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Norwegian Undersea Surveillance Network Had Its Cables Mysteriously Cut

Undersea sensors off the coast of northern Norway that are able to collect data about passing submarines, among other things, have been knocked out, the country’s state-operated Institute of Marine Research, or IMR, has revealed. The cause of the damage is unknown, but the cables linking the sensor nodes to control stations ashore are said to have been cut and then disappeared. This has raised suspicions about deliberate sabotage, possibly carried out by the Russian government, which definitely has the means to do so.

The IMR, one of the biggest marine research institutes in Europe, described “extensive damage” to the outer areas of the Lofoten-Vesterålen (LoVe) Ocean Observatory, putting the system offline. LoVe, which was only declared fully operational in August 2020, consists of a network of underwater cables and sensors located on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, an area of strategic interest for both Norway and Russia.

Norway’s military and the country’s national Police Security Service are reportedly investigating what happened to the research surveillance system. LoVe stated purpose is to use its sensors to monitor the effects of climate change, methane emissions, and fish stocks, providing scientists with a live feed of imagery and sound, as well as other data.

Of course, the system also monitors submarine activity in the area, so will immediately be of interest to the Russian Navy, in particular. Indeed, data gathered by its sensors is first sent to the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, also known by its Norwegian acronym FFI, before being handed over to the IMR for further study. “FFI is believed to routinely remove traces of any submarine activity in the area before turning over the observatory’s data to IMR so that it only contains fishing, currents, and climate information,” according to a report from Norway’s News in English website. 

“We don’t care so much about the submarines in the area (located not far from onshore military installations at Andøya, Evenes and other bases in Northern Norway), but we know the military is,” IMR director Sissel Rogne told the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv. “You could see what’s going on down there regarding all types of U-boats [submarines] and all other countries’ U-boats. That’s why I didn’t think this was just a case for the police but a case for [the police security agency].”

“Something or someone has torn out cables in outlying areas,” Geir Pedersen, the LoVe project leader, said in a press statement last Friday. Reports indicate that more than 2.5 miles of fiberoptic and electric cables were severed and then removed. In total, LoVe uses more than 40 miles of cables in the Norwegian Sea.

Based on reports in the Dagens Næringsliv, the LoVe observatory has been affected by interference since at least April, when the connection between the sensor network and the control station at Hovden on the northern island of Langøya was lost. The cause of the breakdown was subsequently traced by an unmanned submarine to one of the underwater surveillance platforms, or Node 2, which had been dragged away from its normal location, with its connecting cable severed and removed.

A follow-up mission in September attempted to trace the cable running from Node 2 with Node 3, only to find that this platform had also been moved, its components damaged, and its cable was missing.

Meanwhile, News in English
reports that the surveillance system has not been online since the initial disturbances to its operations in April.

Rogne told Dagens Næringsliv that the size and weight of the cable running between Nodes 2 and 3 was so great that it would have required something with considerable power to have severed it.

IMR’s Øystein Brun told the same newspaper that the institute was now assessing whether the cables were cut deliberately, but suggested that seems the most likely explanation since the crew of a vessel should have noticed if they had accidentally become entangled with them and would likely have reported it.

It’s also unclear what has happened to the missing cable, around 9.5 tons in all, which has not been recovered.

Part of the investigation has sought to identify the vessels that were active in the area in question as of April this year, although that, according to the IMR, has been made more difficult by the fact that some of them likely were underway without transponders activated, meaning they would not be broadcasting their positions to the Coast Guard or other agencies. Any vessel attempting to tamper with the cables would probably have its transponder off and the implication here is that a foreign power performed this act deliberately. In the meantime, at least some of the vessels in the area at the time have been identified, although no more details have been disclosed.

The reasons why a foreign nation may have attempted to sever the cables, and take them away, are several. First, as we have already seen, the surveillance system is an important means for Norway to track foreign submarine activity in the Norwegian Sea, potentially restricting certain operations in these waters. Second, this power may have wanted to explore the type of information that the LoVe system is capable of gathering, to give an idea of the sorts of capabilities available to Norway and, by extension, NATO. Thirdly, as IMR director Rogne pointed out, the cables themselves may yield valuable technical information, for anyone wanting to install a similar system, for example.

The video below contains a recording from one of LoVe’s hydrophones of a larger ship passing by, highlighting the kind of acoustic data that the system can collect.

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