France will step up its military presence in eastern Europe, with plans to deploy additional Rafale fighter jets in Lithuania and additional armoured vehicles and tanks in Romania, as the war in Ukraine intensifies, the office of the defense minister said on Tuesday.
Paris also plans to deploy additional infantry troops to Estonia, it said in a statement as Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu presented the army’s draft budget to lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Paris expects in the coming months to obtain its first deep-sea drone and robot, part of a military programme to counter hybrid threats such as attacks on telecommunications infrastructure in its waters, two military sources familiar with the plan said.
The suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea last month has left Western states scrambling to better protect energy and telecommunications infrastructure on the seabed, especially at depths of 3,000-6,000 metres (10,000-19,800 feet).
Only the United States, Russia and Chinese militaries have autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) – drones or robots – able to reach such depths, although private firms also operate such technology.
One military official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the subject’s sensitivity, told Reuters that the real strategic problem was depths of up to 6,000 metres, which had not yet been mastered.
The military sources said the plan to counter hybrid threats, and the acquisition of drones crucial to it, had taken on more urgency in the wake of the Nord Stream attacks.
The defence ministry, asked by Reuters for comment, said underwater cable security was a longstanding concern of France.
France has the second largest maritime area in the world, but only two robots that can dive to 2,000 metres. That leaves its communications infrastructure, encompassing some 50 cables including those serving its overseas territories, at risk of hybrid attacks, accidents and theft, one of the two military officials said.
At a summit in Prague last week, European leaders agreed on the need to strengthen the protection of sensitive submarine infrastructure.
The hybrid nature of Russia’s war in Ukraine, on the edge of Europe, highlights the continent’s vulnerabilities.
“That goes for very deep-water cables and that also goes for space,” French President Emmanuel Macron told the Prague summit.
Nokia NOKIA.HE subsidiary ASN and Orange’s division Orange Marine ORAN.PA are the two main companies installing and repairing France‘s submarine telecoms cables.
Orange Marine declined to comment. Officials at ASN, which also produces fibre cables, were not available for comment.
Just 10 days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, France unveiled a “seabed warfare strategy”.
It includes French industrial firms developing AUVs and ROVs capable of diving to depths of 6,000 metres so that by 2025 France can have one of each in service, and more by 2028.
In the immediate term, Paris has set aside 11 million euros ($10.66 million) to obtain an AUV and ROV “off the shelf” from a foreign firm, the two military sources said. They were expected to be operational by the end of 2022 or early next year.
They played down the risk of saboteurs being able to paralyse a world power like France.
“Before losing communications between the United States and Europe you’d need to cut a lot of cables,” one of the officials said.
“The people it would disturb the most are the traders who count on a micro second, but unless you invest heavily on the stock market, you won’t notice the difference if a cable is cut.”
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