Key Point: A massive cable attack is probably an over-hyped scenario, at least for a country with as many redundant cables as the United States.
In 2018 reports have multiplied in the United States and Europe that Russian has intensified its submarine activity around the undersea cables which are essential for the global operation of the internet.
Yes, you heard that right—the ability of an American user to access a website in Europe or vice versa largely depends upon a network of several hundred distinct armored, fiber-optic Submarine Communication Cables that run across around six hundred thousand miles of ocean floor—and Moscow is dispatching mini submarines apparently to tamper with them.
Washington is reportedly plenty worried about this fact, but can’t exactly get on its high horse about this activity, as U.S. submarines actually pioneered the art of tapping into submarine cables decades earlier. In fact, the USS Jimmy Carter, one of only three super-advanced Sea Wolf class submarines built, has been specially modified to perform such missions.
The first undersea cables established telegraph communications between the UK and France in 1850, followed by a trans-Atlantic cable in 1858. The history of cable-tampering dates all the way back to the Spanish American war 120 years ago when the United States cut cables connecting Madrid with Spanish outposts in the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba—the operation in Guantanamo Bay undertaken while battling nearby Spanish ground and naval forces!
Trans-oceanic cables were also cut by belligerents on all sides during World War I (when submarines first entered the global cable sabotage role) and II. Even in peacetime, undersea cables lack much in the way of formal protection under international law as they do not formally belong to any one nation.
It’s not exactly clear what the Russian submarines, under the direction of the Russian Navy’s Directorate of Deep Sea Research (GUGI) are doing with the cables—or what they’re capable of doing. Tapping into the cables requires exotic techniques to access the delicate fibers inside the cable without exposing them to seawater. The Jimmy Carter reportedly uses a special floodable chamber to perform this operation. No Russian ships are confirmed to have such a capability, but Russian media sources have claimed a capability to hack into the cables.
Sabotage would be simpler to perform, but difficult to scale up for meaningful effect. This is because networks are designed with a high degree of redundancy as cables are routinely damaged by falling anchors, sharks (yes, really!), fishing lines, earthquakes, human mischief makers and so forth. Cable breaks average fifty per year in the Atlantic alone. If a few of the cables go down, data requests are simply shunted to other cables while a fleet of specially appointed, repair boats cruise over and repair the breakages.
It would therefore take a coordinated, massed attack to truly cripple the trans-Atlantic cables—a feat that experts claim is logistically impractical. Even in that event, satellite communications (though more vulnerable to interception) could be used for vital tasks, though a genuine massive cable shutdown would indeed cripple trans-Atlantic web access, with major spillover effects on the economy and financial sector.
If you glance at the global cable network at this site, though, you can see just how extensive the redundancies are between Europe and the United States—but may also note that some countries are not so well connected.
Such geographically isolated countries, and specific military or even industrial sites (think oil platforms) may be more vulnerable to sabotage. For example, Vietnam had internet access crippled for months in 2007 when fishermen pulled up one of the country’s two undersea cables with their fishing line. A targeted cable attack could be used for operational effect in a specific region as well.
In fact, it’s possible that Russia’s true target are the Pentagon’s secret DoDIN cable network distinct from the publicly accessible civilian system. These would have less redundancy than civilian cables and could disable key communication capabilities during a crisis. Already, an accidental cable outage in 2008 crippled U.S. drone operations over Iraq for several days.
NATO also maintains an undersea network called the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) for monitoring the movements of submarines—the sabotaging of which would facilitate Russian submarine operations. (China incidentally has begun building its own ‘Underwater Great Wall’, starting with listening posts near Micronesia and the southern tip of the Marianna Trench.) After decades of neglect, the Pentagon has begun upgrading the system.
At any rate, Russia has deployed increasing number of special-operations oriented mini-submarines to facilitate it clandestine cable activities. Some operate from a secret base in the Arctic Kola Peninsula, and others are based upon an ‘oceanographic research vessel’ called the Yantar. (Again, this kind of obvious fiction was also used by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War with ships like the USS Pueblo.)
The Yantar carries two three person mini-submarines Rus and Consul, which can dive down to six thousand meters—allowing them to reach very deep cables—and may store additional submarines or unmanned submersibles in its huge hangar. Submarine expert HI Sutton at Covert Shores has helpfully mapped out how the Yantar’s activities clearly follow undersea cables near Cuba, Turkey, and the U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine base at King’s Baby, Georgia (likely scouting for secret U.S. military cables). A second Yantar-class vessel is scheduled to enter service in 2020.
Another one of Russia’s one-of-a-kind Special Operations subs is the sixty or seventy-four-meter long Losharik (named after a cartoon horse) which is powered by a nuclear reactor and can reportedly dive as deep as twenty-five hundred meters under the sea. Most military submarines can only safely dive between two hundred to five hundred meters. Appearing more conventional from the outside, Losharik’s interior is built out of seven six-meter diameter spherical compartments to better withstand pressure. The short-range Losharik is hauled into position by the much larger Podmovskovye mothership submarine converted from the Delta-class nuclear-powered attack submarine K-64. The converted Delta-class Orenburg is also capable of deploying mini-submarines, and an additional Oscar-class submarine is being converted to this purpose.
The U.S. has begun responding to the threat, with 2018 defense budget authorizing construction of a second cable-laying/repair ship costing $250 million to supplement the only one currently in U.S. military service, the USS Zeus. Sanctions imposed on Russia in June 2018 have targeted a Russian mini-submarine builder associated with cable-tampering operations. A newly formed joint-U.S./Europe Atlantic Command will also strengthen NATO’s ability to monitor submarine activities. A logical additional step would be to strengthen international law around cables to make the act of cutting them more transgressive in a non-wartime context.
Generally speaking, fear of a massive cable attack is probably over-hyped at least for a country with as may redundant cables as the United States pitted against a limited number of Russian special operations submarines. Furthermore, spying and attacks on cables have abundant historical precedents.
Nonetheless, the extensive Russian military activity around the submarine cables surely reveals that they are perceived as a valuable avenue for asymmetric attack and intelligence gathering, and a capacity to launch a more targeted attack against selected cables could cause significant disruptions.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article first appeared in 2018.