March 15, 2016

Anon. French military source says Russian SSBN was detected off the French coast

On March 10th Vincent Jauvert, a reporter for L'Obs, a French news organisation, broke the story that a Russian SSBN was detected off the coast of France, in international waters, in January 2016.  The source was an anonymous French defence official.

Original here:

If you're not too savvy with the French language, here is the Reuters story that followed:

J E Dyer is an expert in all things Navy, especially underwater intelligence, and provides an extremely well written in-depth analysis regarding the potential strategic advantage of positioning an SSBN there; her blog post is here:

Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institute (full bio here) provides his thorough analysis regarding the potential messaging being delivered by Russia here:

I'd like to back up at this point and ask some questions.  This discussion is all based on one anonymous French defence official who leaked information to the media that cannot be confirmed or denied independently or by any official source; why is it we think this claim is true?  

This leaked intelligence, of a Russian Sub being detected off the coast of France in January, would be at least Secret or Top Secret information, and if it wasn't leaked through official channels, should provoke an investigation by the French military to find the person who leaked the information.  I didn't hear any suggestion of anything like that in any media yet.

I'm very sceptical of unconfirmed leaked information that could be used to bolster the US Military / Navy budget. There are several angles to this story that are strange and have not been investigated. Why should we believe an anonymous source with a suspicious story that plays into the US Navy "red scare" narrative that could be used to increase funding for missile defense, or other military programs?

We have no way to ascertain the validity of the source or details of the story.

Did the French positively identify the type of submarine beyond it being an SSBN? If so, how? Acoustically? Magnetically? What margin of error was there for the determination? Did the French have a submarine in pursuit? Surface vessel tracking it for a while? Since no official source is going to talk about this, it's impossible to determine to what degree of certainty the type of vessel was identified. I've been told that accurate identification is possible with current military sensors, but we have no way to tell what sensors were used, and to what accuracy the identification was made.

The source did not identify exactly what type of submarine was spotted; just that it was an SSBN. There are multiple types of SSBNs in the Russian Navy, so which one was it? How did they determine it wasn't an SSGN if they didn't determine what type of SSBN it was? There is a Russian project where SSBNs are modified (lengthened) into "motherships" to ferry mini-subs to underwater cables. Does a acoustic or magnetic signature of a Delta IV SSBN and Delta IV "Stretch" (mothership) sound similar? Could they be mistaken for one another?
Russian Navy Delta IV SSBN Submarine
(Image Credit: Unknown)

A Delta IV "Stretch" (or other "stretch" variant) might make a lot more sense in this scenario. Undersea cables seem to be of interest to the Russian Navy lately. A "Stretch" variant could ferry a mini-sub outfitted with special equipment to tap underwater cables. This would mean no "messaging" or "nuclear saber rattling" was being performed, it was simply an underwater reconnaissance operation to tap undersea cables that was spotted.  Such "mothership" submarines are also part of the Northern Fleet, located near Murmansk at Olenya Guba (Оле́нья Губа), part of the 29th Special Squadron. Does that ring any bells?  Perhaps completely by coincidence, that's where the RV Yantar, the new research vessel, is also based. (previous blog posts about her here)
Russian Navy Delta IV "Stretch"
(Image Credit: Globalsecurity.org)
Tapping undersea cables isn't as sexy a story as nuclear saber rattling, and potentially wouldn't give the same "boost" to the US Navy's budget in the manner they want. Stating publicly that the Russians can go anywhere in international waters and tap cables would also raise a lot of questions about the safety of the Internet infrastructure that the governments of the world are likely ill-equipped to answer. Yes, undersea cables can be compromised. No, your government can't stop them.  Yes, other governments are doing the same thing.

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