A Russian naval exercise in the Atlantic, near several submarine cables between Britain, France and the US, is more likely to be sabre-rattling than an attempt to sabotage critical communication links.
The exercise, around 250 nautical miles southwest of Ireland, is due to involve live firing of naval guns and rockets. Diplomatic protests were raised by Ireland until the firepower demonstration was moved outside Ireland’s exclusive economic zone on the weekend.
Yet in its original location the exercise caught the eye of many more people – because it sat right on top of two existing submarine cables and a third due to be commissioned in the next couple of months.
A (since cancelled) Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued last week revealed the precise location of the exercise:
The four reporting points are used by pilots to tell air traffic control where they are. NOTAMs were issued covering those points for 3-7 February between 0400 UTC and 1515 UTC each day.
Open-source intelligence analyst Steffan Watkins plotted these points on Google Maps, telling The Register he was frustrated with Irish suggestions the Russian exercise would interfere with fishing boats because the area is rarely visited by boats with location-transmitting AIS equipment switched on.
Viewing the same area on open nautical charts shows the exercise was scheduled to take place over an underwater plain known as the Goban Spur, where a number of subsea cables pass through. While the area in the NOTAM only applies to aircraft, there’s nothing to prevent the Russian navy sailing anywhere it pleases in international waters.
Cables close to the exercise area, and not just directly under it, include Tata’s TGN-Atlantic link, Apollo North, Yellow Atlantic Crossing-2 and a yet-to-be-commissioned cable called Amitie. All carry (or are scheduled to carry) substantial amounts of internet traffic between the US, Britain and continental Europe.
While the exercise may have been shifted outside the Irish EEZ, the cables are still present and well charted – but are they a target of nefarious Russian activity taking place under the cover of a surface exercise?
Chris Parry, a retired Royal Navy admiral turned strategic forecaster, told The Register the exercise is less likely to be about cables and more likely to be Russia flexing its muscles amid its massive military build-up in eastern Ukraine.
“Cables aren’t an issue, I think,” Parry said. “It’s basically demonstrating they can conduct an exercise off the southwest of the United Kingdom.”
“They may be testing responses and seeing what we put out there to counter them. I’m familiar with this from the Cold War,” continued Parry, a former commander of the UK Amphibious Task Group. “They may want to test whether one of their latest submarines can be detected by one of ours.”
Continuing, the retired admiral speculated that an advanced Russian submarine might operate below her surface brethren.
“Expect an Akula-2 submarine to turn up and see if it gets detected by the forces that we send out to monitor the exercise. What the Russians will do is show that they can do these things simultaneously… ‘we’re a great power and a great country’.”
Some years ago excitable people on the internet declared that Russia had deployed its notorious underwater intelligence ship Yantar to break into internet cables off the Syrian coast. At the time El Reg reported this was nonsense, and in hindsight it appears the Russians were subtly signalling to the rest of the world that they had found a surveillance device on their Syrian allies’ cable.
While it’s not beyond the wit of man to operate on the seabed at depths of thousands of metres, in this instance it seems unlikely that the Russians are tapping (or destroying) critical Atlantic fibre-optic cables. Quite apart from the practical problems of tapping or sabotaging a cable, there’s also the small point that Russia, too, depends on them – despite plans for setting up a local splinternet to replace the World Wide Web. ®
In 2017 a little-known Conservative MP called Rishi Sunak wrote a report for a think tank warning of the dangers of cable sabotage. He’s now Chancellor of the Exchequer, second-in-command of the British government.
It is considered deeply unfashionable to talk about Western cable tapping these days, though NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed a list of compromised comms conduits.