Why are Russian submarines patrolling the United States coast?
If reading that headline gave you an 80s flashback, you’re not alone. People are surprised to find out that two Russian attack submarines have been spotted this week within a stone’s throw, submarine-wise, of the United States. The sighting of the two nuclear subs represents the first major sighting of Russian submarines since the days of the Cold War
The Pentagon has confirmed — two Russian attack submarines have been “patrolling the waters” off the East Coast of the United States in the past week, including one submarine that came as close as 200 miles offshore. Although Pentagon officials (who have been monitoring the sub’s movements) didn’t consider the sub’s presence as a threat, one senior military official said the patrols were “unusual”. We have to remember that Russia today is not the same as it was twenty or thirty years ago. Their navy is weak, and there haven’t been submarine missions like this in decades.
The Pentagon has determined that the sub’s presence is not “provocative”, and officials were quick to point out that both nuclear subs stayed in “international waters” during the entirety of their partrol.
This story “broke” early this week when the sightings were reported via an online edition of the New York Times.
For those with a short memory, or who were born after the Cold War, these patrols were once quite normal. In fact, during the course of the Cold War, submarines from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union made regular patrols in the North Atlantic. It was a kind of game — an elaborate burlesque show of naval capability in which both sides showed off their skills at tracking and targeting rival positions. The patrols in the North Atlantic were also meant to indicate to the other side that both sides would be ready in case of war.
The same senior military official quoted saying that the patrols are not an act of aggression released the following info on the Russian boats — both vessels are nuclear powered “Akula class” submarines. These are the same subs that were used during the hottest part of the Cold War to track NATO ships. “Akula class” subs would likely have been the first line of a Russian offensive had that war gone fully hot. “Akula class” boats have the ability to attack with both torpedoes and missiles. While we refer to them as “nuclear subs”, don’t be alarmed — this class of sub only relies of nuclear energy for its power. It takes much larger ballistic missile firing submarines to launch nuclear weapons.
There are a few unconfirmed aspects of the New York Times story — for instance, the Times reported that one of the pair of submarines most recent move was to put in port in Cuba. The Pentagon specifically mentioned that there is no confirmation of that fact, and that the US military instead believes that submarine hung back near the coast of Greenland.
So why are the Russians sending out nuclear submarines now? The fact that we’re even asking that question may give us the answer. The Russian navy is the laughingstock of powerful navies — after the Cold War, Russia couldn’t support the kind of military force they’d built up, and many programs were scrapped. The recent showy submarine patrols are just the latest in a series of military operations by the Russians designed to show that they’re not dead in the water.
Last year, for instance, a Russian long range strategic bomber came out of nowhere and “buzzed” the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz and its escorts while that particular strike group was making a regular patrol of the Pacific Ocean. Two years ago, the British Royal Air Force went so far as to scramble fighters in order to intercept Russian strategic bombers that were flying patrols a bit too close to UK territorial air space.
An American naval expert quoted in the New York TImes article said it was “probably 15 years since Russia had put two nuclear subs in such proximity to their former Cold War rivals.”
This morning, the Russian military establishment finally responded to the news. An unnamed Russian official says patrols in international waters are “routine”, and that there was no need for “hysteria”. Another senior Russian general has shrugged off Washington’s concerns, according to the New York Times, saying it was “business as usual” for Moscow to keep its navy in shape. The specific quote — “I don’t know if it’s news to anyone,” Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Russia’s deputy chief of general staff, said. “The navy should not stay idle at its moorings.”
In 2007, Russia (which is ready to play a more serious role on the world stage) resumed Cold War era flights of nuclear ready bombers across the Atlantic Ocean. Consider this movement into the ocean part of the plan. Russia relies heavily on its so called “nuclear triad” — land based missiles, nuclear submarines and strategic bombers.
Before anyone panics, remember — the submarines have not taken any “provocative action” besides their mere presence, and that presence is in international waters.