US concerned by Russian ships near undersea data cables

United States concerned by Russian operations near undersea data cables carrying global internet communications

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Russian Novorossiysk submarine

Russian submarines and spy ships operating near the undersea cables carrying almost all global internet communications have raised concerns among some American military and intelligence officials that Russia could attack those lines in times of tension or conflict, Reuters reported on Sunday, citing the New York Times.

Although there has been no evidence of any cable cutting, the US concerns show an increased wariness among US and allied officials over growing Russian military activity around the world.

The New York Times reported that the undersea cables carry more than $10 trillion daily in global business and more than 95 percent of daily communications.

US officials are secretive about how they are planning both to monitor the activity and repair cables quickly if they are cut. The evaluation of Russia’s growing naval activities is highly classified inside the Pentagon and US spy agencies and not publicly discussed in detail.

Naval commanders and intelligence officials have been monitoring Russian operations near the cables, routes from the North Sea to Northeast Asia and waters closer to the US.

“I’m worried every day about what the Russians may be doing,” said Rear Adm. Frederick J. Roegge, commander of the Navy’s submarine fleet in the Pacific, without answering questions about possible Russian plans for cutting the undersea data cables.

"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," US Navy Spokesman Commander William Marks told the New York Times.

Last month, the US monitored the Russian spy ship Yantar, which is equipped with two self-propelled deep-sea submersible craft. The ship cruised off the East Coast of the United States on its way to Cuba, where one of the major cable lands near the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

US Navy Adm. Mark Ferguson, commander of the Allied Joint Force Command, speaks to media in Bucharest, Romania on May 5, 2015 (AP)

Naval officials said that the submersible craft could cut cables miles deep in the sea.

Cables are often cut by ship anchors or natural disasters and then quickly repaired because the incidents take place close to shore. However, US officials are worried that Russia seems to be seeking vulnerabilities in the depths where the cables are hard to monitor and breaks are hard to find and repair.

“Cables get cut all the time — by anchors that are dragged, by natural disasters,” said Michael Sechrist, a former project manager for a Harvard-M.I.T. research project in 2012 into vulnerabilities in the undersea cable network funded in part by the US Department of Defense.

Similar concerns over Russia tapping the cables were raised during the Cold War. Therefore, US intelligence agencies are familiar with the issue which they mastered decades ago.

"The level of activity," a senior European diplomat said, "is comparable to what we saw in the Cold War."

Adm. Mark Ferguson, commander of American naval forces in Europe said this month that the activities of the Russian submarine force were growing. He said the intensity of Russian submarine patrols increased by almost 50 percent over the last year. Russia has hit operating tempo levels not seen in over a decade. Russia's $2.4 billion investment into Russian Arctic bases show the country's persistance in developing military infrastructure on the flanks, Ferguson said.

The US military and intelligence analysts have said Russia has also been developing an undersea crewless drones capable of carrying small tactical nuclear weapons to use against harbors or coastal areas.

TRTWorld and agencies