The United States and its allies are worried that the Kremlin might be taking information warfare to new depths, after it was found that Russian ships are lurking around underwater communications cables, The Associated Press reported.
The 400 fiber-optic cables carry most of world’s calls, emails and texts, as well as $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions. Whatever Moscow’s intentions, U.S. and Western officials are increasingly troubled by their rival’s interest in the cable system.
“We’ve seen activity in the Russian navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven’t seen since the ’80s,” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command, told Congress this month.
All the information is transmitted along tiny glass fibers encased in undersea cables that, in some cases, are little bigger than a garden hose. There are 620,000 miles of fiber-optic cable running under the sea, enough to loop around the earth nearly 25 times.
Most lines are owned by private telecommunications companies, including giants like Google and Microsoft. Their locations are easily identified on public maps, with swirling lines that look like spaghetti. While cutting one cable might have limited impact, severing several simultaneously or at choke points could cause a major outage.
The Russians “are doing their homework and, in the event of a crisis or conflict with them, they might do rotten things to us,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at nonprofit research group CNA Corp.
It’s not Moscow’s warfighting ships and submarines that are making NATO and U.S. officials uneasy. It’s Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research, whose specialized surface ships, submarines, underwater drones and mini subs conduct reconnaissance, underwater salvage and other work.
One ship run by the directorate is the Yantar. It’s a modest, 354-foot oceanographic vessel that holds a crew of about 60. It most recently was off South America’s coast helping Argentina search for a lost submarine.
ParlamentskayaGazeta, the Russian parliament’s publication, last October said the Yantar has equipment “designed for deep-sea tracking” and “connecting to top-secret communication cables.” The publication said that in September 2015, the Yantar was near Kings Bay, Georgia, home to a U.S. submarine base, “collecting information about the equipment on American submarines, including underwater sensors and the unified (U.S. military) information network.” Rossiya, a Russian state TV network, has said the Yantar can not only connect to top-secret cables, but could cut them and “jam underwater sensors with a special system.”
According to Steffan Watkins, an information technology security consultant in Canada tracking the ship, there is no hard evidence that the ship is engaged in nefarious activity. But he wonders what the ship is doing when it’s stopped over critical cables or when its Automatic Identification System tracking transponder isn’t on.
Of the Yantar’s crew, he said: “I don’t think these are the actual guys who are doing any sabotage. I think they’re laying the groundwork for future operations.”