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Why Moscow threatens the Med’s underwater domain

Mediterranean Italy
At a IAI conference, a top Italian Defence official explained that Russia “makes no secret” of its intention to “extend its range of action” in the Mediterranean area, including through its remarkable capabilities in the underwater sector

Minding the Med’s strategic value. The war in Ukraine and its effects have accentuated Italy’s – and its Defence’s – responsibilities for the stability of the Mediterranean Sea region, which “extend to the related seabed, traversed by strategic networks and infrastructures, potentially rich in natural resources and for this reason, often the target of the so-called ‘territorialisation’ of the sea.”

  • Thus spoke Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Chief of Defence Staff, speaking at the event “Italy, the enlarged Mediterranean and the underwater domain” held by the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) on Tuesday.

The underwater domain… As with space and land, continued the Defence Chief of Staff, elevating the underwater world to the status of operational domain requires full awareness “of the increased responsibilities” that come with its management. That remit ranges from the preservation of the marine environment, he remarked, as well as protection of strategically-relevant underwater infrastructures such as gas pipelines and data cables.

  • Thus, the Defence must dedicate resources and investments for this purpose in equal measure as those directed to other critical infrastructures in the country, “which are subject to an increasingly hybrid threat,” pointed out the admiral.
  • He then explained that the Defence intends to continue with a “multi-disciplinary, inter-departmental and inter-agency approach, enhancing dialogue with national excellences, to consolidate a coherent, shared and effective vision.”

… and the Russian threat. Today, the Mediterranean “is a polarisation point for international tensions, just as North Africa and the Sahelian region are areas where third-party state and non-state actors act assertively, fuelling destabilisation at a political, social and economic level.” Particularly Russia “makes no secret of the fact that it wants to extend its range of action throughout this important territorial belt, as well as the entire Mediterranean, also through its strong capabilities in the underwater sector – both manned and unmanned –, expanding the threats to which critical infrastructures and maritime backbones of our strategic interest may be exposed.”

Who’s moving underwater. In the preliminary version of their research “The Underwater Domain and Europe’s Defence and Security,” IAI analysts Elio Calcagno and Alessandro Marrone analysed scenarios concerning the activities in the underwater domain of several countries, with the latter highlighting the “increase in the relevance of submarines and underwater drones,” both in terms of demand as well as the “desire to feed supply through investment, innovation and competition.”

Bottom line: Matteo Perego di Cremnago, Undersecretary of State for Defence, who took care of the conclusions, stressed the need to “work on public opinion” to emphasise the scope and relevance of the maritime dimension.

  • The determining factor for Italy’s success in this domain, he concluded, will be its ability to leverage all its relevant entities and exploit its competitive advantage. The government has committed to catalysing this process by rapidly implementing a Polo nazionale della subacquea (“National Underwater Pole”).

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