The Associated Press reported Sunday that Russian ships are skulking around underwater communication cables, causing alarm for the U.S. and its allies that the Kremlin might be taking information warfare to whole new depths.
Russian activity near the undersea cables in the northern Atlantic has increased dramatically, with Russian submarine activity at its highest since the Cold War.
“We’ve seen activity in the Russian navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven’t seen since the ‘80s,” said Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, Commander of the U.S. European Command, to Congress in March.
“We are now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of undersea cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen,” NATO Submarine Commander Rear Arm. Andrew Lennon of the U.S. Navy said last year. “Russia is clearly taking an interest in NATO and NATO nations’ undersea infrastructure.”
NATO has responded with plans to reopen a command post that was shuttered after the Cold War to help secure the North Atlantic. NATO allies are also pushing to boost their anti-submarine warfare capabilities and to develop advanced submarine-detecting planes.
The more aggressive naval posture by Russia over the cables, which provide internet and other communications connections to North America and Europe, could provide the Kremlin with the power to sever or tap into vital data lines, according to NATO officials.
The 400 fiber-optic cables that Russia has taken a troubling interest in carry most of the world’s calls, emails, and texts, as well as $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions.
If Russia severed the cables, a bank in an Asian country couldn’t send money to Saudi Arabia to pay for oil. U.S. military leaders would struggle to communicate with troops fighting extremists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. And a student in Europe wouldn’t be able to Skype their parents in the United States.
All of these types of information are transmitted along tiny glass fibers encased in undersea cables that, in some cases, are bigger than a garden hose. All told, there are 620,000 miles of fiber-optic cable running under the sea, enough to loop around the earth nearly 25 times, according the the Associated Press report.
While cutting one cable might have a small impact, cutting several simultaneously or at critical choke points could cause a major outage.
The Russians “are doing their homework and, in the event of a crisis or conflict with them, they might do rotten things to us,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at the nonprofit research group, CNA Corp.
But it isn’t the Kremlin’s war fighting ships and submarines that are worrying NATO and U.S. officials.
It’s Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research, whose specialized surface ships, submarines, underwater drones, and mini subs conduct reconnaissance, underwater salvage, and other work.
One directorate ship in particular that’s causing concern is the Yantar. The Yantar is a 354-foot oceanographic vessel that holds a 60-person crew. Last October, the Russian parliament’s publication, Parlamentskaya Gazeta, said that the Yantar has equipment “designed for deep-sea tracking” and “connecting to top-secret communication cables.”
The publication also said in September of 2015 that the Yantar was near Kings Bay, Georgia, which is home to a U.S. submarine base, “collecting information about the equipment on American submarines, including underwater sensors and the unified (U.S. military) information network.” Rossiya, a Russian state television network, has said that the Yantar can not only connect to top-secret cables, but can also cut them and “jam underwater sensors with a special system.”
There isn’t yet any solid evidence that the ship is engaged in nefarious activity, according to Steffan Watkins, an information technology security consultant in Canada who is tracking the ship. However, he is curious what the ship is doing when it is stopped over critical cables or when its Automatic Identification System tracking transponder is turned off.
Commenting on the Yantar’s crew, Watkins said, “I don’t think these are the actual guys who are doing any sabotage. I think they’re laying the groundwork for future operations.” Certainly, there’s cause for concern.
“Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which could immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living if they were disrupted?” asked British Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach in a speech in London this month. “It’s a pattern of activity, and it’s a vulnerability.”