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Defense News: Russia’s resurgent Navy demands a coherent response, not wishful thinking

February 20, 2018
In The News

As we enter the second year of the Trump administration, the president’s inability to advance a firm, coherent U.S. position toward Russia persists despite a torrent of belligerent behavior by the Kremlin toward the West.

Indeed, on the day he announced a new national security strategy that purported to challenge Russia, President Donald Trump could not help but publicly exult about the unctuous phone call he had received from Russian President Vladimir Putin the day before.

It is clear President Trump still clings to a wistful hope that Putin will become a trustworthy partner in world affairs. This is despite Russian election meddling in the U.S. and Europe, provocative military exercises near our NATO allies, continued military intervention in eastern Ukraine, illegal and dangerous flyovers of American and British naval vessels in international waters, and the deployment last year of the first Russian spy ship off New England’s coast since the end of the Cold War.

The British Royal Navy’s public disclosure in December that Russian submarines are prowling near undersea cables in the North Atlantic is now the latest in this string of concerns. These communications conduits are a vital link between North America and Europe, the two largest economic zones in the world.

Despite the proliferation of satellite communications, over 90 percent of internet traffic, telephone communication and even telegraph signals pass along undersea cables. The lines remain as vulnerable today as they were in World War I when the British Navy cut German telegraph lines lying on the seabed of the English Channel. Whether this renewed Russian activity seeks to eavesdrop on cable-borne communications, or aims to survey them so that they can be more easily severed during a conflict, the dramatic effect of such interference cannot be overstated.

The steady increase in submarine activity over the last five years is an unmistakable sign that Russia has recovered much of the undersea capability it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As recent public reports issued by the Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence have documented, Putin’s government has devoted sizable resources to recapitalizing the desiccated Russian Navy, with particular emphasis on submarines.

The Russian military has also used the conflict in Syria as a test bed for new capabilities, including submarine-launched cruise missile strikes. The commander of the Russian Navy recently boasted that its submarine fleet achieved 3,000 days at sea in 2016, matching its Cold War level of operations. When I asked former NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis about the scale of Russian undersea activity at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, he testified along these same lines, noting that Russian subs were operating at “70-80 percent” of what we saw during the Cold War.