Russian ‘Hybrid War’ Tactics at Sea: Targeting Underwater Communications Cables
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 10
In the last five years, Russia has increased its underwater activity four to five times (Redstar.ru, November 8, 2017). Thirteen new Russian nuclear and conventional submarines have been commissioned since 2014 (24tv.ua, December 27, 2017). These vessels are capable of carrying out various offensive and multipurpose underwater missions, as well as to launch navy seals (special forces) for operations against enemy maritime infrastructure.
Yet, attack and multipurpose submarines should not be the only assets and capabilities counted in the context of Russian underwater operations. Moscow has also exerted great effort to develop naval assets for “hybrid” (New Type) underwater and seabed actions. These assets specifically combine civil and military, conventional and special, technological and operational capabilities. Among other missions and tasks, this allows such naval platforms to secretly tap undersea cable information streams as well as disable undersea communication lines, if needed. Such “dual use” assets directly fit Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine, as they can conduct clandestine underwater operations under the cover of, for example, carrying out “oceanic research” or “search-and-rescue activities.” At least two types of such hybrid warfare maritime platforms are particularly worth pointing out in more detail.
The first are Russia’s so-called “nuclear deep-water stations,” which, in reality, are actually deep-water special operations submarines (DWSOS). These can be transported inside special nuclear submarine carrier vessels and furtively deployed to any ocean spot around the world to begin their long-term secret missions along the seabed. In recent years, Russia has commissioned or modernized Kalitka/Losharik-, Kashalot-, Paltus– and X-Ray-class DWSOSs (Oborona.ru, November 11, 2017). Perhaps the most capable of these is the Kalitka (also nicknamed the “Losharik”), commissioned in 2006. This sub is capable of diving down to 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) and can reportedly be used to destroy seabed infrastructure, primarily undersea communication lines (Topwar.ru, March 27, 2017). Moscow is increasing the number of DWSOS carriers in its fleet as well: the Delta IV–class special nuclear submarine Podmoskovye is conducting sea trial after its modernization. And the next generation of submarine-carriers is already undergoing refitment (Svobodnaya Pressa, August 12, 2015). All of the above-mentioned assets belong to 29th Special Purpose Submarine Brigade of the Russian North Fleet.
In addition to DWSOSs, the second major asset type for conducting underwater hybrid warfare are Russia’s so-called “oceanographic research vessels” (ORV) and “search-and-rescue vessels” (SRV). None of these surface ships carry anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapons or cruise missiles on board, but their strategic intelligence-gathering capabilities against seabed targets should be taken seriously. Both types of ships belong to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD): ORVs to the MOD’s Main Directorate of Underwater Research, and SRVs to the Search and Rescue Service of the Russian Navy.
Russia’s most advanced ORV is probably the Yantar, commissioned in 2015 (Army-news.ru, May 24, 2015). This spy ship bristles with surveillance equipment and serves as a mothership for manned as well as unmanned deep-sea submersibles. The Yantar carries two modest Russian Rus– and Konsul-class manned underwater vehicles (MUV) capable of diving up to 6,000 meters for 10–12 hours at a time. These MUVs feature manipulators with cable-cutting tools. Moreover, they themselves carry remotely operated underwater drones (ROUD), which can perform a wide spectrum of underwater tasks: from object inspection and destruction, to delivering various devices to the seafloor or lifting objects to the surface (Tvzvezda.ru, July 12, 2017; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 14, 2015). The Yantar can also carry separate ROUDs such as the Pantera Plus (Tetis-pro.ru, RIA Novosti, December 14, 2017). In 2015, this vessel was observed near a United States nuclear missile submarine base, located close to undersea military communications trunk lines and nodes (Lenta.ru, September 3, 2015). Then, in October 2016, the Yantar was found loitering over undersea communications cables off the Syrian coast, including some links to Europe (Izvestiya, March 22, 2017; Vesti.ru, October 8, 2017). A second Yantar-class vessel is currently under construction (Shipyard-Yantar.ru, accessed January 12).
Instead of trying to build next-generation ORVs and SRVs, Moscow is modernizing former Soviet vessels of these classes due to budget restrictions in Russia’s shipbuilding program. Modern equipment for acoustic, biological, physical and geophysical surveys has already been installed onboard the Admiral Vladimirsky ORV. This ship is now conducting expeditions across various international maritime areas operationally important to Russia (Tvzvezda.ru, December 15, 2017; Mil.ru, April 23, 2017). The country’s search-and-rescue MUVs are undergoing modernization as well. For example, Russian Prize-class MUVs received digital equipment, including cameras as well as special manipulators able to cut cables, twist and unscrew nuts, and carry out underwater welding work. These MUVs have been taken aboard Russian SRVs Georgy Titov (North Sea Fleet), Sayany (Black Sea Fleet), SS-750 (Baltic Fleet) and Alagez (Pacific Fleet) (Korabel.ru, April 24, 2016). In 2016, a new Bester-1 MUV was deployed on board the SRV Igor Belousov (Pacific Fleet). This underwater vehicle can be quickly transferred by cargo aircraft to any SRV or ORV (Tvzvezda.ru, July 12, 2017). Finally, modernized Russian Vishnya-class intelligence ships should be counted as potent hybrid underwater warfare tools as well (Aif.ru, March 16, 2017).
NATO has already responded to this increasingly perceived threat from Russia’s growing underwater activity with plans to reestablish a command post, shuttered after the Cold War, to help secure the sea lines of communications in the North Atlantic (UNIAN, January 14). Allies are also rushing to boost their ASW capabilities and to develop advanced submarine-detecting planes. But NATO still has more to do to protect undersea communications and Internet cables in the North Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean against Russian hybrid underwater activity.