America’s Achilles Heel? Russian Submarines Probing Undersea Cables For Future Conflict
By David Smith
There seems to be a renewed zeal in the current Russian administration to regain the position of power it once held during the cold war era.
The military procedures it has undertaken in Crimea and now Syria have showcased to the world (and particularly to the United States) that their military and technical capabilities were being vastly underestimated.
This highly charged environment has led to the United States being weary of what else Russia might have in store.
One of the major causes of worry that is starting to get some attention in the press is the increasing amount of Russian naval activity close to major underwater cables.
These high-tech fiber-optic cables laid out along the sea floor are capable of moving almost unimaginable amounts of data at ever-increasing speeds. They serve as the lifeline of our increasing digital economy.
Close to 95% of the world’s communications travel through these underwater cables, including banking transactions, military data transmission, emergency response services, voice and data transfer and essential information for air and sea travel.
If you consider that undersea cables are the No. 1 tool used by U.S. authorities to communicate with troops and allies overseas, you understand why neutralizing this communication would be a prime objective of any foe in war time.
One can only imagine the havoc that would ensue on our economic systems. Wall Street needs constant updates to survive in our global digital economy. Any disruption, even for a short time, could neutralize our economy.
What is surprising is that the location of these cables is well known. There are many interactive maps online that plot out their routes. The cable operators stick to areas of the ocean they are familiar with and that have been charted before to minimize their own risk.
Many parts of the cables are also extremely easy to cut and have the potential to bring an entire economy to a virtual halt.
Such breaks can happen due to natural disasters, anchors dragging along the sea floor by unknowing ships or due to unsavory elements. These breaks happen almost exclusively in the shallow waters a few miles off the coast and can be repaired within 3-5 days in most cases.
However, the Russian naval vessels seem to be scouting for the location of these vital cables at much deeper depths where finding the breaks could take much longer to repair if major damage occurred.
Such an occurrence happened in 2007 when nearly 100 miles of underwater cable was stolen off the coast of South East Asia by pirates who wanted to sell it on the black market. The repair took nearly 3 months to complete.
The effects of such a cable breach have the potential to completely isolate a territory from outside communication; something that would be extremely beneficial in the case of armed conflict.
The entire region of the Northern Mariana Islands is supplied by a single fiber-optic cable that was laid down in 1997. When the cable snapped in July of this year there was no phone, Internet, banking and other communications with the rest of the world for several days.
The company responsible for its repair has still not been able to pinpoint the reason why it happened but serves as an example of the need for reliable backup systems in our “always connected” mindset.
It might seem odd that such cables, classified as ‘critical infrastructure’ by the Department of Homeland Security, are basically out in the open for anyone to attack if they so desire. The challenge, however, is that we can’t station ships near every vulnerable cable.
The country’s top naval commanders agree that any country or organization can sever these fiber-optic cables in a covert manner without having to move major warships or other traceable fleets.
The Department of Defense has commissioned some cables whose locations are secret and that are responsible for carrying out critical defense communication in the event of such a breakdown but their capacity is nowhere even close to what is needed for a full back-up system.
Recent reports have pointed out that Russia is developing new-age weapons like unmanned underwater drones capable of deploying nuclear warheads in an effort to ready itself for a hybrid conflict where conventional, nuclear and cyber-attack fronts will all be fair game.
Will our administration show the same speed and resolve in setting up systems to protect America’s Achilles heel? We better hope so.
It seems highly unlikely to me that Russia would cut cables it to relies on for communications. Such an act would also stop the function of the envisioned cashless world. I think it more likely those Ruskies have found a way to eavesdrop on all our communications. Heck! They’re getting more like the CIA every day.