A pair of nuclear-powered Russian attack submarines has been patrolling off the eastern seaboard of the US in recent days, a rare mission that has raised concerns inside the Pentagon and intelligence agencies about a more assertive stance by the Russian military.
The episode has echoes of the Cold War era, when the US and the Soviet Union regularly parked submarines off each other’s coasts. But the collapse of the Soviet Union all but eliminated the ability of the Russian navy to operate far from home ports, making the current submarine patrols thousands of kilometers from Russia even more surprising for military officials and defense policy experts.
“I don’t think they’ve put two first-line nuclear subs off the US coast in about 15 years,” said Norman Polmar, a naval historian and submarine warfare expert.
The submarines are of the Akula class, a counterpart to the Los Angeles class attack subs of the US Navy, and not one of the larger submarines that can launch intercontinental nuclear missiles.
US Defense Department officials said one of the Russian submarines remained in international waters on Tuesday about 322km off the coast of the US. The location of the second remained unclear. One senior official said the second submarine traveled south in recent days toward Cuba, while another with access to reports on the surveillance mission said it had sailed away in a northerly direction.
The Pentagon and intelligence officials spoke anonymously to describe the effort to track the Russian submarines, which has not been publicly announced.
The submarine patrols come as Moscow tries to shake off the embarrassment of the latest failed test of the Bulava missile, a long-range weapon that was test fired from a submarine in the Arctic on July 15. The failed missile test was the sixth since 2005, and some experts see Russia’s assertiveness elsewhere as a gambit by the military to prove its continued relevance.
“It’s the military trying to demonstrate that they are still a player in Russian political and economic matters,” Polmar said.
One of the submarines is the newer Akula II, officials said, which is quieter than the older variant and the most advanced in the Russian fleet. The Akula is capable of carrying torpedoes for attacking other submarines and surface vessels as well as missiles for striking targets.
Defense Department officials declined to speculate on which weapons might be aboard the two submarines.
While the submarines have not taken any provocative action beyond their presence outside territorial waters of the US, officials expressed wariness over the Kremlin’s motivation for ordering such an unusual mission.
“Any time the Russian navy does something so out of the ordinary it is cause for worry,” said a senior Defense Department official who has been monitoring reports on the submarines’ activities.
The official said the US Navy was able to track the submarines as they made their way through international waters off the US coastline. This can be done from aircrafts, ships, underwater sensors or other submarines.
“We’ve known where they were, and we’re not concerned about our ability to track the subs,” the official said. “We’re concerned just because they are there.”
Meanwhile, Russia yesterday brushed off US concerns, saying that any movements of its vessels were legal and in line with normal international practice.
“Activities of Russian submarines in the world’s oceans outside their own waters do not violate international maritime law and are within normal practice,” a military-diplomatic source told ITAR-TASS news agency.
“The Russian navy systematically pinpoints the location of NATO submarines, including US Navy submarines, in direct proximity to the territorial waters of the Russian Federation,” Interfax news agency quoted the source as saying.
“This however has never been a reason to make a lot of noise in the press,” the source said, adding: “Consequently, any hysteria in such a case is inappropriate.”
The reports neither confirmed nor denied that Russian submarines were patrolling near the US.
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