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Report: Russian sub activity returns to Cold War levels

Yuri Dolgoruky a Russian nuclear submarine seen in 2009 near the Sevmash factory in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, Russia. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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The Russian submarine fleet has returned to the North Atlantic with such gusto that NATO sub commanders are reporting “more activity from Russian submarines than we’ve seen since the days of the Cold War,” according to a top NATO admiral.

Royal Navy Vice Adm. Clive Johnstone, speaking aboard a Spanish frigate at the end of last month, told the defense analysis group IHS Janes that the alliance is also seeing “a level of Russian capability that we haven’t seen before.”

Russia’s submarine program froze as funds dried up following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Recently, however, Russia has commissioned two new types of subs, including a nuclear-powered attack variant and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile class. According to Janes, they have also started modernizing older submarines as well.

[As Russia scopes undersea cables, a shadow of the United States’ Cold War past]

Johnstone said that with these upgrades and newer boats, Russia is “freer to operate” beneath the waves, as the new technology and an increase in spending has greatly increased Russia’s capabilities. Johnstone also added that Russian submarine crews are more professional in years past, something that has also raised concern within the alliance.

While Russia’s revamped sub fleet is certainly a concern for the west, what worries Johnstone is the lack of openness about Russia’s strategic and operational objectives. The admiral added that the Russians have yet to invite a NATO representative to one of their exercises in the last two years–something that NATO does regularly.

“I’m not saying we want to be part of everything and I’m not saying that Russians are the ‘Great Bear’ or that they’re the enemy, but what we’ve got to do in this very complicated maritime environment is take out the uncertainty and reinforce the certainty,” Johnstone said.

The admiral added that while Russian activity off NATO ports and in NATO water space was confounding, “it’s hard not to draw a certain set of conclusions.”

[With no sub-chasing aircraft of its own, UK calls on allies to help find Russian submarine]

Recently, the United States has monitored Russian submarines and surface ships patrolling around under sea fiber optic cables. While the Russians’ intentions are unclear, tapping underwater communication lines is an old Cold War tactic revolutionized by the U.S. Navy in a series of spy missions that began in 1970. In November, the United Kingdom had to request additional support from France to help detect what they thought was a Russian submarine spying off the coast of Scotland on one of England’s new nuclear missile systems.

Russia’s renewed sub activity has altered how NATO now approaches its maritime capabilities, according to Johnstone.

“You’re starting to see nations who in the past have prioritized to have submarines in the Gulf or the eastern Mediterranean now looking to reinvest back into capability in the Atlantic,” Johnstone said.

Even though Russia sub activity has skyrocketed, Russia has only just started introducing new boats into its fleet and most NATO countries are operating their fleets at half of what they were during the Cold War. The U.S. Navy operates a number of sub variants, including the newer nuclear-powered fast-attack Virginia Class.