Russia could emerge a major threat to the UK and other Nato nations by cutting underwater cables essential for international commerce and the internet, the chief of the British defence staff, Sir Stuart Peach, has warned.
Russian ships have been regularly seen close to the Atlantic cables that carry communications between the US and Europe and elsewhere around the world.
Air chief marshall Peach, who in September was appointed chair of the Nato military committee, said Russia had continued to develop unconventional warfare and added that threats such as those to underwater cables meant the UK and its allies had to match the Russian navy in terms of modernising its fleet.
''There is a new risk to our prosperity and way of life, to the cables that crisscross our sea beds, disruption to which through cable-cuts or destruction would immediately – and catastrophically – fracture both international trade and the internet,'' he said.
The warning comes a fortnight after the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange issued a report saying 97 per cent of global communications and $10 trn in daily financial transactions were transmitted through such cables.
Conservative MP Rishi Sunak who wrote the report cited US intelligence officials speaking about Russian submarines ''aggressively operating'' near Atlantic cables. He added that Russia's first move was to cut the main cable connecting Crimea to the rest of the world when it annexed Crimea in 2013.
According to a recent report for the Policy Exchange think tank, the world's submarine network comprises an estimated 213 independent cable systems and 545,018 miles (877,121 km) of fibre.
The think tank added that a lack of formal state ownership meant cables do not have strong protection in international law.
Addressing the Royal United Services Institute defence think tank, Sir Stuart said the vulnerability of undersea lines posed a "new risk to our way of life".