In late September 2022, the Danish Defense Command reported an unexpected maritime disturbance in the Baltic Sea off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm. The anomalies were traced to a series of structural leaks on two Nord Stream natural gas pipelines that run from Russia to Germany, suggesting an act of sabotage. Regional port authorities reported “there was human involvement,” and the Russian Federation initially was suspected. In November 2023, however, U.S. media outlets reported that Ukrainian forces may have been responsible for the subsea blasts that ruptured the pipelines—a major source of Europe’s gas supply.
Regardless, security analysts view the incident as a potential precursor to future attacks on infrastructure, including undersea systems and critical communications networks—some of which are easily located on open-source ocean navigation charts. It represents a form of escalation beyond disinformation and influence operations to a more threatening kinetic approach.
This should be viewed as a strategic warning. The future security environment—and threat landscape—will remain one of uncertainty, information manipulation, and cyber breaches, favoring malign influence and infrastructure disruptions over armed conflict. The Nord Stream incident is an example of seeking advantage on the irregular battlefield using instability, plausible deniability, and deception in place of direct combat operations.
The Nord Stream incident provides an opportunity to lift the curtain on the future of modern conflict that combines asymmetric, hybrid, gray zone, and irregular warfare in the shadows of peer competition and brinksmanship. Clearly, future “great power” competitors as well as nonstate actors will continue to attempt to assert influence through economic, disinformation, deception, immigration, and infrastructure calamities—in ways that allow them to deflect and deny corrupt behaviors.
Viewed against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the pipeline incident can be seen as energy competition designed to achieve multiple geostrategic objectives, similar to China’s behavior in the South China Sea, where it seeks to expand its maritime sovereignty over others’ exclusive economic waters and disputed archipelagos. While these events draw publicity and attention, they also provide the information and public relations distractions to mask expansionist hegemonic purposes on other fronts.
The United States—especially mariners—needs to examine its own readiness to address threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences. The modern battlefield is more dynamic, uncertain, and ambiguous than in the past; however, there are some basic principles to apply to ensure proper preparation and resilience.
First, economic strength is the sine qua non of national security. A recent roundtable sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies highlighted the connections among energy markets, economic stability, and national security. An attack on U.S. gas infrastructure could disrupt global supplies and prices, and with concurrent decreased Russian gas supplies, an increased demand for liquefied natural gas could make American facilities more attractive cyber targets. Successful attacks against the power grid also could result in outages that adversely affect key economic centers, including healthcare, water treatment plants, commercial ports, airports, and emergency management services. Beyond direct attacks, disruptive outages will have a magnified impact on struggling energy markets. This forum—and others in the national security enterprise—underscores the resilience imperative because of the complex interdependencies of the Marine Transportation System, naval operations, and the global supply chain. Resilience ensures the United States has a robust continuity plan to withstand and recover from any crisis event.
Second, there must be a risk-informed approach to prioritizing national-level vulnerabilities. In the wake of the Nord Stream pipeline event, security planners would do well to identify similar single points of failure and choke points to ensure the United States is prepared to protect complex interdependent critical infrastructures from attack. But given that security is highly imperfect, the United States may be better positioned by ensuring redundancies are in place to mitigate, respond to, and recover from potential incidents. Whether it is a terrorist event, an operator error, or a natural disaster, the United States needs more than reactionary governance frameworks and management systems.
Third, security imperatives must be measured and evaluated based on megaregions, which identify population centers and primary economic arteries.1 How well is the United States prepared for infrastructure attacks? It would not necessarily involve airplanes flown into buildings in a major city, but more likely would target one or more of the following areas that are essential to U.S. national security:2
- Domestic fuel pipelines, 80 percent of which originate from the Texas Gulf Coast region
- Oil refineries, major delivery platforms, and petrochemical plants operating in Houston/the Gulf of Mexico, which drive national gas and fuel markets
- The Port of New York/New Jersey and the Port of Los Angeles/Port of Long Beach, through which 70 percent of containerized international waterborne trade flows
- The three regional power grids (East, West, Texas)
- Submarine fiber optic cables, which are charted, publicized, and exposed and which handle 95 percent of transcontinental global data transfer and communications
- 361 commercial ports, 17 of which are strategic military outload locations
- 1,500-1,700 vessels that transit U.S. ports/waterways daily to support local, regional, and national economies
- 85,000 dams across the country, which are a vital source of utilities, power, and recreation
- U.S. bridges—key nodes of transportation, trade, and commerce
- New York City’s Wall Street, which directly or indirectly touches 100 percent of global financial investments
- All major markets, communications, businesses, and trade that rely on cyber and internet services
- Healthcare, financial, and insurance sectors
- Emerging technologies—including artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, machine learning, unmanned systems, quantum computing, and virtual reality—which bring new opportunities while simultaneously expanding the threat environment
The damage to the Nord Stream pipelines may have limited short-term impact on European natural gas markets, but it was a clarion call for the United States, Europe, NATO, and Western allies. Adversaries can take irregular action to retaliate against economic sanctions and challenge the balance of power, while operating in the hybrid and gray zones of competition and influence. More specifically, the event reveals the growing vulnerability of energy, critical infrastructure, and undersea systems.
While strong military capabilities provide a bulwark of active defense and integrated deterrence, that has proven inadequate to deny or disrupt the malign influence and indirect efforts that oppose and usurp international law and the rules-based order. The best approach is resilience and readiness in the face of turbulent and changing adversaries, whether economic, military, financial, legal, or criminal in nature. Resilience is disaster agnostic. It will make the United States stronger and safer because it allows quicker recovery from any disruptive event, especially in a contested competition-based maritime environment.
The United States may be a superpower with the naval advantage in most theaters, but it remains vulnerable to attacks on critical infrastructure systems, which could affect national security and the American way of life.
1. According to U.S. Department of Transportation, Center for Transportation Research, there are 10 megaregions that collectively account for 75 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and more than 70 percent of the population.
2. See Dane Egli, Beyond the Storms: Strengthening Homeland Security and Disaster Management to Achieve Resilience (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2014).