WASHINGTON (AP) – Russian ships are sneaking around underwater communications cables, unsettling the US and its allies that the Kremlin is bringing information warfare to new depths.
Is Moscow interested in cutting or tapping the cables? Will the West be worried? Is there an innocent explanation? It is not surprising that Russia does not say so.
But whatever Moscow's intentions are, US and Western officials are increasingly disturbed by their rival's interest in the 400 fiber-optic cables that carry most of the world's calls, e-mails and lyrics, as well as $ 10 trillion the daily financial transactions.
"We have activity in the Russian Navy, and especially undersea in their submarine activity, which we have not seen since the 80's," Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the US European Command, said this month's Congress.
Without a submarine cable, a bank in Asian countries could not send money to Saudi Arabia to pay for oil. US military officials would have difficulty communicating with troops fighting extremists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A student in Europe would not be able to skype his parents in the United States.
All this information is transmitted through tiny glass fibers that are trapped in submarine cables, which in some cases are slightly larger than a garden hose. All in all, there are 620,000 miles of fiber optic cables running under the sea, enough to orbit the earth almost 25 times.
Most lines include private telecommunications companies, including giants like Google and Microsoft. Their locations are easily recognizable on public maps, with whirling lines that look like spaghetti. While cutting one cable could have a limited effect, simultaneously cutting multiple concurrent or bottlenecks could cause a large failure.
The Russians "do their homework and could do bad things to us in case of crisis or conflict with them," said Michael Kofman, Russian military expert at the nonprofit research group CNA Corp.
It is not the warships and submarines of Moscow that are troubling NATO and US officials. It is Russia's main director of deep-sea research, with specialized surface ships, submarines, underwater drones and mini-submarines carrying out reconnaissance, underwater rescue and other work.
A ship led by the management is the Yantar. It is a modest 354 foot oceanographic vessel with a crew of about 60 men. It was recently off South America to help Argentina find a lost submarine.
The Parlamentkaya Gazeta has declared last October the Yantar equipment "for deep-sea tracking" and "connection to top secret communication cables." The publication said that in September 201
The Russian Ministry of Defense did not respond on a request for comment.
There is no clear evidence that the ship is conducting nefarious activity, said Stef Fan Watkins, an information technology security consultant in Canada who is tracking the ship. But he wonders what the ship does when it is stopped over critical cables or when the transponder transponder of the Automatic Identification System is not on.
From the Yantar crew, he said, "I do not think that's the right people to do any sabotage, and I think they're laying the groundwork for future operations."
Members of Congress are also wondering.
Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat in a sub-committee of the House of Representatives on Maritime Power, said of the Russians, "The mere fact that they are clearly tracking the cables and waving around the cables shows that they are doing something."
Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Moscow's goal was "to disrupt the normal channels of communication and create an environment of misinformation and mistrust." A Syrian telecom company has an emergency service on May 18, 2016 to repair a cable in the Mediterranean Sea which provides internet connections to several countries, including Syria, Libya and Lebanon. The Yantar arrived in the area the day before the four-day maintenance. It left two days before the maintenance ended. It is not known what work was done there.
Watkins described another episode on November 5, 2016, when a submarine cable connecting the Persian Gulf states experienced failures in Iran. Hours later, the Yantar left Oman and drove to an area about 60 miles west of the Iranian port city of Bushehr, where the cable goes ashore. The connection was restored a few hours before the arrival of the Yantar on 9 November. The boat remained stationary for a few days over the terrain.
Submarine cables were already targets.
At the beginning of the First World War, Great Britain cut a handful of German submarine communications cables and sounded the diverted traffic for intelligence. In the Cold War, the US Navy sent American divers deep into the Sea of Okhotsk off the Russian coast to install a device to record Soviet communications in the hope of learning more about the USSR's submarine-launched nuclear capabilities.
According to Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, American intelligence agencies overheard fiber optic cables.
In 2007, Vietnamese authorities confiscated ships that carried miles of fiber-optic cable that profitably rescued thieves from the sea. The raid interrupted the service for several months. And in 2013, Egyptian officials arrested three divers from Alexandria for attempting to cut a cable from France to Singapore. Five years later, questions remain regarding the attack on a cable that accounts for approximately one-third of all Internet traffic between Egypt and Europe.
Despite the relatively few publicly known sabotage cases, most failures are due to accidents
Two About one hundred cable breaks take place each year. Most occur when ship anchors snap cables or commercial fishing equipment breaks the lines. Others collapse during tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
But even accidental cuts can hurt US military operations.
In 2008, unmanned US surveillance flights arrived in Iraq one day at Balad Air Base, unable to stop hostile mortar attacks or dusty winds. An anchor had caught a cable hundreds of miles away from the base, located in the "Sunni Triangle" northwest of Baghdad.
The severed cables had controllers in the United States flying unmanned aerial vehicles, monitoring and detecting missions for coalition forces in the skies over Iraq, Ret said. Air Force Col. Dave Lujan from Hampton, Virginia
"You say you are driving a remote-controlled car and suddenly you can not control it," said Lujan, the deputy commander of the 332nd expeditionary operations group at the base, as the little published failure lasted two to three days. "That's a big impact," he said, describing how US pilots had to fly the mission instead.