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Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Cable-Cutting

Cable-cutting is a sabotage and harassment tactic in which a ship will attempt to sever the cable to another ship's trailing equipment, such as trawler lines or towed array sonars.
Gaute Friis | JULY 26, 2023
Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Cable-Cutting
Chinese fisherman using a boat hook pole in an attempt to snag the cable connecting U.S ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable’s towed sonar array, March 8, 2009. (Source: USN)

Gaute Friis

Analyst

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This tactic is an act of sabotage which aim to cut the cables to a ship's trailing equipment, such as trawler lines or towed array sonars. 

Cable-cutting is most frequently used against commercial research vessels conducting survey operations in disputed maritime zones, such as within China's huge "nine-dash line" claim in the South China Sea. 

The tactic has also been used to obstruct U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering operations. In March 2009 the unarmed US Navy ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable faced coordinated harassment by Chinese ships and aircraft during hydrographic survey operations near Hainan Island. Chinese sailors demanded the Impeccable's departure as two fishing trawlers made unsuccessful attempts to target the ship's sonar array by running it over and attempting to snag it with long hooked poles. 

The Impeccable responded by using a high-pressure water hose against one trawler. Later, the trawlers joined forces with navy, fisheries law enforcement and marine surveillance vessels to temporarily block the Impeccable's exit. 

Editors note: China Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) and China Marine Surveillance (CMS) were maritime law enforcement units that have since been disbanded and merged into a unified China Coast Guard (CCG) in a 2013 reorganization

Other examples:

On November 30, 2012, two Chinese fishing vessels (likely maritime militia) cut the seismic survey cables of Vietnamese research ship Binh Minh 02, belonging to the Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group, PetroVietnam. This followed a previous May 26, 2011 incident in which three Chinese maritime surveillance ships also cut the Binh Minh 02's seismic equipment.

Also during May 2011, during a survey of an oil and gas block 150 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, the Norwegian-flagged Viking 2, contracted by PetroVietnam and Japan's Idemitsu, encountered an unidentified Chinese ship that intentionally collided with its towed instruments. Two security boats accompanying the Viking 2 intervened and drove off the Chinese ship. Two days later, the survey vessel again faced harassment, this time from two Chinese fishing vessels (later revealed to be maritime militia). The boats attempted to damage the cables but were thwarted by the escort ships.

See the rest of the playbook here.

Gaute Friis

Gaute is a Defense Innovation Scholar at Stanford's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

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