NATO testing underwater drones off the coast of Europe to deter Russia

FILE - Officials and military personnel stand beneath flags as they attend the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit ceremony at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

NATO is testing new sea drones that can use artificial intelligence to detect suspicious activity near underwater infrastructure.

Fourteen members of the NATO alliance, along with Sweden, have teamed up for multiple exercises over 12 days off the cost of Portugal to test underwater sea drones that have real-time ability to send "a deterrence signal to the enemy, be it Russia or somebody else," said Lt. Gen. Hans-Werner Wiermann, head of NATO’s cell for protecting undersea infrastructure, according to a report from Bloomberg.

The exercises, dubbed Dynamic Messenger 23 and Robotic Experimentation and Prototyping with Maritime Unmanned Systems (REPMUS 23), will bring together over 2,000 civilian amid military personnel with a focus on integrating maritime unmanned systems into the alliance's operations and test new technologies that are currently under development.

The exercises come almost exactly a year after the intentional bombings of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea, which highlighted NATO's difficulty in deterring attacks and monitoring suspicious activity around critical underwater infrastructure. While many members of the alliance have suspected Russian involvement in the attack, NATO has yet to formally assign responsibility to any nation or organization.

Russia has denied responsibility for the blasts, but reports in recent months of the country's spy ships operating near NATO infrastructure have raised concerns that Moscow could look to target NATO countries for assisting Ukraine in its defense against the ongoing Russian invasion.

According to the report, one area of NATO concern is underwater cables that carry roughly $10 trillion worth of financial transactions daily and about 95% of global internet traffic. Meanwhile, about two thirds of the world's oil and gas is either extracted or transported by sea, oftentimes via pipelines that are thousands of miles long deep below the surface of the sea, making such infrastructure hard to monitor for threats.


In one exercise aimed at stopping such an attack, NATO vessels responded to the use of a state-sponsored commercial vessel attempting to disrupt underwater network cables, a plot that would typically be difficult to detect.

Fiber-optic sensors on the cables were able to detect that the fictitious enemy ship was attempting to delay an underwater drone, relaying the information to NATO's command and control chain. After the threat was confirmed, NATO responded by sending a fleet of aerial, surface and underwater drones to intercept the threat and escort the suspicious vessel out of the area.

The training comes after a move earlier this year to create a new maritime command center focused on defending underwater infrastructure in the United Kingdom, with NATO agreeing to set up improved information sharing systems between members of the alliance and partners in the private sector to help better detect and deter attacks on infrastructure.


According to Wiermann, the Nord Stream explosions caused pipeline operators to become "very nervous" and sparked a full scale scans of nearly 6,000 miles of pipelines.

"They did it, but it cost them a fortune. And they don’t want to do this necessarily again," Wiermann told Bloomberg. "We want to have the speediest information exchange between the actors as possible because if we want to detect suspicious behavior in real time, we have to act very quickly."

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