What Is Russia Up to in the Icy Waters of the Arctic?

A tragic fire aboard a secret Russian nuclear "mini-sub" in the Barents Sea that killed 14 senior sailors has refocused media attention on a little-noticed flash-point of the world: the Arctic. That an important Russian system was being tested or demonstrated was suggested by reports "that among the 14 dead were 7 senior navy captains and 2 'Heroes of Russia.'" The presence of so many Russian navy worthies raises questions because brass do not typically twiddle dials on mini-submarines, but watch them being twiddled until something goes horribly wrong.

One may speculate endlessly on the true nature of the Russian experiment. But although we may never know the disaster's cause, it is evidently so important that the Kremlin is pushing on. The damaged secret submarine Losharik will be returned to service ASAP to continue whatever it was doing.

According to the defense minister, the special purpose submarine can be fully restored and taken back in service. ...Our first assessment shows that repair is possible, [and] in our case it is not only possible, it it absolutely required," the defense minister underlined. (Emphasis mine)

Whatever's going on in the Arctic darkness is important to the Kremlin. The Barents Observer, a Norwegian based online newspaper portrayed it as the Grand Central Station -- if that term can be used -- of Russia's undersea nuke community.

[T]here are 39 nuclear-powered vessels or installations in the Russian Arctic, with a total of 62 reactors (31 submarines, one surface warship, five icebreakers and two power plants) ... by far be the most nuclearized waters on the planet.

The number of nuclear-powered icebreakers will double from today’s five (including Sevmorput) to nine or ten by 2035. Russia is currently the only country in the world with a fleet of civilian nuclear-powered ships.

The Russian Arctic will see many first-of-a-kind uses of new reactors technology; sea-floor reactors, underwater drones powered by reactors, reactor-powered cruise-missiles, civilian nuclear-powered submarines and small power-reactors on ice-strengthen platforms.

Among the nuclear-powered drones spawning in the area is the Poseidon doomsday weapon, "a nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle ... claimed to be able to deliver a thermonuclear cobalt bomb of up to 200 megatonnes (four times as powerful as the most powerful device ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba" on the U.S. coast. The Barents Observer drolly notes that "32 Poseidon drones will be deployed, 16 with the Northern Fleet and 16 with the Pacific Fleet."

By comparison, published USN plans for under-ice warfare are decidedly low key. "The Navy sees the circumpolar North as having a “low risk of conflict.” According to the document, the Navy essentially plans to conduct business as usual in the Arctic." The U.S. appears content to incorporate the Arctic into its overall distributed cooperative engagement paradigm, whose principal problem until recently was connectivity under the ice, a problem USN claims it has now solved with Deep Siren and similar systems.

"Raytheon DeepSiren enables operational commanders anywhere in the world to quickly send tactical messages to a submarine operating at speed and depth – even under Arctic ice," said Steve Moynahan, senior engineer, Raytheon Network Centric Systems (NCS), who deployed with DeepSiren to support the exercise. "This addresses one of the most significant shortfalls in submarine communications to provide mission-critical information while the vessel is submerged."

The most widespread speculation surrounding the tragedy in the Barents Sea is that "the sub may have been on a secret Russian Mission looking to tap into or cut underwater fiber optic or internet cables that span the Atlantic and Arctic sea Lanes." Florida Congressman Michael Waltz of the House Armed Services Committee made the case on Fox:

I think most people think the internet's in the cloud. It's really under the ocean. There are almost 400 of these cables are about the size of a really large garden hose that run several hundred thousand miles and in our entire modern economy is dependent on these fiber optic cables from banking to insurance to financial markets and it's not just communicating with each other it is how they actually access their data and data centers all over the world.

So both the Russians and the Chinese have made it clear in their National Security strategy that they are not going to take the United States on tank to tank or aircraft carrier aircraft carrier. They are going to attack us asymmetrically that's attacking us in space cyber undermining our confidence our elections or in this case and what this sub was doing very likely was tapping into these cables to collect the data to gather intel.

While the Russian secret submarine might have been part of a future digital Pearl Harbor, it might be part of a physical threat as well.  Russian nuclear-powered undersea drones are the ideal new U-boats. As Defense News points out, they are manifestly part of the Kremlin's expanding toolbox of horrors. "Russia is also developing at least two new intercontinental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed undersea autonomous torpedo.”

Governor Romney it seems was right.

To be fair, the U.S. may be doing the same. Boeing is building a large underwater drone for the USN. "Orca’s immediate mission will likely be mine and counter-mine warfare ... This could include seeding mines in rivers and canals, as well. This kind of distributed mine warfare could only hamper the free movement of hostile naval forces, disrupt maritime logistics chains, and otherwise force an opponent to diverse limited resources to protecting rear areas...."  But its role may be expanded to intelligence gathering and hunting down enemy ships.

Beyond that, there’s the possibility that the Orcas, or a follow-on XLUUV design, could carry weapons themselves to carry out attacks on surface ships or submarines. The Echo Voyager’s payload bay was already large enough to accommodate light and heavyweight torpedoes and Boeing says that design could accept external payloads, as well.

It wouldn't be surprising if the Navy had its own nuke drones planned to meet speed requirements. "The Navy has described the ability for underwater drones to rapidly and discreetly position themselves close to a crisis area could make them valuable for time-sensitive strikes." Everything will be held together of course by the CEC network of which Deep Siren is probably a small part.

The Navy’s ongoing plans for an over-arching network architecture, part of which is known as the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), that will link all of its ships, submarines aircraft, and other assets, means that XLUUVs might perform any combination of these missions in direct cooperation with manned platforms, as well. It also means that a group of the underwater drones might include various versions carrying only sensors packages or just weapons, to maximum payload space while working together as a team.

Can Poseidon evade swarms of Orcas? That may be the future. The fire under the Arctic shroud is a reminder that beneath the gleaming surface of modernity the dangers of war remain ever-present in the heart of 21st-century man.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil untold;

The Arctic vales have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold.

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