The Pentagon recently released a map showing the travel paths of Russian and Chinese naval vessels, alongside important undersea cables, as a part of its 2021 National Defense Authorization Act request, commonly referred to as the DoD’s budget. The map clearly shows the heavy traffic in both The Atlantic and Pacific oceans, with Russian subs encroaching on America’s eastern seaboard and Chinese submarines creeping up in the west.
What does China’s naval activity tell us?
Much of China’s activity remains in and around the South China Sea, which is an incredibly valuable stretch of the Pacific, both in terms of resources and as a shipping lane. China has been working to expand its navy and enforce its claims over the entirety of the waterway, despite the international community recognizing their claims as illegal.
China’s quickly growing Navy still lacks the logistical requirements for prolonged, global naval operations, but that has been changing rapidly. China’s foreign economic efforts, like the Belt and Road initiative, sees China granting nations with poor credit histories large loans for infrastructure development. These loans have left many under-developed nations on friendlier terms with the Chinese government, and those who fall behind on their payments will then be subject to greater diplomatic pressure to open their ports to China’s navy for resupply.
This practice may be troubling, but the United States is hardly in a position to vilify these efforts, as they’re a reasonable approximation to how the United States grew its own military presence around the globe in the aftermath of World War II. China has effectively taken a page out of America’s book in order to more effectively challenge America on the high seas.
Why are Russian submarines reason for concern?
Russia’s Navy, shown on this map in red, have clearly come far closer to America’s east coast than most would prefer. Although the map does not indicate what type of vessels the lines represent, the mass of red on America’s coast must be almost entirely submarines–alongside a handful of highly publicized surveillance vessels that make annual trips off of America’s coast.
U.S. Navy officials have been talking about Russian subs encroaching on American shores at an increased rate for some time now, perhaps spurred in part by Russia’s 2018 announcement that they had successfully parked an undisclosed number of nuclear attack submarines 12 miles off the coast of a number of major U.S. Navy bases. That 12-mile mark is an important one, as coming any closer would have been a violation of America’s sovereign waters.
The U.S. Navy did not comment on Russia’s claims, and with good reason. If they had announced that they were aware of the Russian presence, they would run the risk of revealing previously undisclosed defensive capabilities. If, however, they claimed the story wasn’t true, Russia could claim America simply couldn’t tell that their submarines were present. Instead, the U.S. Navy brought back the previously defunct 2nd Fleet a few months later, which is tasked specifically with Atlantic defense.
This new map offers a degree of detail that the Pentagon has not shared with the public before regarding the activity of Russian and Chinese submarines.
These bits of new information bolster comments made by U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Andrew “Woody” Lewis last week, which painted a troubling picture of Russia’s presence in the Atlantic.
“Our new reality is that when our sailors toss the lines over and set sail, they can expect to be operating in a contested space once they leave Norfolk,” The War Zone reported Lewis as saying. “Our ships can no longer expect to operate in a safe haven on the East Coast or merely cross the Atlantic unhindered to operate in another location.
Russia has prioritized submarines, even as the rest of their military falls into disrepair.
While Russia’s military apparatus, as a whole, suffers from a severe lack of funding brought about by the nation’s stagnate economy and multiple layers of international sanctions, Moscow has opted to invest heavily in certain programs that they feel will offer the greatest perceived power on the global stage. This mindset led to the RS-28 Sarmat nuclear ICBM that absolutely dwarfs America’s long range nuclear missiles, as well as the Status 6 Poseidon–which is a submersible drone that carries a massive 100 megaton nuclear warhead. 100 megatons, it’s worth noting, is twice as powerful as the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated in history.
Russia’s Navy has seen an influx of spending on its undersea fleet of submarines, while the Kremlin allows Russia’s surface fleet to fall into disrepair. The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s lone aircraft carrier, is infamous around the world for being unreliable–traveling with an ocean-going tug boat intended to tow the massive vessel to port in the event of yet another embarrassing technical issue. Last year, the vessel, along with Russia’s only carrier-sized dry dock, caught on fire. Ultimately, the dry dock sank, and the damaged carrier was all that remained. A few months ago, the carrier once again caught fire, leading many experts to surmise that the carrier may never return to duty.
Russian aircraft carrier “Admiral Kuznetsov” caught fire during repair works at Zvezdochka plant. 8 workers rescued, 1 unaccounted. Fire at least at 120m2 in engine room https://t.co/EhBCrUKBg8 #Russia pic.twitter.com/011TFOQSrk
— Liveuamap (@Liveuamap) December 12, 2019
Russia has opted to allow the Admiral Kuznetsov to remain an international embarrassment for good reason–the funding that could go to repairing the aging titan has instead been directed toward the development and construction of new nuclear attack and missile submarines. Russia’s stealthy subs are recognized as highly capable weapons platforms, making these developments troubling for the U.S. Navy’s 2nd Fleet in particular.
“This has been one of the busiest years that I can remember, and I’ve been doing this since 1983,” Adm. James Foggo, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, said late last year. “Russia has continued to put resources into their undersea domain. It’s an asymmetric way of challenging the West and NATO alliance and actually they’ve done quite well.”
Russia’s Belgorod is the longest submarine in the world.
Last year, Russia launched a number of new submarines, including the massive special mission submarine Belgorod, which has the distinction of being the longest submarine in service to any nation, including the United States. The 600-foot behemoth displaces more water than a WWI battleship and is 50% longer than America’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
Of course, in classic Russian style, the mighty Belgorod began its life as an unfinished Oscar II-class cruise missile submarine, when production halted years ago due to a lack funding. Russia recently opted to extend the hull and complete the craft to serve as a launch platform for undersea drones and subs, like the aforementioned Poseidon. The Belgorod is a one-off, and Russia does not intend to build any more of the the massive subs.
The U.S. is countering this submarine activity with new technology.
It’s not all bad news, however, as the U.S. Navy has already been working on numerous new forms of submarine detection, including one program that uses sensors to track the behavior of undersea wildlife for the purposes of spotting encroaching subs. The program, called PALS or the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program, tracks the normal behavior of undersea life, which will respond to the presence of even the sneakiest of submarines. When the PALS system spots erratic behavior, it can direct manned or unmanned sub-hunting vessels to the area for further inspection.
The vessels tasked with these anti-sub operations may well be the Navy’s newest unmanned warships called The Sea Hunter Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV. The ACTUV is a 132 foot long, 140 ton drone warship perfectly suited for hunting down enemy submarines. The Navy currently has one ACTUV, also known as the Sea Hunter, that’s currently undergoing testing.
Feature image courtesy of the Russian Ministry of Defence