Under the sea and ready for war? US wants to spend billions on spy submarine to fend off ocean-deep China, Russia advances

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WASHINGTON – Forget space warfare. The newest frontier for potential combat is the ocean floor, and the U.S. and its adversaries – especially Russia and China – are scrambling for dominance.

It’s called seabed warfare. For the U.S. Navy, that means building its most expensive spy submarine ever, a $5.1 billion high-tech vessel that would patrol the deepest reaches of the ocean and deploy mini-subs and drones that can battle hostile forces while withstanding the crushing pressure of the ocean depths.

This proposed successor to the USS Jimmy Carter – a nuclear-powered spy submarine filled with robots and specialized ships and divers – is just one of Washington’s secret initiatives aimed at protecting America’s commercial and security interests deep under the sea. It has become an especially urgent priority after last year’s suspected attacks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines, which have carried gas from Russia to Germany.

The ramping up of preparations for global seabed war comes at a time when oil and gas pipelines crisscross the ocean floor, and telecommunications cables that connect one continent to another are even more ubiquitous. They are all extremely vulnerable to tampering or attack by hostile nations or terrorists, according to U.S. and allied government reports and officials.

A 2018 snapshot of underwater cable routes.
A 2018 snapshot of underwater cable routes.

In fact, an attack on just one cable or pipeline, or even a temporary disruption, could knock out critically needed Internet access, energy supplies and other necessities for tens of millions of people.

It is not satellites in the sky,” according to retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, “but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world’s economy.”

The invisible backbone of the global economy

Currently, more than 95% of the traffic coursing through the global internet is carried by just 200 undersea fiber-optic cables, “some as far below the surface as Everest is above it,” Stavridis wrote in the forward to a 2017 report, “Undersea Cables: Indispensable, Insecure," which raised alarms about the extreme vulnerabilities of the seabed commercial networks.

Stavridis, who led the NATO alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander, warned that an all-out attack on undersea cable infrastructure would cause “potentially catastrophic” damage to the U.S. and its allies, and their ability to transmit confidential information, conduct financial transactions and communicate internationally.

“Whether from terrorist activity or an increasingly bellicose Russian naval presence, the threat of these vulnerabilities being exploited is growing. … The threat is nothing short of existential,” according to the report itself, which was written by then-British parliamentarian Rishi Sunak, who is now the country’s prime minister.

The U.S. − and its allies and adversaries − are focusing on this potential threat from an offensive as well as a defensive standpoint, according to Stavridis and other experts, including a U.S. naval analyst. They are also tapping into the telecommunications cables as valuable sources of intelligence.

Six years after that report was published, Stavridis told USA TODAY, “I am more concerned now than I was in 2017 about the dangers of an attack on undersea cables.”

One reason for that, Stavridis said, is heightened political tension between Russia and the West. Also, undersea technology has improved in terms of how these cables could be attacked, he said, citing the twin Nord Stream blasts, “which in my view was probably done by the Russians.”

And global dependence on the Internet is growing exponentially year after year, Stavridis said, with “well over 50 billion devices on the internet of things driving the global economy.”

"Only a few hundred cables carry all of that traffic," he said in an interview. "It is a dangerous and unsustainable system."

China versus Taiwan, Russia's suspected role in pipeline attack: The early stages of seabed warfare

Last month, two major submarine internet cables were cut to at least one of Taiwan's outlying islands, raising U.S. concerns about possible sabotage by China, the archenemy of the key U.S. ally, said the Washington-based U.S. naval analyst, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military issues.

Taiwan’s National Communications Commission has blamed China but stopped short of saying it was intentional. Even so, the U.S. analyst said, the incidents heightened U.S. concerns that China is testing its seabed warfare capabilities, perhaps in advance of a military invasion of Taiwan.

Seabed warfare also has gained significance because of Russia's efforts in mapping undersea infrastructure and its suspected role in the Nord Stream pipeline attacks.

Russia has built its own deep sea spy sub, the Belgorod, which can fire two-megaton nuclear warhead torpedoes at depths no existing weapon system could intercept – and could take out an entire U.S. port or aircraft carrier strike group. And it quietly has been building other specialized deep seabed war vessels, including intelligence ships and submarines that disrupt undersea cable infrastructure.

Last month, Ireland’s military released surveillance footage of at least two Russian ships off the Galway coast near a newly opened seabed communications cable. Irish senator and security expert Tom Clonan told local media the ships were well-known to the Irish defense community, including one that has a diving platform and carries deep-sea submersibles.

"These are the fiber optic transatlantic cables that come from Ireland (and) basically connect the European Union to the United States,” said Clonan. "Something like one-third of all of the data online goes through these cables, so they're a really, really critical piece of infrastructure."

From Soviet communication networks to deepwater oil drilling

Seabed warfare dates back to at least World War I, when Britain secretly cut German cables laid deep in the English Channel, forcing Germany to use long-distance radio transmissions that were intercepted.

The U.S. Navy also has a rich history of deep-sea military activity. It tapped Soviet communications networks in the 1970s, according to experts interviewed by USA TODAY, including the U.S. naval analyst in Washington.

And the past few decades have seen a dramatic increase in commercializing the ocean floor, including deepwater oil drilling and, more recently, mining for precious metals and other resources.

“War is a human endeavor. And if humans are moving activities onto the seabed, war will follow,” said Peter Singer, an adviser to the U.S. military and "future of warfare" strategist at the New America think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Now that there’s infrastructure, seabed warfare is following where the business is,” Singer said. “They're going down there because of all this civilian economic activity. And as it becomes more and more of a battlespace, then you see more and more investment and spending on it in defense budgets.”

One reason everyone is worried about seabed conflict is that despite the potentially trillions of dollars of resources at, or under, the ocean floor, there aren’t clear international laws to govern it.

Maritime areas are governed largely by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which says the rights of states diminish as one moves away from their coastlines. Some countries, including Russia, have interpreted the convention to suit their interests in aggressively commercializing the deep sea to appropriate resources.

Given these aggressive moves, various nations – including the U.S. and allies France and Britain – have made seabed warfare an urgent priority in order to protect their interests.

A $5.1 billion offensive and defensive seabed weapon

And the U.S. isn’t just preparing to defend its interests. Its research and development shows that Washington is quietly – but aggressively – ramping up its offensive seabed warfare capabilities too, the U.S. naval analyst said.

With an eye toward protecting sensitive assets that lie on the ocean floor, the U.S. Navy has commissioned a next-generation attack submarine that can sneak along the ocean floor and perform covert operations.They include deploying Navy SEALs, retrieving parts from rockets and missiles used in testing, protecting – and tapping – deep-sea communications cables, locating and protecting rare earth mineral deposits and other secret missions.

Preliminary work on the submarine is already underway at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, according to the U.S. naval analyst, the Congressional Research Service and trade publications such as NavalNews.com.

It likely will be a modified submarine capable of acting as a "mothership" for underwater vehicles, remotely operated ships (known as ROVS) and other things that can easily maneuver around the seafloor.

According to Pentagon budget documents and a congressional report on this sub. It will cost roughly $5.1 billion; a standard submarine in the same category cost $3.45 billion in 2021.

Little opposition expected from Congress

The new sub is included in the Navy’s fiscal 2024 budget request and has yet to be funded by Congress, but little to no opposition is expected. Then it won’t be ready for an estimated 13 years, the naval analyst told USA TODAY.

Last September, several top Electric Boat officials said the project is an urgent priority for the Navy, and hinted at the sub’s new seabed warfare capabilities.

“While we can’t get into the details, we can say it is a complex, fast-moving program with strong Navy and congressional support,” Kevin Graney, president of General Dynamics Electric Boat, said in an in-house podcast. Later, he added, “The work we’re doing here on a very tight timeline on something that is desperately needed by our Navy is really inspiring.”

Phasing out a deep-sea legend

While specific details of the hull design are closely guarded for national security reasons, the new sub is expected to bolster – and eventually succeed – the USS Jimmy Carter, a Seawolf-class submarine that is presently the only special-mission sub of its kind deployed by the Navy.

“With the advanced capabilities of the Seawolf class and its unique Multi-Mission Platform, the Jimmy Carter will lead the way in the evolution of undersea warfare in the 21st century,” Electric Boat President John Casey said when that ship was commissioned in 2005. “The world has never seen a submarine with the capabilities embodied in this ship.”

Like the submarine under construction, the Jimmy Carter sports a specially fortified 100-foot hull extension, which can turn it into a hangar of sorts for a host of deep-sea exploratory instruments.The new submarine will bolster the Navy's existing fleet of attack-class submarines, which were tailored to meet the military needs associated with the Cold War.

Some of the USS Jimmy Carter’s features include mini submarines, deepwater drones, robots and specialized ships and divers that can deploy from the spy submarine and other vessels or from land.

The ship has been involved in some of the nation’s most important deep-sea military operations, and the Navy hopes that the new sub will be operational early enough so that both can be in the water for at least several years before the Jimmy Carter is too old to use anymore, the U.S. naval analyst said.

Orcas, Snakeheads and Micro-submersibles

While nearly all U.S. research and development in seabed warfare is top-secret, some details have been declassified for budget purposes and offer insight into current operations and future plans.

One report to Congress by the Navy's Undersea Warfare Directorate said that by 2025, the Navy hopes to have new technologies operational, including “counter-unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) warfare, electromagnetic maneuver warfare (and) non-lethal sea control, and seabed warfare.”

Three top Navy officials offered a glimpse into their plans in a March 28, 2023, document submitted to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower as part of the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget request.

The three leaders including Asst. Navy Secretary Frederick Stefany, said the Navy is investing heavily “in a family of Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs)” that will expand its undersea reach and capability.

They said the Navy remains committed to completing the Orca, an extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle that can lay mines, conduct surveillance and engage in special operations offensive warfare missions.

The Navy wants to deploy five of the massive robotic submarines to do the dangerous job of laying undersea mines. And though the Navy has cited that as an urgent priority, the effort is more than 3 years behind schedule and has exceeded costs by at least $242 million, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report last September.

Another vehicle known as the Snakehead, or “Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle” (LDUUV), also aims to support U.S. subsea and seabed warfare and has been undergoing in-water testing, the three Navy leaders wrote.

“The LDUUV program aimed to address a critical gap with increased depth, endurance, and payload capacity,” they said, but it has been put on hold, at least temporarily, “to support higher Navy priorities.”

And a third, the MK 11 SDV, can clandestinely ferry Navy SEAL teams to conduct offensive and defensive operations against China in contested areas.

A Virginia-class submarine, SSN-774, leaves an assembly building at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Conn., in this August 2003 file photo.
A Virginia-class submarine, SSN-774, leaves an assembly building at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Conn., in this August 2003 file photo.

And like the USS Jimmy Carter, the new sub would be able to cut and tap undersea fiber optic communications cables itself.

The U.S. military is trying to take advantage of technological breakthroughs like artificial intelligence to substitute machines for human beings wherever possible, said Singer, the U.S. future of warfare adviser.

He said it is developing unmanned or drone capabilities for use in air, land and sea environments known as the Three D’s: If they’re dull, or something that happens over a long period of time; dirty, if it’s an environment that's hard for humans to operate in; and dangerous, if the mission comes with a high risk to human life.

“And seabed warfare is almost a definition of those three,” Singer said.

Cables, pipelines and trillions in key minerals

The ocean floor, especially beyond coastal waters protected by maritime laws, has the potential to become a new area of conflict among nations because of the vast wealth of man-made and natural assets: fiber-optic communications cables, sensitive parts related to rocket and missile tests and fossil fuel deposits and other natural resources.

One particular interest related to national security is the vast quantities of rare-earth minerals and precious metals lying under the ocean's floor in international waters.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the seabed holds a variety of highly coveted minerals – cobalt, manganese and titanium to name a few – used in everything from smartphones to aircraft components. As mining interests expand, stakeholders and nations will look to protect those interests.

Throughout history, submarine warfare has been conducted on the very top layer of the ocean, almost like the skin of a human being, with even the most advanced new subs able to dive down less than 2000 feet from the surface, the U.S. naval analyst said.

But the ocean has an average depth of 2.3 miles, and the shape and depth of the seabed, or seafloor, is complex and largely uncharted, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“We know less about the ocean floor than we do about the surface of the moon and Mars,” NOAA said in a June 2022 report announcing its participation in Seabed 2030, an international civilian effort to map the gaps in our ocean knowledge.

Most cables are unspooled from a ship, like the string from a yo-yo, and are designed to bend to conform to the sea floor topography, which includes deep canyons, towering seamounts and hydrothermal vents. And that, according to the U.S. naval analyst and other experts, makes patrolling the deep sea extremely difficult.

Enemies and allies racing to rule the ocean floor

Both Russia and China have invested heavily in commercializing the seafloor, as well as in research and development into ways of protecting their investments − and conducting offensive operations.

In July 2022, the Russian navy deployed the K-329 Belgorod, considered by many to be the longest submarine in the world. Like the Jimmy Carter, it has special modifications, including 100 extra feet of length, to accommodate an array of new deep-sea weapons and intelligence-gathering systems.

China’s intentions and capabilities are less clear, but it clearly has developed deep sea research vessels that could serve in a military capacity, said the U.S. naval analyst.

U.S. allies are also ramping up efforts

In February 2022, France announced it will use drones, special subs and other high-tech vehicles to patrol the deep ocean floor “to guarantee the freedom of action of its forces and to protect its sovereignty, its resources and its infrastructure even in the depths of the ocean.” Its Hugin Superior Autonomous Unmanned Vehicle can operate in depths of up to 6,000 meters.

Britain has intensified its focus on seabed warfare following Prime Minister Sunak’s 2017 report, which warned that Russia already had used seabed warfare to cut off communications to the Crimean Peninsula, and was “aggressively operating” near undersea cables in Scandinavia and the Atlantic Ocean.

Sunak also said Russia was investing heavily in its undersea capacity and planned to have the world’s second-largest navy by 2027.

“Russia is attracted to hybrid warfare like this because it offers the scope for plausible deniability, involves limited loss of human life, and exploits the gray areas of NATO Article 5 mutual responsibilities,” Sunak warned. “As a result, mobilizing international action against an offensive would be difficult.”

Contributing: Graphics and additional reporting by Stephen J. Beard

Follow Josh Meyer, USA TODAY's Domestic Security Correspondent, on Twitter at @JoshMeyerDC

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Navy's plan for seabed warfare includes billions for spy submarine