U.S. leaders are increasingly worried that Russia's submarines could sever the communication arteries that drive global commerce.
Recent reports of Russia operating in the vicinity of submarine cables that carry nearly all the world's internet data has brought discussions largely held in classified settings to the fore: How might the Navy defend thousands of miles of critical infrastructure?
Navy leaders are starting to raise the alarm about this potential choke point, and the solution they propose is autonomous underwater systems.
"The necessity exists because of challenges we face from potential adversaries," said Adm. Frank Caldwell Jr., head of Naval Reactors, in an October briefing. "It exists because of the submarine [building] hiatus we took in the 1990s and the impending dip [in] force structure we'll have late in the 2020s ... and we may be called upon in the future to protect undersea infrastructure, something we haven't really considered before."
"You add all these up, I think there is an imperative to move forward more swiftly in this unmanned realm," he said.
U.S. officials are concerned that Russian submarines and their deep submergence vessels could tap into or even sever communications cables that carry the vast majority of global communications. These heavy-duty cables carry phone and Internet data and are shrouded by steel wires and a polyethylene covering.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
To be sure, the vulnerability of undersea cables isn't a new concern in warfare. The Royal Navy severed German transoceanic cable lines in the opening days of World War I, impairing their secure communications. And the U.S. submarine Parche famously tapped Soviet military cables in 1979, among the foremost known feats of the Cold War.
"Russians taking an interest in our submarine cables — it's not a new thing," said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "But people are realizing the volume of traffic that goes over submarine cables now, relative to where it was in the Cold War."
In September, a Russian spy ship armed with two unmanned submersibles was detected in the vicinity of the cables, raising fears that the Russians might be planning to cut the cables in the event of a crisis, according to an October 25 report in the New York Times.
"There may be places we decide we want to have some volume of systems and that relatively small area around that infrastructure where you would have sufficient vehicles to obtain perfect knowledge," he said.
Combating unmanned underwater vehicles is also a tough nut to crack because they are often small, quiet, made of plastic and extremely difficult to detect.
"Protecting any system against an autonomous unmanned undersea vehicle would be extremely difficult," the retired captain said in an email. "These vehicles are propelled by quiet, battery powered electric motors — they have almost no acoustic signature. In addition, they are physically small and would not provide a large return if active sonar was used to search for them."
"We need to build more resiliency and redundancy into the underwater cable network," wrote Stavridis, who served as NATO's top military commander. "It is far too vulnerable to sabotage, especially at the terminals where the cables are in relatively shallow water. We need more 'dark cables' that are not operational but kept in reserve."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.