The submarine tragedy in the Barents Sea on July 1, 2019, was quite different from the Kursk catastrophe of August 2000. The explosion that destroyed the nuclear attack submarine Kursk nearly 20 years ago was the consequence of a decade of decay and degradation, and it shocked Russian society, which demanded answers from then newly elected President Vladimir Putin. He did not handle this difficult challenge particularly well, though he did insist on a full investigation, including lifting the wreck from the bottom of the sea. In contrast, last week, Putin quickly and confidently proclaimed the 14 perished sailors aboard the mini-submarine Losharik as heroes and asserted that no details of the accident onboard the super-secret vessel would be revealed (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 5). It proved impossible for the Kremlin to prevent information about the tragedy from circulating online, in social media. Nonetheless, the Russian public was generally ready to accept the official version of what happened: a heroic struggle during an emergency situation by a crew of professionals performing their high-risk duty (TV Rain, July 5). Voices condemning the militaristic policy that caused the disaster in the first place were relegated to the margins of public discourse (Moscow Echo, July 3).
Many issues pertaining to the fire onboard the Losharik, an AC-31 nuclear deep-dive vessel, remain unclear; though much more information than the authorities reluctantly provided has become available (Kommersant, July 4). It is impossible to guess what mission justified the presence of so many high-ranking officers (seven of the casualties were confirmed as first rank captains) aboard the rather small submarine operating in the shallow fjords not far from the Russian naval base in Severomorsk, Murmansk Oblast (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 4). Contrary to the official claims, the Losharik was probably still attached to the converted Delta IV–class nuclear submarine Podmoskovie (BS-64), which performed an emergency surfacing, inadvertently frightening a group of fishermen (SeverPost.ru, July 3). The only plausible explanation for why the mini-submarine’s highly-trained sailors were unable to use their personal oxygen masks is that the alleged fire in the electric batteries section was in fact an explosion, which incapacitated most or all of the crew of 25 (RBC, July 4). The most guarded secret is the possible connection between the accident and tests of one of Putin’s pet projects—the nuclear-propelled underwater “drone” Poseidon and its carrier-submarine Belgorod (converted Oscar-class), which was launched last April (Svobodnaya Pressa, July 3).
The technical failure in the relatively new submarine (the design and construction on the AC-31 was started in the late 1980s, but it was launched only in 2003) testifies to the scale of problems with logistics and maintenance in the Northern Fleet, which has been affected by funding cuts while simultaneously having to respond to demands from the political leadership to keep many aging ships operational. The sinking of a huge floating dock last October disrupted plans for repairs of many combat ships, including Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov (see EDM, November 1, 2018). Nevertheless, the navy command prefers to report perfect readiness for the annual parade, scheduled for July 28 (RIA Novosti, June 27). The Northern Fleet also has to show presence during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) naval exercise Dynamic Mongoose in the Norwegian Sea (Moscow Times, July 1). Furthermore, it has to supply many new Russian bases along the Northern Sea Route, which is perceived as a crucially important strategic waterway (Izvestia, June 28; see EDM, June 26). Some ships from the Northern Fleet’s shrinking combat order, like for instance the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, are dispatched for protracted individual patrols as far away as the Indian Ocean (Severpost.ru, July 5). The top brass has claimed there is a permanent escalation of military tensions in the Arctic theater, and now they struggle with demonstrating Russia’s capacity to respond to these allegedly growing threats (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 1).
Tensions in the Arctic may be largely hypothetical, but in the Black Sea theater they are real and dangerous. The Ukrainian sailors captured in the Russian attack on three “hostile” ships near the Kerch Strait last November are still sitting in a Moscow jail despite international protests (RIA Novosti, July 3). The Black Sea Fleet actively interferes with the ongoing NATO Sea Breeze 2019 naval exercises with the Ukrainian Navy (Gazeta.ru, July 1). Close intercepts by Russian fighters of United States Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft is nothing out of the ordinary in these contested waters and airspace (RBC, July 5). But aggravating the risks of such actions is the sustained heavy overstretch of the Black Sea Fleet caused by the need to support the deadlocked Russian military intervention in Syria.
The long-expected offensive on the rebel-held Idlib province remains on hold, but Russian bombers keep striking random targets there each day, no matter the civilian casualties (Novaya Gazeta, July 2). Turkey remains resolutely against the operation in Idlib and even demands Russia stop provocations by Bashar al-Assad’s forces (RIA Novosti, July 4). Putin tries to accommodate Turkey’s erratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and to placate him with promises to deliver the S-400 surface-to-air missiles already this week (Kommersant, July 6). He also promises to Israel that the plan to upgrade the Syrian air-defense system has been quietly shelved (Svobodnaya Pressa, July 3). Russian “advisors” are not taking control, and one of the missiles fired by Syrians last week in response to an Israeli airstrike landed as far away as Cyprus (Newsru.com, July 1).
These intrigues give Putin confidence to argue that the liberal world order is outdated and irrelevant (Moscow Echo, July 3). However, there is a direct connection between his urge to challenge liberal institutions by applying military force as an instrument of policy and the tragedy in the Barents Sea (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 4). His pose and escapades can only be convincing if supported by strong domestic performance. Thus, the impression, if not the measure, of power behind the assertive policy must appear to grow. In fact, Russia is sinking into a quagmire of stagnation and corruption, and Putin’s guardians engage in fierce squabbles for profitable assets.
The Russian Armed Forces are expected to deliver demonstrations of superior capabilities of every component of modern military might, despite the cuts in funding. Supplies and repairs are reduced first, and the technologically most complex systems, like nuclear submarines, are the most vulnerable to this inferior maintenance. Secrecy helps cover up the rust and rot, but it guarantees inattention to inconvenient lessons—and further entries in the list of tragedies in the unforgiving sea.
Russia Upgrades GLONASS Satellite Navigation System as Concerns Rise About Its Use in ‘Spoofing’ Incidents
John C. K. Daly
Russia launched a GLONASS-M 758 navigation satellite into orbit on May 27. The satellite became fully operational a month later, on June 22, replacing GLONASS-M 723, “which had exceeded its expected service life by some 50 percent” (Glonass-iac.ru, June 22). With the launch of GLONASS-M 758, Russia now has 27 of these satellites in orbit, of which 24 are operational. (Glonass-iac.ru, June 22). Increasingly, however, the Russian system is raising concerns that Moscow may be using it offensively—to send out purposefully inaccurate data (see below).
Global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) are essentially coordinated networks of atomic clocks in low-earth orbit that are capable of both triangulating precise terrestrial locations as well as coordinating precise timings. They are now widely used around the world for civilian purposes ranging from tracking maritime shipping to providing positioning, navigational, and timing (PNT) data.
>From its inception (the first Russian global positioning satellite became operational on January 30, 2010), Russia’s GLONASS GNSS was designed to be competitive with the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS), which consists of 24 government-owned satellites. Beyond the US GPS, GLONASS now shares near-earth orbits with China’s BeiDou, the European Union’s Galileo, Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) and Navigation Indian Constellation (NavIC), and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS).
The brief August 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict emphasized the Russian military’s need to upgrade and improve Russia’s indigenous GLONASS GNSS, some elements of which dated back to the Soviet era. Not surprisingly, the US military has closely followed the development and deployment of GLONASS from its inception, seeing it as a “dual-use” technology capable of serving both civilian and military purposes, with the Defense Intelligence Agency noting, “Russia views its Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) as supporting its economic development and national security interests” (Defense.gov, February 11).
While GNSSs provide precise data, a rising military concern is that that same system can be used to deliberately send inaccurate information, a practice known as “spoofing.” On March 26, the Washington, DC–based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) released a study examining possible Russian GNSS tampering. Utilizing data gathered by University of Texas equipment aboard the International Space Station, the C4ADS study analyzed more than 9,800 suspected instances since 2016 where fraudulent GNSS signals were apparently broadcast in the Russian Federation, along with similar incidents in Russian conflict zones, including Crimea, Syria and Ukraine. While C4ADS did not formally accuse the Russian government of being behind the “spoofed” signals, it nevertheless concluded, “GNSS attacks are emerging as a viable, disruptive strategic threat” (C4ads.org, March 26).
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) suspects that the Russian military has already practiced interfering with NATO satellite signal communications during its exercises. On October 25, 2018, the Alliance began a two-week exercise, Operation Trident Juncture, its largest military maneuvers since the Cold War, involving 50,000 troops, 65 warships and 250 aircraft from 31 member states and partner countries, deployed from the Baltic to Iceland. On November 11, Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, during his weekly interview with YLE Radio Suomi, commented on the fact that five days earlier Air Navigation Services Finland (ANS Finland) had issued a “notice to airmen” (NOTAM) due to widespread disturbances in GPS signals in Finnish Lapland. These aberrations were suspected to be caused by Russian interference with the NATO exercise. Sipilä noted, “We are not talking about a small issue, because it has endangered civil aviation safety” (The Helsinki Times, November 12, 2018).
The day after the Finnish prime minister gave his interview, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, choosing his words carefully, told journalists, “We have seen there have been similar reports [of GPS spoofing] from Norway, and I cannot share more precise information with you, but what I can say is that we see that cyber, electronic warfare, [and] electronic means are used more and more frequently in different operations, and therefore we take all these issues very seriously, partly to be able to deal with electronic warfare and to develop our capabilities to handle that, but also of course cyber. I will not pinpoint any specific nation now, but I will just say that we have increased our abilities to deal with these kind of challenges and threats, including during military operations” (Nato.int, November 12, 2018).
After the Norwegian Ministry of Defense appealed for clarification on the issue to the Russian authorities, Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated, “The Kremlin does not know anything about Russia’s connection to the malfunctioning of the GPS system during NATO exercises. Russia is often unjustifiably accused of ‘every deadly sin’ ” (RIA Novosti, November 14, 2018).
Kremlin protestations aside, the recorded incidents of GPS spoofing, allegedly by Russia, highlight how global navigation satellite systems will likely be increasingly incorporated into many countries’ military electronic warfare capabilities. And evolving technological advances will cause the tools and methodologies for conducting such disruptions to quickly proliferate. Beyond state actors, the increasingly low cost, commercial availability and ease of deploying spoofing technology will empower not only national militaries but insurgents, terrorists and criminals in a broad range of destabilizing cyberattacks, with increasingly ominous potential worldwide effects. All this is despite governmental efforts to secure their own GNSSs while probing others.