they are unpredictable, disruptive actions with immediate effect, and also susceptible to media manipulation as to the responsibility of the perpetrators. Physically, the threat can be carried by dedicated ships and submarines, or by unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) capable of sabotaging the target through rudimentary methods such as the unintentional impact of anchors or the deliberate dragging of fishing nets, or through more sophisticated interventions. In order to defend against submarine attacks, it is necessary to improve technologies and invest in innovative aspects. It is easy to foresee an increase in the activities of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), i.e. hi-tech vehicles capable of operating at depth and detecting and intervening in the face of threats, the prodromes of which must be intercepted and monitored in advance. In the “undersea” field, the Italian Armed Forces, through the Italian Navy, play a key role with the National Underwater Centre (PNS) to be inaugurated in La Spezia on 12 December 2023, a centre of excellence that will bring together and accelerate all national competences, including industry, research and academia, helping to consolidate the West’s technological lead in this emerging sector.

What role should the European Union play in the geopolitical area known as the “wider Mediterranean”?

The European Union refers, for the security and defence of the Member States, to the ‘Strategic Compass’, the document adopted – after years of discussion – by the European Council on 21 March, immediately after the Russian aggression in Ukraine, an event that marked the return of conventional war to the European continent. The rationale of the “Compass” is to “empower” the Union in the face of growing challenges and threats by strengthening its defence capabilities through a concrete and strategic path to be completed by 2030, without weakening cooperation with NATO and the United Nations. The process of building a common European defence requires a joint economic effort by the countries of the Union and the development of a security doctrine and strategy that brings together the armed forces of the Member States, in the knowledge that no State can defend itself alone; a security system that is complementary to NATO, but autonomous, and aimed at guaranteeing peace and stability on the European continent at international and global level, enabling the European Union to play a central role on the world stage. Europe has a strategic role to play in the so-called “wider Mediterranean”, a geopolitical concept that encompasses the areas immediately adjacent to the Mediterranean “in the strict sense of the word”, up to the Balkans and the Black Sea, the Middle East (including the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf) and North and Sub-Saharan Africa, stretching from the Horn of Africa through the Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea. It is in this region that all the current tensions and conflicts are concentrated and reflected, directly or indirectly, from the war in the Middle East to the threat posed by the Houthis in the Red Sea, who aim to cut off routes to the Mediterranean, with huge negative consequences for European economies and a competitive disadvantage for the West to the advantage of other nations. The enlarged Mediterranean is becoming a hybrid area, and this potential source of instability could also affect Europe’s future in terms of trade, migration and even energy supply. Europe and Italy must free themselves from energy dependency and build their autonomy; the Meloni government is working in this direction with the ‘Mattei Plan’, which aims to create the conditions for Africa’s economic and social growth through new forms of cooperation and partnership, and to make Italy a European energy hub in the centre of the Mediterranean, in the knowledge that there is no future for Europe without a future for the African continent.