By Nat South for the Saker Blog

“The hype that some dastardly Russian special operation could sever a number of critical underwater telecommunications cables in one go, is plain scaremongering”.  I wrote this back in 2017 [1] and it is still valid now. The article was written following a series of sensational articles in the

MSM and reports by think tanks, warning of a Russian threat to subsea cables.

This article offered an overview between the hype portrayed and the reality of underwater cable disruption and breakages, which invariably is mundane and quite boring in nature, yet extremely expensive for operators.

The whole topic has been rattling around for several years now, often centered on several Russian deep-sea naval capabilities. From time to time, it gets airing, just to maintain the hype at a certain level. Now, it has resurfaced once more, this time in connection to Russian Navy exercises in the North Atlantic, off Ireland,[2].

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Image 1: January 2022 Headline from Irish Times

When you consider the multi-vectorial dimension of the incessant propaganda campaign against numerous facets of Russian politics, society, governance and military, this topic is literally a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, it may be of interest to take stock of the hype and present some different context that is omitted from the MSM and Russian expert punditry narrative.

Washington and Whitehall work on a ‘deflection’ policy, whatever has been done and is being done by U.S., UK governments and NATO, is flipped and transformed into ‘sinister’ Russian activities. The deep-sea domain is not exception to this state of mind. Hence the hype and clickbait headlines that circulate. The latest batch includes:

Undersea Cable Connecting Norway With Arctic Satellite Station Has Been Mysteriously Severed. The Drive – January 2022

Russia Could Threaten Internet Cables in Underwater Attacks—Navy Chief. Newsweek, January 2022

Russian spy ship monitored off coast of Donegal

The Times, August 2021

So, without further ado, let’s dive deeper into the topic. First an outline of the main points:

  • The greatest destroyer of subsea cables since the 19th century: a ship’s anchor, followed by fishing gear entanglement.
  • Subsea cables are monitored 24hrs all year round, with specialist cable ships on standby to repair them with often difficulty and lengthy time schedules.
  • In most areas of the world, there is sufficient network redundancy to limit the effect of a cable being cut or seriously damaged.
  • Covert military eavesdropping of communications (telecoms) onshore and shoreside cables is easier than cutting them.
  • Mother nature is also a great destroyer of underwater cables.

Part 1 – Weaving between the hype and the reality

  1. Subsea cable networks

It is widely quoted that 97% of global communications relies on subsea cables, hence the concern over subsea security being a valid one. Subsea telecom cables are critical for trade, communications but also governmental communications worldwide, as well military data transmissions. Moreover, the likes of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook are also increasing becoming players in this sector.

An aspect that needs also to be considered is the fact practically all of the installation, operations, repairs and maintenance of subsea cables are in the hands of a dozen private companies. The U.S. and other Western government are increasingly seeking to play a bigger role in the security of this sector, especially in relation to the transatlantic network.

In most instances, system redundancy is of paramount importance, to continue telecoms transmissions in the event of a loss of connectivity. However, it can take from one week to a couple of months to repair and fix a breakage or damaged cable, at an eye watering cost running into around 1 million USD for a telecom subsea cable repair [3].

Every year, new subsea cables are added to a vast network of cable routes worldwide. Additional redundancy in most of the network enables traffic to be re-routed to via another cable. This is not always the case in other parts of the world.

An aspect never mentioned is that if subsea cables systems are disrupted or damaged to such an extent globally, Russia also will be affected by subsequent communication outages.

“Cutting submarine cables is as hard as cutting off all air traffic to New York,” Blum says. “To cut off New York, you’d have to cut at least 10 cables.[4]

To prove the point, here is an extract from a nautical chart of part of the Western Approaches, showing the numerous subsea telecom cables:

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Image 2 source: i-boating nautical chart. 2022

As can be seen in the above image, is the acronym for a subsea cable, CBLSUB. So, it would a tremendously herculean effort to cut enough underwater telecom cables to significantly disrupt global communication and trade, (8 to 16 in the North transatlantic area alone), without coming under scrutiny. Subsea power cables are also important in the transmission of electricity [5]. However, the main vulnerability that provokes the most concern is related to telecoms fibre optic cables.

b. Breakages and damage

Setting aside the topic of deliberate cutting of cables: what constitutes ‘damage’ and breakage”? There can be total or partial loss of transmission as a consequence of damage, or a cable being severed. The key feature is that operators constantly monitor their network 24 hours all year round and can determine where the breakage is, however, getting to the location, repairing it in a timely manner is different matter. Even if there is a slight loss of power, since the cable is energised, or data transmission loss, it is detectable, and this sets off alarms. The location of the fault can also be located.

Recently, there has been articles about two incidents of telecom and data subsea cable damage off Norway, which has invariably led to the usual round of giving prominence to the Russian naval assets deemed to be capable of cutting subsea cables, (more on this later).

In true form, Russia Navy activities are outlined, but once in a blue moon, a disclaimer of sorts is included, usually buried in the article. The Drive article placed it right at the end:

Just as was the case with the LoVe Ocean Observatory cables, there could be a more innocuous explanation as to the damage to the Svalbard cable, perhaps an accidental entanglement with a vessel or as the result of deep-sea dredging during natural resources exploration.” [6]

Yet, the article asserts : “As for the likelihood of deliberate sabotage on the Svalbard Undersea Cable System, this remains a possibility, as in the case of the LoVe Ocean Observatory cables.” This section came after mentioning that a degree of susception fell on Russia, due to the overlapping geopolitical interests in the region. In another article on the LoVe cables, right in the first paragraph: “This has raised suspicions about deliberate sabotage, possibly carried out by the Russian government...”

Interestingly, regarding the Svalbard breakage, there was system redundancy since connectivity services continued to be transmitted through the other subsea cable in the area.

As one The Drive article mentioned, there are more “innocuous explanations” for damage to subsea cables, which account for the majority of subsea cable incidents. According to the UltraMAP website, “around 70% of all cable faults are caused by fishing and anchoring activities (man-made) and around 14% are caused by natural hazards (current abrasion or earthquakes).” [5]

The roll call includes anchors being snagged, snagging of fishing gear, (with some tragic instances of sinking of vessels and loss of life), volcanic eruptions, (Tonga is one example recently), dredging operations, shark attacks, tsunamis, earthquakes, seabed movement, underwater landslides and one case involving an iceberg.

Take one interesting example of how nature can wreak havoc on telecoms. In January 2020, a major breakage occurred to the West Africa Cable System (WACS), which led in certain quarters to some speculative finger pointing to Russian deep sea covert capabilities. In fact, the breakage was due to an underwater sediment ‘avalanche’ in an underwater canyon, originating from the mouth of the Congo river, [7]

PART 2

  1. Naval ships, submarines, submersibles and ROVs

Judging by the stack of related articles since 2015, the US is particularly sensitive to the activities of Russian naval ships and submarines near to submarine cables. Each year, Washington and London get very prickly about this, but sometimes it is a straightforward call for more resource to counter these emerging threats, part of a kind of whack a mole approach so beloved by the U.S. and NATO.

To state as the NYT did back in 2015 that there is Russian submarine activity near undersea cables is well documented, [8] is simply disingenuous and incredibly vague. The circumstances and parameters for establishing the criteria of a. ‘activity’ and b. ‘near’ is missing. Crucially, there is no information on type of activities or numbers involved, other than mentioning observing ‘aggressive’ Russian submarine activities in territorial waters and in proximity to cable routes. That’s it, folks. To jumble up the situation further, the MSM seem to cover all types of submarine activities and not just those “covert submarines” that the Russians operate. Anyway, I digress, and this particular aspect could be a whole article in itself.

Yet, the U.S. Navy has itself a long experience of tapping underwater communications cables in in the Cold War, as most famously demonstrated by the 1970’S “Ivy Bells” missions that tapped Soviet Navy analogue subsea cables [9], conducted by the USS ‘Halibut’. Nowadays, the US Navy operates the USS ‘Jimmy Carter’ [10] for ultra-secret covert missions.

The Russian Navy

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Image 3: Sample of social media – totally disproportionate perception driven based on MSM reporting

Russia has its own specialist ship,(that gets frequently mentioned as a threat), the ‘Yantar’, as well as specialist submarines and submersibles. The ‘Yantar’ regularly gets cited by the West MSM as posing a risk to submarine cables [11], with little or no actual credible evidence to support any of these claims. Though, it makes for impressive stories of internet cable outages when they happen in certain areas of the world. Certainly, some of the batches of lurid and rambling sensational articles were no exception to the rule, yet the journalists fail to notice that the outage times didn’t always match with the timing of the alleged cable ‘hacking’ taking place, or even notice that the ‘Yantar’ was under maintenance in a Baltic shipyard for a while.

Designated as an oceanographic research ship, the ‘Yantar’ is operated by the GUGI, part of the Russian Navy’s deep sea naval research facilities known as the Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research. It is equipped with Remotely Operated Vehicles, (ROVs) and a deep-sea submersible.

Similarly, to the secretive USS ‘Jimmy Carter’, Russia also operates specialist nuclear-powered submarines, converted for covert undersea operations. These are like the ‘Yantar’, have the role of a mothership for deep-sea equipment and crewed submersibles equipped with grabbers and manipulators.

The most famous of these submersibles, for tragic reasons, is the ‘Losharik’. Out of service since a deadly fire in July 2019, the nuclear powered ‘Losharik’ has a titanium hull construction and uses a modified Delta-class submarine, such as the ‘Podmoskovie’ submarine as a mothership. It is estimated that these long endurance submersibles can operate down to around 1,000 meters deep or more, much deeper than the mothership submarines, (likely to be around 600-800m).

Before this summer is out, another Russian specialist covert operations submarine, will enter service, the ‘Belgorod’, [12] which will add more torment to the US and NATO military.

Untethered Russian rescue submersibles (DSRV) such as the upgraded Project 18270 “Bester”, [13] are considered to have dual use. These are considered as part of covert operations, and these are said to operate to a depth of around 800m, but probably a bit deeper than that stated figure.

Lastly, there are Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, (AUVs) that could also be earmarked as potential deep-sea intelligence gathering vehicles. One such example is the Vitaz-D, [14], which I wrote about in 2020 when it dived down into the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world.

On a slight tangent, to note that the deep-sea technology can have a dual civilian and military use, as shown back in the 1980’s with the discovery of Titanic. More on this later in this article in the footnotes. Submersibles and ROV’s are principally the key elements to understanding the basics for the whole scaremongering narrative in the first place

Cable ships repairing subsea cables use ROVs to locate and get the cable if the depth permits it. Tethered ROVs have grabbers, (a kind of claw) and manipulator arms to aid in getting a cable or device. Otherwise, a low-tech solution in the form of a grappling hook is used to fetch the cable from the extreme depths of the oceans. Conversely, the same equipment could also be used to retrieve or tamper with cables. Sterile areas, known as jointing rooms, are the places in which cables are repaired, each segment spliced together.

It is not readily known if any of the Russian submersibles or the motherships have the exact capability to tap subsea fibre-optic cables, in the way as the USS ‘Halibut’ did with analogue cables or USS ‘Jimmy Carter’ is also reported to have, i.e., with a dedicated dry chamber, a place where cables can be spliced. “It’s a submarine capable of bringing a length of cable inside a special chamber, where the men then do the work,” [15]

Another thing, the subsea cables are energised, so any tap of a live subsea cable would need to by-pass the electrical high-voltage direct current needed for the repeaters that amplify the signal along the cable.

  1. Futile scaremongering – snip or tamper?

The claims stated by so called experts and MSM, that the Russian Navy poses a great risk to subsea cables is simply hyped overblown nonsense, when compared with other types of vulnerabilities.

Onshore outages caused by IT activities, as the recent attack on the Belarussian train network clearly show the magnitude of such vulnerabilities. A cyber-attack on the subsea cables control systems on land, at special stations linking terrestrial systems with the subsea cable system, would have a significantly more critical impact on communications than cutting one or two subsea cables.

Thirdly, why cut cables when again intercepting or tapping into the control systems would be substantially less dramatic and at the same time more valuable. A much easier method is where data can be extracted via digital ‘backdoor’ methods. These are inserted early on during the cable manufacturing or during the installation process or a discreet tap device. Yet, none of this is mentioned in reports or articles.

There is still hardly any outrage when it was revealed that both the U.S.’s NSA and the UK’s GCHQ have been tapping into the subsea networks for decades, at the point where the subsea cables make landfall, [16].

A historical precedent often mentioned is the Soviet Navy subsea cables off Kamchatka that were tapped into for years by the U.S. Navy. However, there is a big difference to this, as nowadays, subsea cables are highly sensitive fibre-optic bundles in an armoured protective sheath.

Moreover, very few types of ROVs or submersibles would be able operate from specialist surface naval vessels, without coming under scrutiny from adversarial naval surveillance. Yet, this specific aspect is the one that is endlessly trotted out by Western MSM. Take for instance, the way that the ‘Yantar’ gets reported in the MSM and elsewhere: “Russian spy ship monitored off coast of Donegal”, The Times, August 2021 and the NYT 2015 article, [8].

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Image 4: Simplified layout of a subsea cable network. Source: UK ISCP committee

One possible reason for why this element gets disseminated so much, relates to the types of deep-sea subsea cables, (see Image 4 above) that aren’t buried into the seabed or aren’t armoured that happen to be in hardest-to-access locations. Conversely, armoured subsea cables are buried, (up to 3 metres deep) in shallower waters (less 800-1000m depth) due to the ever-persistent risks of trawlers, dredgers and dragging anchors.

Nevertheless, subsea tapping of deep-sea undersea fibre optic cables is the least practical options, given the incredible physical and complex technical difficulties involved, especially given the turbulent dark deep-sea environment.

  1. Another angle

Back in 2017, “Britain’s top military officer has warned that a modernized Russian Navy poses a threat to the undersea fibre-optic cable networks that carry much of the world’s communications.” [17]. I suspect that this was in fact a call for more resources, (read money) for the military and NATO in general.

A tantalising glimpse into the potential real concerns was briefly mentioned in the 2017 article, “the government should work with private communications companies to install more backup dark cables ― cables laid for use in exceptional circumstances ― and improve monitoring at sea.” The clue is “dark cables”, in other words, cables for government or military use, which would not necessarily be marked on charts. Having said that, the U.S. military and government do routinely use the commercial telecoms subsea cables. What is really at stake isn’t necessarily civilian telecoms subsea cables but the ‘dark’ uncharted classified military ones.

To my mind, most of the agitation by top officials is a cover for concerns over a possible range of Russian navy activities related to military subsea systems (telecom and surveillance such as SURTASS / IUSS sensor systems), in the same vein as the U.S. Navy “Ivy Bells” missions or the fact that the Russian Navy could be either locating and removing adversarial subsea units placed on its underwater doorstep or planting its own listening devices on the seabed to monitor NATO submarines (predominantly in the Arctic but potentially elsewhere).

‘Uncharted’ cables are a crucial clue, since this is the crux of the matter, that the Russian Navy is potentially surveying and mapping sea areas, to gather data (AKA seabed intelligence) on the location and nature of sensors and cables. With regards to the U.S., these cables are operated by the Department Of Defense Information Network (DODIN). One such network is in the Caribbean,[18]. Enter the ‘Yantar’, which in 2015, went to the East coast of the U.S. and Cuba.

More on this in the next instalment.

NB: The discovery of the Titanic and the U.S. Navy covert subsea mission: https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/13/us/titanic-discovery-classified-nuclear-sub/index.html


Links

[1] https://natsouth.livejournal.com/2093.html

[2] https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/01/russian-navy-live-firing-off-irish-coast-during-tensions/

[3] https://ultramapglobal.com/the-biggest-threat-to-subsea-cables/

[4] https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/infrastructure/a8773/protecting-the-submarine-cables-that-wire-our-world-15220942/

[5] https://www.escaeu.org/articles/submarine-power-cables/

[6]https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/43828/undersea-cable-connecting-norway-with-arctic-satellite-station-has-been-mysteriously-severed

[7] https://telecomreview.com/index.php/articles/wholesale-and-capacity/5014-sat-3-and-wacs-cable-break-after-massive-submarine-mudslide

[8]https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/world/europe/russian-presence-near-undersea-cables-concerns-us.html

[9] http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/how-super-secret-us-navy-submarine-tapped-russias-underwater-21370

[10] http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/inside-the-uss-jimmy-carter-americas-most-secret-attack-21946

[11] https://nypost.com/2021/09/13/russian-spy-ship-that-can-cut-undersea-cables-spotted-in-english-channel/

[12] https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2021/06/russias-gigantic-submarine-belgorod-sails-for-the-first-time/

[13] https://www.aoosk.ru/en/products/bester/

[14] https://natsouth.livejournal.com/14803.html

[15] https://www.zdnet.com/article/spy-agency-taps-into-undersea-cable/

[16] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/07/the-creepy-long-standing-practice-of-undersea-cable-tapping/277855/

[17] https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2017/12/15/russias-naval-updates-threaten-undersea-comms-network-says-top-british-military-officer/

[18] https://opticalconnectionsnews.com/2017/09/xtera-build-dod-caribbean-subsea-cable-network/

 

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