Subsea Cables routes. Courtesy: TeleGeography

USA - U.S. Navy's plan for seabed warfare includes billions for spy submarine

Under the sea and ready for war? US wants to spend billions on spy submarine to fend off ocean-deep China, Russia advances. The U.S. Navy wants to spend $5.1 billion on a high-tech, tricked out spy submarine as seabed warfare ramps up and U.S., China and Russia battle for dominance.

WASHINGTON – Forget space warfare. The newest frontier for potential combat is the ocean floor, and the U.S. and its adversaries – especially Russia and China – are scrambling for dominance.

It’s called seabed warfare. For the U.S. Navy, that means building its most expensive spy submarine ever, a $5.1 billion high-tech vessel that would patrol the deepest reaches of the ocean and deploy mini-subs and drones that can battle hostile forces while withstanding the crushing pressure of the ocean depths.

This proposed successor to the USS Jimmy Carter – a nuclear-powered spy submarine filled with robots and specialized ships and divers – is just one of Washington’s secret initiatives aimed at protecting America’s commercial and security interests deep under the sea. It has become an especially urgent priority after last year’s suspected attacks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines, which carry gas from Russia to Germany.

The ramping up of preparations for global seabed war comes at a time when oil and gas pipelines crisscross the ocean floor, and telecommunications cables that connect one continent to another are even more ubiquitous. They are all extremely vulnerable to tampering or attack by hostile nations or terrorists, according to U.S. and allied government reports and officials.

In fact, an attack on just one cable or pipeline, or even a temporary disruption, could knock out critically needed Internet access, energy supplies and other necessities for tens of millions of people.

It is not satellites in the sky,” according to retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, “but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world’s economy.”

Currently, more than 95% of the traffic coursing through the global internet is carried by just 200 undersea fiber-optic cables, “some as far below the surface as Everest is above it,” Stavridis wrote in the forward to a 2017 report, “Undersea Cables: Indispensable, Insecure," which raised alarms about the extreme vulnerabilities of the seabed commercial networks.

Stavridis, who led the NATO alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander, warned that an all-out attack on undersea cable infrastructure would cause “potentially catastrophic” damage to the U.S. and its allies, and their ability to transmit confidential information, conduct financial transactions and communicate internationally.

“Whether from terrorist activity or an increasingly bellicose Russian naval presence, the threat of these vulnerabilities being exploited is growing. … The threat is nothing short of existential,” according to the report itself, which was written by then-British parliamentarian Rishi Sunak, who is now the country’s prime minister.

The U.S. − and its allies and adversaries − are focusing on this potential threat from an offensive as well as a defensive standpoint, according to Stavridis and other experts, including a U.S. naval analyst. They are also tapping into the telecommunications cables as valuable sources of intelligence.

Six years after that report was published, Stavridis told USA TODAY, “I am more concerned now than I was in 2017 about the dangers of an attack on undersea cables.”

Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis

It is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world’s economy.

One reason for that, Stavridis said, is heightened political tension between Russia and the West. Also, undersea technology has improved in terms of how these cables could be attacked, he said, citing the twin Nord Stream blasts, “which in my view was probably done by the Russians.”

And global dependence on the Internet is growing exponentially year after year, Stavridis said, with “well over 50 billion devices on the internet of things driving the global economy.”

"Only a few hundred cables carry all of that traffic," he said in an interview. "It is a dangerous and unsustainable system."

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