Russian Submarines- Could they Cut off all World Communication?

By Faye Higbee

The answer to the question posed in the title is yes. Of late, Russian submarines and warships have been increasing their activity in the areas where the fiber optic cables (called submarine cables) that run the entire world’s communications are buried beneath the sea. American officials are concerned. Thus far, the Russians have left the cables intact.

Russian submarines

Undersea cables- why is Russia increasing their maritime activity near vulnerable areas? Photo credit: CTBTO

The New York Times reported,

Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications, raising concerns among some American military and intelligence officials that the Russians might be planning to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict.

The issue goes beyond old worries during the Cold War that the Russians would tap into the cables — a task American intelligence agencies also mastered decades ago. The alarm today is deeper: The ultimate Russian hack on the United States could involve severing the fiber-optic cables at some of their hardest-to-access locations to halt the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent.

Could they cut them? Yes. Would they? Remains to be seen


Russian submarines carry two submersibles with the capability to cut them at any point- and if they were cut at a hard-to-reach spot, repairs would be extremely difficult.
The cables are frequently cut now- close to shore. Natural disasters, anchors, sharks that bite the cables, all sorts of things already damage the optic lines. But while they are not easy to repair, those close in are better off than those out in the open sea. 
Military officials are worried about the cables that are in areas where repairs would take more than just a few days. If the Russians wanted to, they could take out most of the world’s communications all at once by cutting the fiber optic cables at a place that is difficult to monitor.

This Google map of the world’s submarine cables shows the myriad of fiber optic lines at the ocean floor. 99% of the world’s communication travels over these cables.

The cables in the open ocean are not as thick as those closer to shore, simply because not as much activity usually occurs near them. The cables run data through them at 99.7% of the speed of light.


The cables


The good news is that it’s hard to cut through a submarine communications cable, if only because of the thousands of very lethal volts running through each of them. The bad news is that it is possible, as seen in Egypt in 2013. There, just north of Alexandria, men in wetsuits were apprehended having intentionally cut through the South-East-Asia-Middle-East-West-Europe 4 cable, which runs 12,500 miles and connects three continents. Internet speeds in Egypt were crippled by 60% until the line could be repaired…
If you think replacing that one Ethernet cable you can’t quite reach behind your desk is a pain, try replacing a solid, broken garden hose at the bottom of the ocean. When a submarine cable is damaged, special repair ships are dispatched. If the cable is located in shallow waters, robots are deployed to grab the cable and haul it to the surface. If the cable is in deep waters (6,500 feet or greater), the ships lower specially designed grapnels that grab onto the cable and hoist it up for mending. To make things easier, grapnels sometimes cut the damaged cable in two, and repair ships raise each end separately for patching above the water.  


The difference between could and will is a question only Moscow can answer  


 We can hope that Russia would not wish to damage the submarine cables that are conduits for commerce and communication throughout the world. There are also at least 22 “dark” cables, that are not being used that could be pressed into service if necessary. So what is Vladimir Putin up to? American officials are suspicious, given the increased Russian activity around the world.
You can read more about Fiber Optics at this link, courtesy of  The Bookmark communications.