Russia’s increasingly active submarine fleets in the Atlantic and Arctic have the Trump administration scrambling to respond amid fears that miles of underwater fiber-optic cables that crisscross the ocean floor transmitting the Pentagon’s most sensitive military secrets could be at risk.
But with an aging submarine fleet and growing threats from North Korea and elsewhere, the Navy risks overstretching its submarine fleet in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly challenging U.S. security interests, and his submarine fleet’s “operational tempo is reaching Cold War-era levels,” said Magnus Nordenman, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “Clearly, there is more attention being paid by the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic due to the Russian threat.”
The U.S. has 70 nuclear-powered submarines: 52 attack subs, four cruise-missile-armed subs and 14 ballistic missile subs. Fourteen are patrolling the world’s waterways.
Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, acknowledged this month that the numbers represent an uptick in traditional submarine operations, but he declined to comment on what, specifically, warranted the shift.
But former U.S. defense officials and analysts say there is little question that it was driven by a desire by Defense Secretary James Mattis and his top aides to deliver a robust response to the increased Russian activity in the Atlantic.
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According to GlobalFirePower.com, North Korea has the world’s largest submarine fleet by raw numbers with 76, though most of Pyongyang’s fleet consists of shorter-range, electric-diesel coastal patrol craft. China and Russia, both with modern nuclear-powered fleets that rival the U.S. fleet, have 68 subs and 63 subs, respectively.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in an interview with the Frankfurt Allgemeine and other news outlets in December, said the Kremlin is investing heavily in its submarine fleet, with 13 delivered since 2013. NATO countries, he said, have let their underwater firepower lag. “We have practiced less and lost skills,” the NATO chief said.
A particular point of concern, said one former high-level U.S. Navy official, is that Moscow may be attempting to tap into or sever some of the 550,000 miles of underwater fiber-optic cables that span the Atlantic and Arctic sea lanes.
“Russians have had a capability … to do things with these cables for the last 20 to 30 years,” said Tom Callender, who once served as head of capabilities for the Navy’s deputy undersecretary office and is now a senior defense fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
“It is, in some ways, a strategic threat,” Mr. Callender said in an interview. The threat becomes more potent as the military and civilian worlds come to rely so heavily on online information and communication.
More than 95 percent of the global internet traffic — military and civilian, classified and unclassified — is transmitted across the network of submerged cables along the ocean floor, according to Washington-based tech firm TeleGeography. The quantity is massive compared with just a decade ago, when just 1 percent of all online traffic went through the cables.
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The majority of the 285 underwater cables in place crisscross beneath heavily trafficked sea lanes of the Atlantic and Arctic regions. According to TeleGeography, the longest single cable stretches 24,000 miles and relays internet traffic and other electronic communications from Europe, Asia and Africa.
The scale and scope of global communications moving through the network of cables — some of which are only 2 inches thick — present a lucrative target that is vulnerable to attack by U.S. adversaries. It also poses a significant challenge to U.S. forces defending the lines.
“If a nation desired to do something [to the cables], that would have a significant impact,” said Mr. Callender. Simply “having that capability is something we always must be aware of.”
Mr. Nordenman said protecting those cables has been a priority for U.S. defense officials for decades but that the mission has fallen somewhat by the wayside while the Pentagon focuses on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, counterterrorism operations in the Middle East, and the rise of China and the battle for influence in the South China Sea.
Senior Navy planners “are once again getting used to operating in the Atlantic, which has not been a priority” to the Pentagon in the post-9/11 era, Mr. Nordenman said.
“The Navy is going to have to play a delicate balancing game” if the U.S. submarine fleet is to meet the rising Russian challenge in the Atlantic alongside all the other operational demands placed on the Navy, he said.
It is the growing competition in the Atlantic and the Arctic Circle, focusing particularly on the submerged communication lines, where Russia is outpacing the U.S., said Mr. Nordenman. “In any age of warfare, intercepting and disrupting communications has always been a part of warfare,” he said.
NATO’s Mr. Stoltenberg warns that the trans-Atlantic cable links and sea lanes are particularly vital for an alliance that links the Old World and the New World.
“We are a trans-Atlantic alliance, and we must be able to transport troops and equipment across the Atlantic. We need safe and open sea routes for that.”
With the U.S. strategic interests elsewhere, Russian navy leaders have focused a significant portion of their buildup on submarine surveillance operations. The most notable effort was the development of the classified AS-12 “Losharik” spy submarine. In development since 1998, the sub did not enter service with the Russian navy until 2003.
Little is known about the surveillance capabilities of the Losharik, which Moscow has characterized as a research and rescue vessel. However, analysts say the vessel’s true role is to conduct reconnaissance missions in support of Russian special operations, given the sub’s ability to dive much deeper than more conventional attack submarines. NATO officials have code-named the sub NORSUB-5.
Aside from the Losharik, Russian naval officials are configuring two ballistic missile submarines into surveillance vessels, as well as an Oscar-class cruise missile submarine for similar missions, Mr. Nordenman said in an analysis of Russian navy capabilities.
The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, has not been as aggressive in expanding its submarine fleet to address the Russian moves, said Mr. Callender, who also has served as a Navy submarine officer. Investments in the American underwater fleet “fell off in the 1990s,” he said. “There has been a refocus on getting them back out to sea,” as evidenced by the higher operational tempo within the U.S. fleet.
Navy leaders are looking to expand the underwater fleet in the budget for the 2019 fiscal year, which starts in October. President Trump’s budget proposal released Monday includes a Pentagon request for one new Columbia-class nuclear attack submarine as part of its $194 billion total.
The Navy wants to buy two of the newest version of the Virginia-class fast attack submarines, according to the service’s proposal. It remains unclear how much of the Navy’s submarine procurements will be designated for surveillance operations, Mr. Nordenman said.
“The Navy is quite silent on this,” he said, noting that submarine reconnaissance missions “are some of the most highly classified operations that the U.S. does.”
One of the relatively few known submarines to carry out such missions is the USS Jimmy Carter, a Seawolf-class submarine modified with the “multimission platform.” The modification implanted a special section on the vessel that can launch minisubmarines used by Navy SEALs or small underwater drones. The USS Carter, based out of Bangor, Washington, reportedly conducts many of the underwater surveillance missions in the Atlantic and Arctic Circle.
Despite the underwater arms race between Russia and the U.S., the answer to securing the sea floor in the Atlantic may not lie in the size of either country’s submarine fleet, Mr. Nordenman said.
“I do not think there is a direct counter or a special sub-versus-special sub scenario” that will define who controls the depths of the Atlantic or Arctic, he said. The key for the Pentagon, he said, is to maintain a persistent presence on and below the ocean waters.
Continued submarine patrols combined with aerial surveillance of Russian movements — similar to the “freedom of operation” patrols used to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea — will be vital to containing the threat, Mr. Nordenman said. “The more you know about [the adversary],” he said, “the better you can react.”