The Real Story Behind the Undersea Cable Caper*

By Stephen Bryen
Thursday, October 29th, 2015 @ 5:47PM

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When the latest Russian ocean surveillance ship, the Yantar (Amber) sailed off the coast of Florida, US Navy senior officials sounded an alarm.  The Russian ship, they said, carried deep surveillance underwater vehicles which could be used to cut the fiber optic cables that connected the United States to the rest of the world.  Speaking strictly on background they opined that the Russians were mapping the cables’ locations, either so they could cut them and knock out US communications in future, or they could be planning to attach listening devices to the cables, something the US and UK have been doing for years.

The Navy alarm came about because American sensors located near the cables had detected the Russian ship’s activity.

There is no evidence that any deep submersible vehicle was deployed, but among the published stories was news that the surveillance ship activity meshed with significantly increased Russian submarine activity.  Presumably the Russian submarines were picked up by these buried sensors.

This is not the first alarm bell on Russian underwater activity growing, perhaps approximating Cold War levels of activity. For example, the Norwegians recently complained about the same thing.  Where did the Norwegians get the ability to detect Russian underwater activity?  Either from information shared by the US and based on similar sensors off the Norwegian coast, or perhaps from sensors put in the water by the Norwegians themselves.

But the real story is not the underwater cables.  There is no real incentive for the Russians to cut the cables because these cables can supply Russia with plenty of valuable intelligence so long as they are functioning.  And the US military has many alternatives to underwater cables for vital strategic communications, including satellites, frequency hopping secure radios, microwave transmissions, as well as other classified means (which could include cables but not where the Russians were looking).

The actual Russian interest is the underwater sensors.  Indeed, the very fact that Navy officials actually referenced the presence of the sensors is unusual.

Underwater sensors are a means of tracking submarines.  Every submarine has an acoustic signature which is made up of the cavitation sound of the submarine’s propellers, the noise created by machinery operating in the vessel, and the sound of the submarine actually cutting through sea water.  The underwater sensors can pick up this noise if they are properly located, and over time can distinguish one submarine from another.

A US Nuclear Submarine in drydock with its Propeller (Screw) covered to prevent spying

One significant Russian victory in the 1980’s was to obtain advanced multi-axis profiling machines from Japan capable of manufacturing “silent” propellers which lowered the acoustic signature of Russian subs dramatically. It became much more difficult for US subs to actively track the Russians. When a Russian submarine knows it has been detected and under active tracking, it can drop its speed, deploy acoustic decoys, and escape.

But underwater acoustic sensors are passive.  They sit quietly and if they pick up a track they transfer that information over an underwater cable to a command center.  If the Russians are able to identify the location of such sensors, they could either shut them down or put noise generators in the water that would make it hard for them to function.

In order to launch any attack on underwater sensors, you need a means to get to them.  The best way is an underwater vehicle, preferably one that has sophisticated manipulator arms that can disable the sensors in situ.

In the 1980’s the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences made a deal with the Finnish firm Rauma-Repola’s Oceanics subsidiary for a deep sea submersible vehicle.  The Shirshov Institute of Oceanology teamed with Oceanics to build the Mir Deep Submergence vehicle.  The vessel can reach depths of 6,000 meters, giving the Mir a capability shared by the US submersibles Alvin, Sea Cliff and Deepstar 20000, Japan’s Shinkai and France’s Nautile.

The Mir is built from a unique maraging steel alloy that contains nickel, chrome, and titanium.  A key technology is syntactic foam, a special composite material vital to the underwater vehicle. The US company 3-M refused to sell any foam to Finland, but a Finish company (Exel Oyj) was able to develop a local version of the highly specialized foam.  It is critical to the buoyancy of the submersible.

Rus deep sea vehicle

The depth of 6,000 meters means that the submersible could function over 98 percent of the ocean floor meaning that all the underwater sensors, if they could be located, would be exposed to Russian surveillance ships.

A key technology that appears on the Mir and Rus submersible are sophisticated underwater manipulator arms. Without them, it would be far more difficult to destroy US Navy listening devices.  Manipulator arms can be used to pick items up from the ocean floor, cut cables, disable underwater mines, and for other commercial and military tasks.

Rus Manipulator Arms

The Yantar carries two submersible vehicles.  Each of them is equipped with a variety of sensors, cameras, and lighting and each carries a three man crew.  Thus, Russia’s latest operation off the coast of Florida is not any accident: it has a strategic purpose.   The transfer of vital technology has helped enable Russia’s revolution in military affairs and is once again a threat to the United States and America’s allies.


* The article was published on the author’s Technology and Security website.  

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, communication, Europe, Latest News, MIR submarine, North America, Norway, Russia, submarines, U.S., Undersea Cable

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