Grey Zone Operations at Sea Nord Stream1 and 2 Pipelines

Sub Title : Sabotage of Nord Stream pipelines exposes vulnerability of subsurface assets

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2022

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja, Former Director, National Maritime Foundation

Page No. : 49

Category : Geostrategy

: October 14, 2022

Nord Stream, the longest subsea pipeline, is an export gas pipeline which runs under the Baltic Sea carrying gas from Russia to Europe.  Nord Stream 1 was completed in 2011 and runs from Vyborg in Leningrad (Russia) to Lubmin near Greifswald, Germany. Nord Stream 2 which runs from Ust-Luga in Leningrad to Lubmin was completed in September 2021 and has the capacity to handle 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year once it becomes operational. The twin pipelines together can transport a combined total of 110 billion cubic metres of gas a year to Europe for at least 50 years. The Nord Stream crosses the EEZs of several countries including Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, and the territorial waters of Russia, Denmark, and Germany. European is connected to the pipeline from Germany.

The mystery over the explosions of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea, which carry gas from Russia to Europe,  on September 26, continues with Russia and the US-led Western countries accusing each other of the sabotage. The incident exposes vulnerability of such assets to non-state and state sponsored terror acts.

The recent gas pipeline leaks in the Swedish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has raised a number of questions about the safety and security of underwater infrastructure. In the instant case, the Swedish Security Police have concluded that the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were sabotaged through detonations and as much as 100 kilograms of TNT may have been used. This 1,224-kilometer-long pipeline brings gas from Russia to Europe through the Baltic Sea and has capacity to carry 55 billion cubic meters of gas annually.

The material evidence from the site has been recovered by the investigating agencies to help them identify the perpetrators. There are suspicions, particularly from the US, that Russia may have been involved; but many countries have stopped short of overtly accusing Moscow. A statement from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters however notes that the incident is “result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage…Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has called it an “unprecedented sabotage” and labelled it as an act of international terrorism,”

Although the gas leakage is unlikely to cause a major pollution like an oil spill, climate experts believe that as much as 500 million cubic meters of gas has escaped into the atmosphere which is equivalent of 8 million tons of carbon dioxide that corresponds to nearly 1/5000 of annual global CO2 emissions. The cost of repair could be millions of dollars.

Be that as it may, two important issues emerge from the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines sabotage incident. First, is about the safety and security of underwater energy infrastructure. It is vulnerable to a variety of disruptions that arise from both natural and manmade events and incidents: seismic activity; material fatigue; and sea based commercial activity can cause damage to pipelines. Although undersea pipelines are marked on nautical charts, there have been instances when pipelines have been damaged by ships due to anchoring in shallow waters. Furthermore, fair-wear-tear of pipes due to age and material fatigue due to seawater corrosion etc. can considerably reduce their strength leading to leaks.

Second is about the vulnerability to sabotage by non-State actors or by the State (Navy, fishing fleet, militia, etc.). It is useful to mention that underwater operations are inherently ‘expertise intensive’ and require long years of training and experience; but underwater equipment (from leisure industry) and explosives are easy to acquire. In the past, at least two non-State actors possessed this capability. For instance, the naval wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), who were fighting against the Sri Lankan defence forces, had developed a sophisticated underwater operations infrastructure. The Sea Tigers, as they were named, had conducted attacks against the Sri Lankan Navy.

Likewise, the Al Qaeda had a naval manual which revealed that Al Qaeda could use small submersibles, underwater motor-propelled sleds that divers use and ‘human torpedoes’ to carry out underwater attacks. Al Qaeda had even planned scuba attacks on US warships in Indonesia. This forced US officials to visit hundreds of scuba shops in Indonesia seeking information about suspicious visitors.

At the level of the State, there is evidence of the French secret agency engaging in underwater attack. The Agents had planted two limpet mines on the Greenpeace environmental protest flagship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. It was a very powerful explosion and a freighter berthed at Marsden Wharf was thrown five meters sideways.

More recently, in 2019, Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous and the Norwegian-owned Front Altair were struck by limpet mines. A press release had noted that “the limpet mine that was used does bear a striking resemblance to that which has been publicly displayed in Iranian military parades…there are distinguishing features.”  However, Iran denied any involvement and Iranian Defense Minister General Amir Hatami said allegations that Tehran was behind the tanker attacks was “totally a lie” and meant to tarnish Iran’s image.

Gray Zone Operations

There is no clear definition of Gray Zone operations but there are numerous interpretations or understandings of the term. For instance “gray-zone activities are considered gradualist campaigns by state and non-state actors that combine non-military and quasi-military tools and fall below the threshold of armed conflict. They aim to thwart, destabilize, weaken, or attack an adversary, and they are often tailored toward the vulnerabilities of the target state”.

For instance, the Chinese fishing fleet has been at the forefront to enforce China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Similarly, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy captured British Royal Navy sailors and marines in the disputed waters off the coast between Iraq and Iran. Britain said two boatloads of sailors and marines had searched a cargo ship in Iraqi waters on a U.N. approved mission when Iranian gunboats encircled and captured them.

These operations fall under the category of Gray Zone and are becoming increasingly popular in the context of South China Sea: “With the backing and guidance of CG [Chinese Coast Guard] cadres, China’s irregular forces have assisted in reclamation activities around disputed islands, provided escort services to fishermen in contested waters, and even challenged oil rigs and non-Chinese military presence in the South China Sea. All aspects of militia operations in the South China Sea and East Sea are reportedly controlled by the higher echelons of China’s military leadership.” Similarly, it has been noted that the new Chinese Regulations encourage Gray Zone operations and “expand the scope of “gray zone” conflict” that could unfold into a “ticking time bomb”.

Meanwhile an expansive understanding of the term notes that the “gray zone phenomenon is also referred to as hybrid threats, sharp power, political warfare, malign influence, irregular warfare, and modern deterrence”. This combines and constitutes the politico-diplomatic-strategic-economic-technological space in which States react and respond to incidents.

For instance, Iran has been under UN sanctions resulting in blocking its arms imports/exports, freezing assets, and banning the trade marked by oil and gas export embargoes. In June this year, the Greek Government ordered detention of a ship—apparently at the behest of the US—to enforce sanctions against Iran’s oil export efforts. In a tit for tat move, Iran’s Supreme Leader ordered the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to apprehend two Greek oil tankers operating in the Persian Gulf, as retaliation for the capture of the tanker bearing Iranian oil off Greece. “The Greek court finally ordered the return of the detained tanker and its cargo to the owner and the Greek government carried out the order. Greece’s climb down is likely to complicate the international effort to reach agreement with Iran on the scaling back of its nuclear programme.

The Indian Context

An Indian understanding of the term reads as “Grey zone activities involve consciously seeking political objectives through meticulously planned operations… The main purpose of grey zone activities is to keep the warfare non-kinetic, keeping it below the threshold level of war (kinetic)” and “frustrate and confuse the enemy but they still do not have enough reasons to go in for a war”. It further goes on to argue that “India should identify and initiate grey zone activities rather than reacting to it; create a national grey zone policy and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP); and SOP should recommend a moderate grey zone stance at all times.”

Chinese Gray Zone Operations in Indian Ocean

The presence of Chinese surveillance ships and fishing fleet in the Indian Ocean can be construed as gray zone warfare. As many as “four to six Chinese research vessels are known to be operating in the IOR”. Similarly, over 600 Chinese fishing vessels enter the Indian Ocean annually.  An  Indian Navy tweet reads “Indian Navy aircraft spotted the movement of Chinese distant-water fishing fleet, supported by People’s Liberation Army Navy ships, in western Indian Ocean Region when they were moving towards Morocco.”

Besides engaging in IUU fishing, the Chinese fishing fleet is part of the military surveillance and intelligence networks. Experts argue that “many of these fishing vessels are indistinguishable from China’s ordinary fishing fleet, as they engage in a variety of peacetime missions and receive military training to conduct operations during armed hostilities.”

Concluding Thoughts

Gray Zone operations in the maritime medium are perhaps the most complex given that it is difficult to continuously patrol or keep the domain under constant surveillance. States and their navies have now begun to choose parallel agencies to engage in warfare. In that context, civilian marine scientific research vessels are a popular choice. However the fishing vessels emerge as the preferred given that by deploying such vessels it is difficult to accuse another State of its involvement in military activities.