Western officials have blamed Nord Stream pipeline leaks on sabotage.
The perpetrator hasn't been confirmed, but officials are pointing fingers at Russia.
The incident shows how vulnerable seabed infrastructure is to interference, the Royal Navy's top admiral said.
ABOARD HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH — The apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines has prompted further condemnation of Russia and raised fears of considerable environmental damage. It also makes clear that the valuable economic infrastructure on the seafloor is exposed, Adm. Sir Ben Key, first sea lord and chief of the British naval staff, said Thursday.
"There is a vulnerability around anything that sits upon the seabed, whether that's gas pipelines, whether that's data cables," Key said aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth as the Royal Navy aircraft carrier sat anchored off of New York City to host the Atlantic Future Forum.
"We've created a degree of scale around that economic infrastructure," Key told reporters. "That then places an obligation on organizations like the Royal Navy, but not just us, to have a means of monitoring and provide security around it."
A leak in the Nord Stream pipelines was first detected on Monday, and on Tuesday, the pipeline operator said there was "unprecedented" damage to three of the four lines that compose Nord Stream 1 and 2. Four leaks have now been found — two in Swedish waters and two in Danish waters — in roughly 250 feet of water.
The pipelines were not operational, but they contained natural gas that is bubbling to the surface, creating patches of churning sea several hundred yards in size.
Key said he would "steer clear of direct attribution" because the cause was not "at all clear." Others, including US officials, say the damage was deliberate.
"All currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage," NATO's North Atlantic Council said in a statement on Thursday. Current and former officials have named Russia as the likely perpetrator.
Norway and Denmark have increased security around energy infrastructure ashore and at sea. "Norway is aware of the special responsibilities it has to safeguard security on the Norwegian continental shelf," the prime minister said on Wednesday.
A Norwegian military helicopter and Danish ships, including a navy frigate, are also patrolling the area around the leaks, Denmark's Ministry of Defense said Friday.
Asked about potential responses if Russia is found responsible, Key declined to describe specifics but said the military shouldn't be the only option considered.
"We are but one of a number of instruments of national power, and the role for us is to offer up into the political leadership things that we could do potentially in concert with other actions or not," Key told reporters.
'A murky strategic space'
The leaks are likely to raise new concerns about threats to undersea infrastructure, especially the undersea telecommunications cables that carry almost all of the world's internet traffic.
"There is nothing new in sabotaging critical seabed infrastructure," said Elizabeth Buchanan, head of Navy Research at the Sea Power Centre Australia.
"This is just a reminder of the central role of critical infrastructure in a state's security apparatus and a reminder that asymmetrical acceleration of conflict is happening," Buchanan told Insider. "Ukraine might be the land battle, but European security is also exposed at sea."
Russia and China are seen as having growing interest in and the ability to interfere with those cables. Buchanan pointed to Taiwan's recent plan to develop a backup satellite internet network as a sign of ongoing concern about such interference.
The most common risk to undersea cables is accidental damage from fishing or commercial activity or from natural disasters, but Buchanan said threats to undersea cables could be moving "into a grey zone in which a state with civil-military maritime strategies and policies might mask purposeful sabotage as an accident."
In its statement, the North Atlantic Council said NATO members "have committed to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and non-state actors." Under such circumstances, however, "enforcing international law at sea, not least assigning responsibility, becomes a murky strategic space," Buchanan said.
The US has sanctioned Russians it said "directly contributed to improving" Russia's cyber and underwater capabilities, and Washington and its allies have sought to block Chinese involvement in undersea cables in the Pacific, fearing Beijing would use that access to gain leverage over the cables' users.
British officials have raised concerns about interference with undersea cables affecting their country's links to North America and Europe, with one defense official in 2015 calling it "a new risk to our way of life."
"We keep under constant review the security of undersea critical national infrastructure," Key said Thursday. "We are in the process, and have been for some time, of exploring ways of increasing out capability to keep an eye on it, because clearly there are pressures and tensions around that."
Many Western countries have put infrastructure planning "on the back burner" in the post-Cold War period, Buchanan said.
"I believe there's plenty of planning underway for the next iteration of strategic competition," Buchanan added, "but for the short-term, states which haven't secured supply chains, invested to protect critical seabed infrastructure, enhanced maritime capability to shape and deter their coastal frontiers should expect to feel the pressure."
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