A cyber attack on the German ports of Bremerhaven or Hamburg would severely impede NATO efforts to send military reinforcements to allies, retired U.S. General Ben Hodges told Reuters.

The European Commission proposed an action plan to bolster cyber defense earlier this month; Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe from 2014 until 2017 and has long argued that civilian infrastructure is an essential pillar of military strategy, said cyber protection is just as important as missile defense systems to guard the German North Sea ports.

Russia has recently increasingly targeted communications and electricity infrastructure in Ukraine, and in October warned “quasi-civilian infrastructure” may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike against countries aiding the eastern European country which it invaded in February.

“Bremerhaven and Hamburg are actually the most important seaports on which the alliance depends, for the military equipment, not just commercial cargo,” Hodges said.

He recalled a 2017 cyber attack, dubbed NotPetya and attributed to Russia, that first targeted Ukraine but spread rapidly through corporate networks of multinationals with operations or suppliers in eastern Europe. The Danish shipping giant Maersk said the attack caused outages at its computer systems across the world, so the company lost track of its freight.

“That was when I realized how vulnerable we are,” Hodges said. “If we can’t use Bremerhaven, it will be very difficult for the United States to reinforce and to fulfill its part of operation plans.”

In light of that, Hodges said, Berlin’s decision to allow Chinese group COSCO Shipping Holdings Co. Ltd to buy a stake in a terminal in Hamburg, the country’s largest port, caused “a lot of anxiety … because once they’re there, they’re inside the ecosystem of the harbor.”

Hodges said the ports would be essential for bringing in allies, “and so knowing that the Chinese may be able to influence or disrupt activities at critical transportation infrastructure, that’s a problem.”

The defense ministry in Berlin declined to comment on Hodges’ security concerns. Hamburg port operator HHLA said it constantly examines software, guidelines and methods to identify and eliminate weaknesses as quickly as possible. The Chinese foreign ministry said cooperation between China and Germany is a matter for the two countries and third-parties “have no right to meddle and intervene.”

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin; additional reporting by Jan C. Schwartz in Hamburg and Beijing bureau; edited by Sara Ledwith)

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