Global Marine Group – Written evidence (UNC0032)

 

Global Marine Group Submission to the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committee Inquiry, ‘UNCLOS: fit for purpose in the 21st century?’

Global Marine Group (GMG) is pleased to submit this submission to the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committee on UNCLOS. This submission particularly focuses on the protection of undersea resources such as undersea cables, and the significant risks (and opportunities) for the UK in how it manages risks associated with UK activity in that sector.

Accordingly, we have focused this submission on the following areas of the Call to Evidence:

-          The main challenges facing the effective implementation of UNCLOS in 2021

-          The protection of resources such as undersea cables

-          Assessment of the UK’s policy and practice

-          Key priorities for the UK Government to focus on

 

About Global Marine Group

Established in 1850 when the company connected the first telegraph cable between England and France, Global Marine Group is now established as a market leader in offshore engineering.

With projects from as far afield as the Arctic Circle and Papua New Guinea, Global Marine Group now has a global presence and has installed over 300,000km of subsea telecommunications cable, some 21% of the world total and operates in some of the world’s most challenging environments. The Group has also collaboratively installed more than 1,000 inter array cables and completed over 900 cable pull-ins across 55 European wind farms.

Today the Global Marine Group has a fleet of 7 cable ships and 20 crew transfer vessels and is the only UK-domiciled company that lays and maintains communications cables. The company provides crucial services that support the critical infrastructures in telecommunications, offshore renewables and utilities amongst others.

The Group’s telecoms business, Global Marine, serves over 100 major communications companies and in 2020 completed over 50 repair assignments, and a total of 1,285 repairs since 1988, some 30% of the global repair market.

The Group’s power cable business, Global Offshore provides proactive power cable repairs and replacements and reactive emergency solutions to over 20 offshore wind farms through 8 framework agreements with their Complete Cable Care service. In 2020 the team completed 10 replacements and repairs including work on live windfarms. 

Global Marine Group operates UK flagged vessels out of Portland, Dorset, Blyth, Northumberland and Montrose, Aberdeenshire and has additional maintenance facilities in Aberdeen, Grimsby, Portsmouth and Chelmsford. Equally the company has a strong global presence with operations based in Victoria in Canada, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Curaçao in Caribbean as well as Singapore, alongside joint ventures in Taiwan and China.

The facility in Portland, Dorset is of great strategic importance to the company and to the UK’s critical subsea infrastructure. It hosts 33 telecoms cable tanks with a total capacity of 8,750 m3 and 2, 2,000 tonne power cable carousels along with over 3,500 universal joint kits and associated equipment including repeaters, equalisers and branching units. It is also the base port of the Sovereign, the only UK flagged cable ship dedicated to repair operations which are critical in keeping the UK connected to the wider world. The vessel has provided an exemplary 30 years of service and nears retirement. It is imperative that this service is retained and this presents an opportunity for a UK build with appropriate commercial agreement in place.

Facilities

In 2020, the company invested more than £30m in capital expenditure, mainly into the UK SME supply chain. Of particular note is the launch of the first Hybrid Surface Effect Ship which brings a multitude of operation and environmental advantages to the offshore wind sector.

Global Marine Group is headquartered in Chelmsford and employs 827 people and a further 156 contract associates totalling just shy of 1,000.

The Group comprises four separate business arms:

Alongside areas of key operations, the Group supports oil & gas and deep-sea research sectors.

 

Call for Evidence Questions

 

What are the main challenges facing the effective implementation of UNCLOS in 2021? We would particularly welcome responses on:

    1. Climate change and the impact it has had/will have on the structures and provisions of UNCLOS (including trading routes, maritime boundaries, and the status of island ocean states)
    2. Maritime security and human rights at sea (including migration, modern slavery and human trafficking)
    3. Autonomous maritime vehicles (both commercial and military), cybersecurity, and other new technologies
    4. Regulation of access to economic resources, including on the deep seabed and in the water column, fishing, and the protection of resources such as undersea cables

Britain as an independent island nation is heavily dependent on the uninterrupted provision of communication and power services; much of which is delivered by subsea cables.

Today, more than 97% of all data is carried via subsea communication cables which connect the UK to the rest of the world and underpin our digital economy. There are 62 fibre optic cables which “land” in the UK, with a further 97 interconnectors and power cables. Around 25% of our electricity arrives onto the mainland in submarine power cables and this is rapidly expanding. Subsea cables connect the UK’s offshore renewable energy generation capacity and oil and gas infrastructure to the grid as well as enable the import and export of energy from Europe via interconnectors.  The UK is set to lead on both inter array and export cable installation with a total of 9,639km expected to be installed between 2019 and 2029.

The exposure to material damage to the communications and energy supply network was recognised back in 2017 by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer who said that “a successful attack on the UK’s undersea cable infrastructure would be an existential threat to our security”.

US intelligence officials have spoken of Russian submarines “aggressively operating” near Atlantic cables as part of its unconventional methods of warfare. When Russia annexed Crimea, one of its first moves was to sever the main cable connection to the outside world. In addition, subsea cables are often damaged, albeit accidently, by maritime activity – primarily demersal fishing (trawling) as well as ships’ anchors.

Previous events - the “isolation” of the Channel Islands in 2017 and the 2016 loss of all power to the Scillies - demonstrates the real risk of cable damage. In 2020 there were 33 emergency cable repairs in the Greater Atlantic region, with 17 to cables serving the UK. 

Yet, despite these communication and energy cables being an essential component of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, there is no integrated regulatory regime in place to mitigate the consequences of them being damaged.

 

In light of these challenges, is UNCLOS still fit for purpose? Can or should UNCLOS be renegotiated to better address these challenges?

Articles 79 and 112-115 of UNCLOS cover the clauses that police the laying and maintenance of subsea cables.

Whilst the clauses in Article 70 that cover the entitlement of States to lay cables and pipes on the continental shelf, and the respective due regard States must take when doing so are fit for purpose, the subsequent Articles dealing with incident responsibility are less fit for purpose.

Articles 113-115 replicate the 1958 Geneva Conventions, and state that signatories to UNCLOS must enact domestic legislation to penalise damage to cables by ships or persons belonging to their jurisdictions. More specifically, it is stated that Every State shall adopt the laws and regulations necessary to provide that, if persons subject to its jurisdiction who are the owners of a submarine cable or pipeline beneath the high seas, in laying or repairing that cable or pipeline, cause a break in or injury to another cable or pipeline, they shall bear the cost of the repairs.

Whilst this clause’s intention is helpful, it doesn’t address the fact that whilst a culpable party is subject to paying for the cost of causing damage to a cable, there is no integrated regulatory regime in place in most countries, including the UK, to mitigate the consequences of them being damaged.

If renegotiated, we would recommend that UNCLOS calls for signatories to require a mandatory sovereign repair coverage for submarine cables, 24/7, 365 days a year and for a regular inspection regime to be introduced. A strong and effective regulatory regime should also require providers to have a sovereign-based capability with cables stored in a State’s respective country, with maintenance, repair and overhaul processes provided under domestic flagged vessels to support national security and strength the sovereign capability.

This is not a novel idea. In Australia, for example, the Australian Communications and Media Authority - the Australian equivalent of Ofcom - operates an installation permit system which takes steps to ensure the safety and integrity of subsea cables. The system is widely respected globally.

A key condition to secure such a permit is that the carrier must demonstrate that it has an adequate and available maintenance and repair solution.

The regulatory approach provides certainty in terms of operating rights as well as specific measures to protect critical infrastructure in Australian waters ensuring a base level of resilience to the cable network overseen by government.

 

What should be the priorities for the UK Government regarding the future of UNCLOS and the international law of the sea? In what areas can or should the UK be a leader?

As stated previously, it is critical that the UK Government takes steps to introduce a regulatory regime, with a permit system overseen by Ofcom and Ofgem working closely with the National Cyber Security Centre The Centre for the Protection of Critical National Infrastructure. This would require a mandatory UK sovereign repair coverage 24/7, 365 days a year and for a regular inspection regime, potentially mandating the use of UK-flagged vessels.

Such a regulatory regime will also strengthen the UK’s maritime industry and ensure that civil contingency and defence considerations are effectively addressed in a way that they are not today, giving the government more ‘directional’ options to use UK flagged vessels in a national emergency than it currently has.

With the implementation of legislation that makes a 365 day maintenance agreement, with a vessel on standby for repair callouts at 24 hours’ notice, a pre-requisite of applying for and acquiring a Marine Licence, the sustainability of the entire network of cables around and landing in the UK would be underpinned and secured.

The UK Government should also specify the requirement for this maintenance agreement to be completed by UK flagged vessels. This would give the Government more control in the case of a national emergency, ensuring that prioritisation could be given to domestic cables, connectivity, security and power.

In order to ensure that this new cable resilience is secured, we would also recommend that current practices such as the Atlantic Cable Maintenance Agreement (ACMA) are formalised.  The ACMA agreement is a non-profit cooperative agreement, whose sole purpose is for the cable repair and maintenance of systems in the North and South Atlantic, English Channel, North Sea, Caribbean Sea and South East Pacific. By formalising these agreements within legislation, a robust maintenance solution will be in place, ensuring ships, ROVs and technical specialists are on hand to deal with any future cable incidents, greatly reducing the risk to UK energy and data security.

 

In light of the challenges posed by climate change to the provisions of UNCLOS, what considerations should be given to the law of the sea during and after COP26, and what should be the position of the UK Government?

The effects of climate change on the world are multifaceted and will only become more obvious with time. However, there are two key points we believe are key to note in terms of the challenges posed by climate change to the provisions on UNCLOS.

Firstly, the physical changes to undersea cables posed by climate change are one challenge that has not been considered effectively by the UK Government. As sea levels rise, landing stations for cables risk being inundated by water. Whilst this may not be an immediate consideration for Government, more unpredictable weather patterns may bring flooding or storms that also risk damaging our vulnerable cable infrastructure.

Secondly, the geopolitical trouble caused by climate change, and its resulting effect on energy security, data resilience and political hostility urgently needs to be considered by Government. In a world where the UK is competing against not only multiple state actors, but hostile groups, the resilience, security and sovereignty of the UK’s energy and data supply are paramount. These problems will only be made worse by climate change, as energy dependencies rise and new geopolitical hotspots emerge.

It is vital, therefore, that UNCLOS mandates a maintenance and repair system for undersea cables. It is even more important, however, that the UK Government takes steps now to strengthen the UK’s capability to pre-empt and respond to submarine cable threats and procure new vessels that can protect such critical national infrastructure.

 

Received 12 November 2021