HMS Somerset was joined by five other Royal Navy ships and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship during the deployment; Source: UK's Ministry of Defence

After pipeline incident, JEF partners pool resources for subsea infrastructure protection in Baltic Sea

The Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) – a multilateral defense cooperation framework led by Great Britain and formed by ten countries: the Netherlands, Iceland, Great Britain, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Estonia – has embarked on a joint exercise in the Baltic Sea region to strengthen its presence and develop the capability for the surveillance and protection of subsea infrastructure in a bid to repel threats.

HMS Somerset was joined by five other Royal Navy ships and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship during the deployment; Source: UK's Ministry of Defence

This comes after the UK’s Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, met virtually with ministers from the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) at the end of November 2023 and agreed to activate a JEF response option, including maritime and air capabilities that would be deployed across the JEF’s core region as a military contribution to the protection of critical subsea infrastructure. 

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Shapps explained: “This historic and unprecedented agreement will see a Royal Navy task force of seven ships, supported by the RAF, join allies from across northern Europe as part of a joint operation to defend our shared critical infrastructure against potential threats. The UK and our JEF partners will do whatever it takes to defend our mutual areas of interest, and today’s display of unshakeable unity sends a powerful message of deterrence that we stand ready to meet any potential threat with force.”

The activity took place on December 4-5, 2023, to ensure a security presence, and bolster common efforts with NATO in the Baltic Sea region. In the wake of the Balticconnector gas pipeline incident, the JEF is determined to enhance its preparedness to support its members in protecting their critical national infrastructure.

Antti Häkkänen, Finland’s Defense Minister, commented: “We decided to increase our presence and control in the Baltic Sea. We enhance the protection of critical underwater infrastructure and develop capabilities to ensure safety. The measures decided within the JEF countries complement the measures taken by NATO, the EU and the states themselves.”

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While the JEF has developed a series of JEF response options throughout 2023, designed to deter and defend the region from threats and establish a quick response to crises, this marks the first time a JEF response option has been activated. The exercise included the Finnish Navy, the Gulf of Finland Coast Guard District of the Finnish Border Guard, the Royal Navy, and the Estonian Navy.

The Joint Expeditionary Force claims that this provides “a tangible demonstration of the JEF as a credible contributor to security in Northern Europe and a powerful message of our ability and commitment to bolstering the security of our critical undersea infrastructure and deterrence of hybrid threats.”

Finland’s Defence Command Assistant Chief of Operations, Commodore Janne Huusko, described the activation of the JEF response option and NATO’s increased naval presence as “an entity that strengthens the surveillance and protection” of subsea infrastructure. As confirmed by the Norwegian Armed Forces, the JEF nations also patrolled close to the Goliat field in the Barents Sea.

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Six Royal Navy warships, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, and a Royal Air Force P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft formed the UK’s contribution to the JEF deployment. During the deployment, ships and aircraft from JEF nations, spaced to cover a wide area from the English Channel to the Baltic Sea, worked together to carry out deterrent patrols in areas of key interest, as well as to deepen surveillance around offshore assets and share intelligence, after an increase in attacks and threats.

“After the Balticconnector incident, many countries of the Baltic Sea region have increased their cooperation and their own national maritime surveillance operations. This exercise is one message of how we are able to protect and conduct surveillance on critical infrastructure together with our allies and partners,” added Huusko.

In early October 2023, the Balticconnector gas pipeline between Finland and Estonia suffered a rupture and was shut down after seismic signals were recorded in its vicinity, indicating a possible explosion had occurred around the time a pressure drop was observed approximately 40 kilometers north of Paldiski, Estonia, close to where the Balticconnector pipeline crosses the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.

Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has clarified the cause of the damage, stating that the Newnew Polar Bear vessel, flying the flag of Hong Kong, is believed to have caused it, after an anchor was found a few meters from the gas pipeline damage point. As the repair of the pipeline is expected to take at least five months, all Finnish natural gas demands are expected to be met through imports of LNG.

Kaja Kallas, Estonian Prime Minister, believes that the incidents that caused damage to the Balticconnector gas pipeline and telecom cables between Estonia, Finland, and Sweden are related. The Finnish-Baltic region’s transmission system operators (TSOs), Gasgrid and Elering, have undertaken infrastructure projects to ramp up pipeline capacities and enhance the regional gas system to meet the transportation needs of the market. 

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Following the restoration of flows over the Balticconnector pipeline and once inspection and maintenance works in the Estonian-Latvian system are executed, the TSOs highlight that the base capacity will be increased in the Estonia-Finland direction to 70,5 GWh/day.

The Balticconnector incident is not the only one where subsea energy infrastructure has been damaged. In September 2022, four gas leaks were found on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, two in Sweden’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and two in the Danish territory. After the Norwegian and Swedish seismic institutes had confirmed that underwater blasts preceded the leaks, European authorities said that the incident could be the result of “deliberate actions”.

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Come July 2023, Germany revealed in a letter to the UN Security Council that it had found traces of subsea explosives in samples taken from a yacht that might have been used to transport the explosives, which damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea.