Russia adds to undersea fleet, fueling U.S. rivalry; As Moscow dispatches more patrol submarines, signs of a new Cold War
President Vladimir V. Putin’s military modernization has the
Pentagon responding by accelerating its own “undersea capabilities”
Russian attack submarines, the most in two decades, are prowling
the coastlines of Scandinavia and Scotland, the Mediterranean Sea
and the North Atlantic in what Western military officials say is a
significantly increased presence aimed at contesting American and
NATO undersea dominance.
Adm. Mark E. Ferguson, the United States Navy’s top commander in
Europe, said last fall that the intensity of Russian submarine
patrols had risen by almost 50 percent over the past year, citing
public remarks by the Russian Navy chief, Adm. Viktor Chirkov.
Analysts say that tempo has not changed since then.
The patrols are the most visible sign of a renewed interest in
submarine warfare by President Vladimir V. Putin, whose government
has spent billions of dollars for new classes of diesel and nuclear-
powered attack submarines that are quieter, better armed and
operated by more proficient crews than in the past.
The tensions are part of an expanding rivalry and military
buildup, with echoes of the Cold War, between the United States and
Russia. Moscow is projecting force not only in the North Atlantic
but in Syria and Ukraine and building up its nuclear arsenal and
cyberwarfare capabilities in what American military officials say is
an attempt to prove its relevance after years of economic decline
Independent American military analysts see the increased Russian
submarine patrols as a legitimate challenge to the United States and
NATO, but the Pentagon is also using them as another argument for
bigger budgets for submarines and anti-submarine warfare.
American naval officials say that in the short term, the growing
number of Russian submarines, with their ability to shadow Western
vessels and European coastlines, will require more ships, planes and
subs to monitor them. In the long term, the Defense Department has
proposed $8.1 billion over the next five years for “undersea
capabilities,” including nine new Virginia-class attack submarines
that can carry up to 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles, more than triple
the capacity now.
“We’re back to the great powers competition,” Adm. John M.
Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in an interview.
Last week, unarmed Russian warplanes repeatedly buzzed a Navy
destroyer in the Baltic Sea and at one point came within 30 feet of
the warship, American officials said. Last year some of Russia’s new
diesel submarines launched four cruise missile at targets in Syria.
Mr. Putin’s military modernization program also includes new
intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as aircraft, tanks and
air defense systems.
To be sure, there is hardly parity between the Russian and
American submarine fleets. Russia has about 45 attack submarines —
about two dozen are nuclear-powered and 20 are diesel — which are
designed to sink other submarines or ships, collect intelligence and
conduct patrols. But Western Naval analysts say that only about half
of those are able to deploy at any given time. Most stay closer to
home and maintain an operational tempo far below a Cold War peak.
The United States has 53 attack submarines, all nuclear-powered,
as well as four other nuclear-powered submarines that carry cruise
missiles and Special Operations forces. At any given time, roughly a
third of America’s attack submarines are at sea, either on patrols
or training, with the others undergoing maintenance. American Navy
officials and Western analysts say that American attack submarines,
which are made for speed, endurance and stealth to deploy far from
American shores, remain superior to their Russian counterparts.
The Pentagon is also developing sophisticated technology to
monitor encrypted communications from Russian submarines and new
kinds of remotely controlled or autonomous vessels. Members of the
NATO alliance, including Britain, Germany and Norway, are at the
same time buying or considering buying new submarines in response to
the Kremlin’s projection of force in the Baltic and Arctic.
But Moscow’s recently revised national security and maritime
strategies emphasize the need for Russian maritime forces to project
power and to have access to the broader Atlantic Ocean as well as
Russian submarines and spy ships now operate near the vital
undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet
communications, raising concerns among some American military and
intelligence officials that the Russians could attack those lines in
times of tension or conflict. Russia is also building an undersea
unmanned drone capable of carrying a small, tactical nuclear weapon
to use against harbors or coastal areas, American military and
intelligence analysts said.
And, like the United States, Russia operates larger nuclear-
powered submarines that carry long-range nuclear missiles and spend
months at a time hiding in the depths of the ocean. Those
submarines, although lethal, do not patrol like the attack
submarines do, and do not pose the same degree of concern to
American Naval officials.
Analysts say that Moscow’s continued investment in attack
submarines is in contrast to the quality of many of Russia’s land
and air forces that frayed in the post-Cold War era.
“In the Russian naval structure, submarines are the crown jewels
for naval combat power,” said Magnus Nordenman, director of the
Atlantic Council’s trans-Atlantic security initiative in Washington.
“The U.S. and NATO haven’t focused on anti-submarine operations
lately, and they’ve let that skill deteriorate.”
That has allowed for a rapid Russian resurgence, Western and
American officials say, partly in response to what they say is
Russia’s fear of being hemmed in.
“I don’t think many people understand the visceral way Russia
views NATO and the European Union as an existential threat,” Admiral
In Naples, Italy, at the headquarters of the United States Navy’s
European operations, including the Sixth Fleet, commanders for the
first time in decades are having to closely monitor Russian
submarine movements through the maritime choke points separating
Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom, the G.I.U.K. Gap, which
during the Cold War were crucial to the defense of Europe.
That stretch of ocean, hundreds of miles wide, represented the
line that Soviet naval forces would have had to cross to reach the
Atlantic and to stop United States forces heading across the sea to
reinforce America’s European allies in time of conflict.
American anti-submarine aircraft were stationed for decades at
the Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland — in the middle of the
gap — but they withdrew in 2006, years after the Cold War was over.
The Navy after that relied on P-3 sub-hunter planes rotating
periodically through the base.
Now, the Navy is poised to spend about $20 million to upgrade
hangars and support sites at Keflavik to handle its new, more
advanced P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. That money is part
of the Pentagon’s new $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative,
a quadrupling of funds from last year to deploy heavy weapons,
armored vehicles and other equipment to NATO countries in Central
and Eastern Europe, to deter Russian aggression.
Navy officials express concern that more Russian submarine
patrols will push out beyond the Atlantic into the Mediterranean and
the Black Sea. Russia has one Mediterranean port now, in Tartus,
Syria, but Navy officials here say Moscow wants to establish others,
perhaps in Cyprus, Egypt or even Libya.
“If you have a Russian nuclear attack submarine wandering around
the Med, you want to track it,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russian
military specialist at the Center for Naval Analyses in Washington.
This month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
christened a 132-foot prototype drone sea craft packed with sensors,
the Sea Hunter, which is made with the intention of hunting
autonomously for submarines and mines for up to three months at a
The allies are also holding half a dozen anti-submarine exercises
this year, including a large drill scheduled later this spring
called Dynamic Mongoose in the North Sea. The exercise is to include
warships and submarines from Britain, France, Germany, the
Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United States.
“We are not quite back in a Cold War,” said James G. Stavridis, a
retired admiral and the former supreme allied commander of NATO, who
is now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts
University. “But I sure can see one from where we are standing.”
This article was written by Eric Schmitt from International New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.