The rumors are that the Navy’s newest nuclear sub, the USS Jimmy Carter, has been designed for spywork, with a “special capability… to tap undersea cables and eavesdrop on the communications passing through them,” according to the AP.
The rumors are right, Military.com’s undersea warfare experts believe. Here’s what retired Rear Admiral Hank McKinney, the former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s submarine force, had to say:
The Navy has for years carried out special surviellance missions with nuclear submarines. Most of these missions utlilized attack submarines that were not extensively modified. Specialized communications intercept equipments were installed in existing spaces on board these submarines. A few have been modified for special oceanographic missions and capabilities. In the past, these included USS HALIBUT, USS SEAWOLF, USS RICHARD B. RUSSELL, and USS PARCHE. Each of these submarines was modified to accomodate these new missions. In the case of USS JIMMY CARTER, all of the modifications were made before the submarine was delivered to the Navy. This submarine will be utilized to conduct many specialized missions, some of which will be routine unclassified oceanographic research operations which will advance our knowledge of the ocean. Some of the missions will be highly classified missions which I am unable to comment on. (emphasis mine)
Undersea thriller author, submarine authority, and Military.com columnist Joe Buff notes that a 2001 Wall Street Journal article unveiled the NSA’s desire to tap undersea cables. “It is reasonable to presume that [the ability] to do this underwater, by properly trained Navy divers, is now achievable,” Buff writes.
Ironically, an earlier nuclear sub named USS Seawolf, commissioned in the 1950s, was secretly modified with a hull section that allowed saturation divers to work on the seafloor at considerable depths. (Saturation divers spend a long period living and resting in a shirtsleeves environment with a mixed-gas atmosphere pressurized to equal the depth of their job site. After days or even weeks of daily work shifts, they then undergo a long period of hyperbaric decompression to be able to return to sea-level air. France claimed several years ago to have had men in “soft” scuba outfits — not hard exoskeleton suits — perform useful manual tasks on the bottom at 3,000 feet.)
In my opinion USS Jimmy Carter is highly likely to include such facilities, essentially a modern-era Sea Lab built into the submarine itself.
Click here for more, as Buff goes deep into mechanics of listening in on undersea chatter.
The issue of how to collect the tapped communications in real-time also isn’t new. In addition to the undersea tap referenced in the [Journal] article, which by the way affected the Soviet Navy’s Pacific Fleet headquarters and waters in the Sea of Okhotsk off the western Pacific, another tap was emplaced to listen in on Northern Fleet communications near Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea off of the North Atlantic — this tap was not betrayed by the spy mentioned in the article, because he did not know about it. The idea was seriously discussed in the American intelligence and submarine community of laying an undersea cable from that tap to Iceland, using submarines and divers, so that a listening station could monitor the cable’s message traffic continuously. Open sources state that this cable wasn’t built, partly because the Cold War ended and the cost didn’t seemed justified.
However, with technology at least fifteen years more advanced now, it is quite possible that Carter can carry within her 100-foot long, 42-foot diameter special “wasp waist” hull section’s “garage space” a considerable length of fiber optic cable. (Wasp waist refers to the narrow inner pressure hull, which allows for the ocean-interface garage space volume between the pressure hull and the outer hull that conforms to the overall streamlined teardrop shape of the vessel.)
This hypothetical cable need not be led up onto land in friendly turf for it to be useful. It need only establish enough “stand-off distance” from the tap, out into neutral or international waters, where various means of transmission of intercepts are more feasible without enemy detection or interference. These include a hard-wired or acoustic-link modem station that is monitored by submarines that deploy there in rotation for Indications and Warning missions. Or, as the article says, various radio buoy transmitters and other means could be used to continually relay intercepts on to the NSA for detailed analysis. Spread-spectrum or frequency agile, super high frequency (SHF) or extremely high frequency (EHF) transmitters, with very low probability of interception, mounted on low-observable buoys, constantly “talking” to U.S. spy satellites, are surely within current technical means if budgeting were available.
These transmitters could be powered for lengthy periods using the latest generation of fuel cell or semi fuel cell technology, some types of which are open to the sea and in fact use naturally circulating seawater as their electrolyte. Such radio buoy bandwidth would be adequate to convey information from a fiber optic cable, especially given mathematical data-compression techniques and artificial intelligence routines in an attached computer that could quickly “learn” which cable lines and which message traffic were truly of strategic interest to the United States. (A communications laser might be used instead of a radio, just as some submarine/satellite comms links now use laser beams.)
It is also worth noting that the garage space and “people tank” facilities within Carter’s added hull section are almost certainly mission reconfigurable, that is, easily altered to serve different mission profiles. This is the case with the USS Virginia design, and it appears likely that the same new, hyper-flexible approach to submarine architecture was applied to Carter’s special modifications; the design and construction work of the two overlapped, witness both ships being commissioned into the Navy in 2004/2005. Thus Carter is able to do many different and exciting things with her 50 commandoes, her garage space, and her ocean interface for deploying and retrieving unmanned (and autonomous?) undersea vehicles and perhaps also aerial vehicles.
THERE’S MORE: Two years before the Journal’s story broke, Inside Defense told the world about the secret modifications being made to U.S. subs.