In a scenario reminiscent of those that played out during the Cold War, The New York Times reports concerns in the U.S. defense and intelligence communities of Russian submarines potentially cutting undersea data cables in the future. Currently, Russian submarines and spy ships have been and continue to be observed operating near undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications. While future hostilities or souring relations could provide Moscow with reason to cut such cables, the more likely scenario is that the cables that are used specifically by U.S. and allied defense and intelligence communities might be targeted and that Russia is currently searching for them. This suspicion of Moscow by Washington shows the deep mistrust the U.S. has of Russia as a result of its more aggressive activities globally.
Comments by more than a dozen U.S. and allied officials to the NYT underscore the importance and real fear this situation has put into the Pentagon and intelligence community. Russian naval activity globally in recent years has increased by leaps and bounds. A senior European diplomat off the record has said “The level of activity [of the Russian navy]..is comparable to what we saw in the Cold War.” Of greater concern is that from the North Sea to Northeast Asia and closer to U.S. shores, Russian ships have been observed operating along known routes of undersea cables.
Over 550,000 miles of undersea cables are vital for the flow of roughly 95 percent of international Internet communication. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security considers these cables and the locations where most land as “critical infrastructure”. Locations of most cables are available to the public as a way to prevent their accidental destruction. According to Michael Sechrist, a former project manager for a Harvard-M.I.T. research project partially funded by the Defense Department, “Cables get cut all the time–by anchors that are dragged, by natural disasters”. Sechrist insists though that since most of these accidental cuts occur a few miles from shore, repairs can be affected in a few days.
The concern in Washington is that Russia is capable of severing such cables in deeper waters where they are harder to repair and that they are searching for the links that are not publicly known, those that are used by the defense and intelligence communities. Moscow has the power right now it is believed to sever these undersea communications which would result in massive disruptions to international communications resulting in an economic disaster. On the military side, Russia can seriously impact the ability of U.S. forces to communicate with each other effectively.
Concerns and Fears in the West
Publicly, official statements are ambiguous and are either on the threat of cables being cut or recognize the importance of Russia without stating its involvement. Rear Admiral Frederick J. Roegge, commander of the U.S. Pacific Submarine Force (SUBPAC) told the NYT, “I’m worried every day about what the Russians may be doing” though refused to answer questions about possible Russian plans for cutting cables. Meanwhile, a Navy spokesman, Commander William Marks said “It would be a concern to hear any country was tampering with communication cables; however, due to the classified nature of submarine operations, we do not discuss specifics.”
Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and retired commander U.S. European Command Admiral James Stavridis told the NYT that “this [Russia’s action] is yet another example of a highly assertive and aggressive regime seemingly reaching backwards for the tools of the Cold War, albeit with a high degree of technical improvement.”
Denials of such activity have emerged from Russia. Vladimir Komoyedov, the head of the Russian State Duma’s defense committee and former Black Sea Fleet commander told RIA Novosti , “The United States increasingly resembles Sweden, often believing that Russian submarines are present in their territorial waters. Fear has many eyes. Although these data cables indeed exist, we will definitely not damage them.” Meanwhile, former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Viktor Kravchenko said “Soviet and then Russian submarines repeatedly placed transmitters on American cables located in the Atlantic to gather information. Americans carried out similar operations in our territorial waters. Since then not much has likely changed.”
Just late last year there was an incident in Sweden’s home waters that was believed to involve a Russian submarine or submersible. Reminiscent of the Cold War, Sweden’s military was on high alert for several days hunting for a Russian submarine that had illegally entered its waters. While the actual submarine was not discovered, evidence of it being in Sweden’s territorial waters has been revealed. This April the Finnish navy dropped depth charges on what it believed to be a Russian submarine operating in its waters. These are but two of the many incidents that are increasingly occurring involving Russian undersea activity.
In September, U.S. spy satellites, ships and planes closely monitored the recently commissioned Russian oceanographic/spy ship Yantar as it slowly cruised 300 miles off the U.S. East Coast to its destination in Cuba. While such activity would always warrant U.S. surveillance, the capabilities of the Yantar and the fact that its voyage brought it near the U.S. ballistic missile submarine base at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, and ultimately close to a major undersea cable that rests near the U.S. naval station at Guantánamo Bay brought about other fears. The Yantar is equipped with two self-propelled deep-sea submersible craft that can conceivably, be deployed to cut undersea cables.
During the Cold War, the U.S. navy worked to tap into Soviet undersea cables. In a mission code-named Ivy Bells, the USS Halibut tapped into a Soviet cable in the Sea of Okhotsk in October 1971 between the Pacific Fleet naval base at Petropavlovsk and the mainland Pacific Fleet headquarters at Vladivostok. Highly successful, the device planted by the USS Halibut on the cable would yield massive amounts of intelligence over the years until the early 1980s when Ronald Pelton, an NSA analyst with financial problems compromised the operation by selling information on it to the Soviets.
Russia also has a long history of using submarines for spy missions. While little has been publicly revealed about similar operations attempted by the Soviets, during the Cold War they did develop numerous undersea platforms that were used to carry small submarines for spy missions.
The Russian Navy operates a variety of intelligence collection ships that could conceivably be used to tap into or sever foreign undersea cables. Currently there are several dedicated spy ships as well as numerous vessels such as the Yantar that double as oceanographic research vessels.
There is the BS-64, Podmoskovye, a former Delfin-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine (NATO designation Delta IV) that has been refitted to serve as a carrier submarine for mini-submarines. These mini submarines are either of the Paltus-class or the nuclear-powered Losharik. The Daily Beast has reported that Admiral Kravchenko claimed that main mission of the Podmoskovye would be to transport the Losharik to remove wiretaps. Retired Admiral Valentin Selivanov claimed the Losharik could also be used to place its own wiretaps.
The U.S. navy has its own dedicated spy submarine. The USS Jimmy Carter is a highly modified Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine fitted with a 100-foot long extension that can house a variety of unmanned vehicles, spools of cable, special forces supplies and craft, and many other tools. It is widely believed that the USS Jimmy Carter is specially outfitted to carry out wiretapping missions as well similar to those performed by the USS Halibut decades ago.
Without a doubt, Russian naval activity has been increasing in recent years at a tremendous pace. Patrols are being conducted in regions the Russian Navy has not operated in since the end of the Cold War while ships and submarines are being built and commissioned at a rate higher than at any time over the past two decades. Moscow does have its disagreements with the West; Ukraine and Syria are two bitter current points.
While there is little reason to doubt that Russia is trying to test the vulnerabilities of U.S. undersea cables, I find it hard to believe that as some are predicting, Moscow is planning to cripple the worldwide flow of communications. Most likely, Russia is searching for the undersea cables used by the defense and intelligence community to gain some type of advantage over the quantitatively and qualitatively superior U.S. military. The problem though is that fear of Russia’s activities has revealed just how vulnerable the U.S. is, and the world for that matter in a situation where undersea cables are compromised.
The loss of select U.S. undersea cables would greatly impede the ability of the military to effectively communicate as satellites can only handle a small fraction of communication bandwidth. The loss of civilian cables could cripple financial trading until they are repaired resulting in the loss of billions of dollars each day, if not more. Again while there is no reason to believe that Russian President Putin is immediately preparing to make such a move, the U.S. should take precautions to ensure the security of undersea cables.