Russian Navy Probing U.S. Undersea Communications Cables In New Global Threat
The Russian Navy’s unseemly renewed interest in vital aspects of undersea communications cables serving the continental U.S., in particular, poses not just a Cold War-styled bilateral threat to global security, but a threat to civilization as we know it, some experts now contend.
As The New York Times noted in an article last week, “Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating” near the cables, arousing concern among the American military and intelligence communities that Russia may be planning “to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict.”
“The New York Times article suggested a return to the bilateral Cold War conflict, but submarine fiber optic cables [are] crucial to all, and their vulnerabilities involve us all — that’s the dimension of this story that remains untold and not understood,” Law of the Sea expert Capt. Ashley Roach, U.S. Navy Retired, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore, told me.
In fact, thousands of miles of more than 200 international submarine cable systems carry an estimated 99% of all the world’s trans-oceanic internet and data traffic.
Widespread disruption to undersea communications networks could sabotage in excess of $10 trillion in daily international financial transactions; as noted by Michael Sechrist in a 2012 paper published by the Harvard Kennedy School. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), Sechrist notes, now uses undersea fiber-optics to transmit data to more than 8300 member institutions in 195 countries.
“The most important nodes along the Pacific Coast are those along the Washington/Oregon coastline and in the area around Los Angeles,” Jonathan Reed Winkler, a historian of diplomatic and military history at Wright State University in Ohio, told me. “On the Atlantic coast, the most important nodes are around the New York/New Jersey area, and Miami.”
But in the event of a catastrophic attack on such undersea systems, don’t expect satellites or other tech to take up much of the international communications slack.
“If some power succeeded in cutting all of these cables along the U.S. coastline, the U.S. would be able to reroute a portion of communications through overland connections to Canada and Mexico, and through these to the wider world,” said Winkler. “But these could not handle everything. At present, satellites only handle 5% of the global communications traffic.”
Even though The New York Times article noted there was “no evidence yet of any cable cutting,” it did point out that the Russians “appear to be looking for vulnerabilities” in the global fiber-optic cable network that they could then cut; potentially via use of deep sea submersibles.
If the Russians are looking to cut cables in very deep water, such as the Mariana Trench east of Guam, that would make the task of recovering both ends of the cable and re-splicing them difficult and time consuming, Brett Biddington, a Canberra, Australia-based space and cyber security consultant, told me. But he says it would buy the Russians time and military advantage.
How do the Russians do such undersea reconnaissance?
From a slowly-moving ocean-going vessel, detecting a cable location would first involve knowing a cable’s general location, Winkler says. The spy vessel would then use side-scan radar or other means to pin down its precise location, he says. And then it would either use a remotely piloted vehicle or a special grapple to actually grab hold and capture the cable.
“If the intention is to cut it, then that has to be done just right, so that there is a break and not just damage,” said Winkler.
Biddington has no specific knowledge of secret U.S. military or government cables but speculates, if they exist in the Asia-Pacific, they would likely run from the continental U.S. to Hawaii and possibly to Japan. In the event of nuclear war, the idea is that they would provide additional communications redundancy for the U.S. national command authority.
On commercial cables, Biddington says, there are also so-called ‘dark fibers’ that do not carry general traffic. They can be configured in effect as point to point communications lines that are reserved for the exclusive use of any given customer. Biddington says at the points along the cable where the signals are re-amplified, communications traffic on those fibers is just as vulnerable as on any other undersea commercial cable.
Such cable disruption is not without precedent.
“The Soviet Union did something like this in 1959-1960,” said Winkler. “The U.S. aggressively stopped a Soviet fishing trawler in February 1959 after five [transatlantic] cables were cut in four days, but could not find conclusive evidence for what the Soviets were doing.”
Winkler notes similar cuts occurred in the Pacific in 1965 and 1966.
How does the Navy defend against such snooping and potential attacks?
Attempts to get comment for this article from a U.S. Navy spokesperson went unanswered. But Winkler says the Navy would likely first surveil and then either intercept or warn off any ships threatening the cables. Winkler says the Navy is also likely also to have other means of protecting that cables that have yet to be made public.
However, in 2005, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. Navy’s $3.2 billion refurbished Seawolf class submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, had the capacity to tap into seafloor deep sea cables for intelligence gathering purposes. Thus, with an “ocean interface”-like hangar from which it can launch submersibles and undersea drones, surely the re-purposed sub would surely be able to provide emergency repair on cables that had been deliberately cut by an adversary.
But aside from the satisfaction that Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to get from poking U.S. defenses and territorial assets, what’s Russia’s ultimate undersea cable endgame? Maybe a means of winning a global conflict without nuclear weapons?
As Bruce G. Blair, an expert on Russian military strategy at Princeton University, told me: Identifying critical nodes in the West’s economic, communications, and military infrastructure and then crippling them preemptively during wartime, would provide Russia with a way to counter the West’s economic and military superiority without going nuclear.
This article was written by Bruce Dorminey from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.