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We previously reported that Yantar, a Russian spy ship suspected of loitering near internet cables, arrived in the Americas on November 8. She stopped briefly in Trinidad, before heading back into the Caribbean. She has not been visible on open source ship tracking systems since the early hours of November 10, which is unusual. Although her whereabouts have not been confirmed, based on analysis of previous trips it is possible that she is off the coast of the U.S.
Few unarmed naval vessels have gained as much notoriety as the Russian Navy’s Yantar, a spy ship that specializes in finding objects on the sea floor. The suspicion is that these include internet cables and military communications.
Previous voyages have included visits to spots near to, or above, internet cables. I have analysed these tracks. For example, in October 2016 she conducted search patterns in the vicinity of cables in the Eastern Mediterranean. Her association with the cables was reinforced when state-affiliated Syrian Telecom announced a 10 day internet outage. This was attributed to “submarine cable repairs.” During this time the Russian Navy ship hovered off the Syrian coast in the vicinity of the cables. The outage turned out to be less than 10 days, only lasting about as long as Yantar’s operation. It is not difficult to imagine that Russia was assisting its ally in some way.
The next month she visited the Persian Gulf. There was a reported internet outage on the GBI submarine cable but it is hard to tie it to Yantar’s presence. She conducted extended searches in an area near that cable shortly after the outage before making a port call in Iran.
In naval speak operations involving undersea cables are part of Seabed Warfare. Although the term is gaining traction in the internet age, this type of mission is not entirely new. During the Cold War the U.S. Navy, and some western allies, conducted espionage missions off the Soviet Union. Submarines engaged in a program code-named Operation Ivy Bells which tapped Russian undersea communications cables. It is reasonable to assume that broadly similar capabilities have been retained.
Speaking to the U.S. Naval Institute recently, Rear Admiral Thomas Ishee commented that he would like to see more progress in seabed warfare and seafloor sensors and effects. It’s a view which resonates in the Western defense community.
The fear is that Russia could use these capabilities to attack critical undersea infrastructure. This could play a part in open conflict, or hybrid warfare. This was addressed by the chief of the British Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, in December 2017. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute, he outlined “a new risk, to our way of life, which is the vulnerability of the cables which crisscross the seabeds.”
For the Russian Navy there is no doubt that seabed warfare is a major focus. Besides Yantar, they have two very large nuclear-powered ‘host submarines’ that act as mother-ships to nuclear-powered midget submarines. Like the mini-subs aboard Yantar these can reach seafloor cables at extreme depths. Foremost among these is a submarine called Losharik, which suffered a deadly accident in July. But there are at least three more operational midget subs, possibly more. The fact that this dedicated submarine force is larger than many Western navies’ entire submarine fleets is telling.
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