RBTH: Cable wars: Can Russia really cut the jugular?

Both the U.S. and Russia have the means to clip undersea cables but don’t worry, unless there’s a full on war, your internet surfing won’t be interrupted.

(Russia Beyond the Headlines – rbth.ru – RAKESH KRISHNAN SIMHA, SPECIAL TO RBTH – December 9, 2015)

There are more than 285 cables crossing the world’s oceans, with the entire network spanning over 885,000 km. They are only a few inches thick – the size of a soda can – which makes tapping into or cutting them a piece of cake.

It was the U.S. that drew first blood when it launched Operation Ivy Bell in 1970 to tap a secret Russian Navy cable in the Sea of Okhotsk. The Sea of Okhotsk was strictly off limits to foreign vessels and the Russians had installed a network of sound detection devices along the seabed to detect intruders. The area also saw numerous surface and subsurface naval exercises. And yet the U.S. risked World War III by sending a nuclear powered submarine into Russian territorial waters and installing a tap on the undersea cable.

Because it was a recording device, U.S. submarines had to make trips every couple of months to retrieve the tapes and install new ones. Each of these missions could have sparked nuclear war. The Russians came to know of the U.S. tap through a spy in 1981 but they did not remove the device, instead feeding false data to the NSA for several years.

Tapping underwater cables is more common than you think. Both the U.S. and the U.K. as part of Five Eyes – the intelligence gathering network of the five English speaking countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand – are known to tap into undersea cables owned by other countries. The U.S. even has a nuclear powered submarine, USS Jimmy Carter, specially designed to tap undersea cables and eavesdrop on the communications passing through them.

This is not only illegal but also compromises commercial and banking secrecy. At best, this data is used to track terrorists but who are we fooling; this intelligence is shared among the Five Eyes members, giving them an edge in the commercial and diplomatic arenas.

Russian undersea capability

Considering the extent of U.S.-led tapping of undersea cables, you wouldn’t expect the Russians to practise espionage abstinence. As long as there is American spying on global cables, you can bet Russian submarines and spy ships will aggressively operate near undersea cables vital to US interests.

It is but natural that the Russians would want to have some capability of tapping into or disrupting the communications channels of the U.S. and some of its leading allies such as the U.K. In September 2015, the Russian spy ship Yantar, equipped with two self-propelled deep-sea submersible craft, was seen cruising off the U.S. east coast on its way to Cuba. Why Cuba? Well, a major cable lands near the American naval station at Guantanamo Bay. According to U.S. Navy officials, the Yantar’s submersible vessels have the capability to cut cables miles down in the sea.

However, reports that Russia is going to pull the plug on the internet are highly exaggerated. The main reason, if you haven’t noticed the obvious, is that Russia is also connected to the outside world. Moscow relies on the global system of undersea cables for communication and banking services among others.

Yes, Russian submarines most likely continue to map the telephone and internet cables under the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but this is an exercise like any other. Monitoring undersea cables does not mean Russia is ready to cut them at a moment’s notice and leave the U.S. digitally stranded. It’s the same as having the power to wipe out your enemy with a nuclear first strike but you won’t because it’s not an especially nice thing to do and secondly, you are guaranteed to suffer too.

If at all it comes to war, there are other ways to disrupt communications. The most likely scenario is a massive cyber attack on U.S. internet networks. Russia has an army of cyber warriors who are trained for the job.

A second option is to explode a nuclear warhead at a height of 300 km over Nebraska. The result would be “fundamental collapse” as the United States EMP Commission describes it. There won’t be any material destruction but every microchip in the country will be fried and all electronic systems will fail. All phones and mobiles will stop functioning, the transport system would come to a halt, the banking system, airports, food and fuel distribution systems would collapse. The fabric of modern society would be ripped apart.

You get the picture – when you have weapons that can do the job much more quickly and efficiently, it would be counter intuitive to undertake the tedious job of clipping undersea cables. The report that Russians are going to disrupt global communications is the result of the fervid imagination of writers at the New York Times. However, few people outside the western world accept American news at face value any more.

The reality is that the U.S. is connected to the outside world through a multitude of systems – including satellite so that a cable break will not necessarily bring down the entire grid.

Besides commercial cables, the U.S. has secret undersea cables that carry military data. If anything, Russian submarines and ships could be searching for their location. These are more at risk than commercial cables because there would be fewer alternate routers if one or more are sabotaged.

Choke points

The only people who actually monitor internet choke points worldwide are the NSA and other American spy agencies. Major undersea cables cross into American borders and territorial waters, making wiretapping much easier for the U.S. to accomplish than any other country.

NSA defector Edward Snowden showed the extent to which American and British spy agencies were intercepting submarine cable data. “Well, if you had the choice, you should never send information over British lines or British servers,” he said.

Several countries, including some European ones, have started moving away from U.S. servers and data companies. Some like Brazil have launched a project to build a submarine communications cable to Portugal that not only bypasses the US entirely, but also specifically excludes U.S. companies from involvement.

Meanwhile, you can chat, browse and post online as usual, secure in the knowledge that Russia isn’t interested in targeting these activities.

Article also appeared at rbth.com/blogs/continental_drift/2015/12/09/cable-wars-can-russia-really-cut-the-jugular_548819