Russian Submarines Operating Near Trans-Oceanic Internet Cables while a Russian Relay Satellite Parks between Two U.S. INTELSAT Satellites

Russian Submarines Operating Near Trans-Oceanic Internet Cables

Multiple news outlets have reported that Russian submarines have been cruising around in the vicinity of undersea cables, according to the  NY Times, the Washington Post, and The Register.  There is some speculation that this harkens back to Cold War era tactics of intimidation and demonstrations of force as Russia continues to assert its presence on the World Wide stage.  Specifically, the New York Times reported that Russia’s actions with its submarine fleet are spreading fears that Russia may be positioning itself should the need arise to cut undersea cables.  The Times article indicates that the most far-reaching impact to the United States would occur if Russia severed fiber-optic cables in deep-sea areas that are difficult to access, making remediation extremely challenging.  The Times points out that there is no evidence of any Russian cable-cutting; however the positioning of submarines in these areas increases American and NATO concerns over Russia’s increasingly global military presence.

Russian Relay Satellite is parked between two U.S. INTELSAT Satellites

Additionally, the BBC recently reported that a Russian satellite which was launched into orbit in September 2014 has been positioned between two U.S. International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT) satellites, causing concern within the U.S.  BBC reports that Ivan Moseyev, the head of Russia’s Space Policy Institute claims the satellite is merely a relay satellite intended to send signals from spacecraft (such as the International Space Station ISS)) to Earth and also between satellites.  Of course, one wonders why a relay satellite would be positioned between two U.S. communications satellites unless, perhaps it was intended to relay transmissions from the INTELSAT satellites back to Earth (i.e. Russia)?

U.S. Underwater Operations

The concern over Russian submarines operating near fiber-optic cables is interesting when contrasted with an August report in  The Week which stated that after the Snowden revelations in 2013, there was widespread speculation that the U.S. was using submarines to tap into undersea cables.  The assertion being that the Seawolf-class submarine, the U.S.S. Jimmy Carter had been modified specifically to tap undersea communication cables.  Reportedly, the Jimmy Carter’s midsection was extended 100 feet in order to create a floodable chamber that would allow ingress/egress from the submarine while at deep-sea operating depths.  Of course, the use of submarines to intercept and gather information is not a novel idea.   The Washington Post reported that the first use of submarines to “tap” cables was done back in the 1960s in Operation Ivy Bells, the U.S. sub, Halibut was used to located and tap undersea communication lines in the Sea of Okhotsk.  Furthermore, according to Richard A. Clarke’s book, Cyber War: The Next Big Threat and What to do About it, operations such as Holystone involved the use of submarines to perform a multitude of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering tasks (dating back to the 1960s). Additionally, The Week’s article states that in 1980, a former NSA employee, Ronald Pelton sold information to the Soviet Union, about the U.S. spy subs use of clamp-like devices on undersea cables to record passing signals (Pelton was subsequently convicted and remains in federal prison).


My Opinion:

Secrecy and deniability are the hallmarks of clandestine operations.  What better theater to perform a cloak-and-dagger operation than thousands of feet under the surface of the ocean where sunlight does not penetrate and there are no wandering eyes to worry about.  For the Nation-State that is already heavily invested in espionage and the support therein, adding a deep-water submarine to the toolkit makes perfect sense.  The ability to perform signals intelligence (SIGINT) on undersea cables could create a treasure trove of data from which significant intelligence information could be gleaned.  With fibre-optic cables stretched across the ocean floors connecting continents with one another, is it really any surprise that the information in these cables would be targeted by intelligence gathering organizations?  The only surprise here is that media outlets seem to be of the belief that SIGINT is some dark, new presence, when in reality SIGINT has existed at least since Marconi’s first wireless sets were put into service at the end of the 19th century.

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Authors

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Professor William Snyder

Professor William C. Snyderis a member of the faculty of the Institute for National Security and Counter-terrorism at Syracuse University after fifteen years with the United States Department of Justice.

Ryan D. White

Ryan D. WhiteRyan is currently a third year law student at Syracuse University College of Law, and is also pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Ryan spent time with Homeland Security Investigations while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, and spent his first summer of law school as clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of New York. He is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and participates in the Veteran’s Legal Clinic.Full biography

Christopher w. FolkChristopher W. Folk

is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. A non-traditional student, Christopher returned to academia after spending nearly twenty years in the high tech industry. Christopher served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. In Applied Economics and Business Management, attended Northeastern University’s High-Tech MBA Program and received a M.S. In Computer Information Systems. Christopher previously worked in Software Engineering. Christopher is currently serving his second term as Town Justice for the Town of Waterloo. Christopher externed with a Cybersecurity firm in the Washington, D.C. area between his first and second year at SU College of Law. Full biography

Anna Maria Castillo

is 2016 graduate of Syracuse College of Law. She also holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has interned at a London-based think-tank that specializes in transnational terrorism and global security and at the legal department of a defense contractor. She served as an executive editor in the Syracuse Law Review. Full biography

Jennifer A. CamilloJennifer A. Camillo

is a 2015 graduate of Syracuse College of Law and is a prosecutor. She has served as a law clerk in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and the Cayuga County District Attorney’s Office and as an extern in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. She was a member of the Syracuse National Trial Team and was awarded the Tiffany Cup by the New York Bar Association for her trial advocacy achievements.

Tara J. PistoreseTara J. Pistorese

holds Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Administration degrees from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and its College of Law. She wrote for this blog when a student. She is now a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Benjamin Zaiser

is both a scholar and a Federal Agent of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. (Opinions expressed here are his own and not any part of official duty.) Full biography

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