“It is the first time … in roughly a decade that we’ve seen this kind of behavior,” Defense Department Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
The New York Times reported that a pair of nuclear-powered submarines – an Akula-class attack boat and a newer Akula-II variant – had been patrolling off the eastern seaboard in recent days.
Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command said in a statement the submarines were being monitored during transit.
Morrell made it clear the Defense Department was not worried by the incident.
“While it is interesting and noteworthy that they are in this part of the world, it doesn’t pose any threat and it doesn’t cause any concern. So we watch it, we’re mindful of it, but it doesn’t necessitate anything more than that.”
Morrell said as long as the Russian vessels remained in international waters and behaved in a responsible way, they were free to do so.
“Have we had our submarines, our ships off the Russian coast from time to time? Sure. We operate in international waters freely, and they are entitled to do so as well.”
U.S. territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the shore.
Morrell noted President Obama’s desire to “re-set” relations with Moscow and his comments stressing that the days of Cold War rivalry were past. The U.S. military did not “automatically see threatening motives” in the Russian action, the spokesman added.
In Moscow, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed “high-ranking Russian Navy source” as disputing the notion that the presence of the subs so far from home was particularly unusual.
“Even during the fleet’s most difficult times in the mid-1990s, Russian submarines put to sea on active alert for patrols,” the official said. “This practice continues to this day.”
A former top Russian Navy officer told Interfax that the presence of submarines from both countries near each other’s waters was routine.
“U.S. submarines nearly enter our territorial waters near the Kola Peninsula [near Murmansk in Russia’s far north-west] when they receive such a task, and we always detect this,” said Admiral Igor Kasatonov, former first deputy commander of the Navy.
A senior military official told a news conference that the submarine patrol was “normal” part of training to improve crews’ skills.
“Two Russian Nuclear Submarines Make USA Shake With Fear,” ran the headline on Pravda.ru, a tabloid-style news Web site run by former employees of the newspaper that was the Communist Party mouthpiece during the Soviet era.
The Akula II class submarine, called Shchuka-B (Shchuka means Pike) by the Russians, is designed to deploy both torpedoes and nuclear-capable cruise missiles. Only three or four are believed to have been built.
After a period of decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s military has become active in recent years, a development driven by former president – now prime minister – Vladimir Putin in a bid to reassert Russia’s global influence amid tensions with the West over NATO expansion and missile defense.
In 2007, Putin announced the resumption of Cold War-style long-range flights of strategic bombers that had been halted in the early 1990s.
Last year, two Tupolev Tu-95 bombers buzzed the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Pacific Ocean on two occasions, and in September, two Tu-160s landed in Venezuela for military drills.
The Russian Navy has also begun extending its reach and late last year deployed warships to the Western Hemisphere for the first time since the Cold War ended. A taskforce led by a nuclear-powered missile cruiser visited Venezuela for joint exercises and one of the vessels traversed the Panama Canal.
Morrell acknowledged that the past year or two had seen “a greater projection of not just Russian naval power but air power … clearly there is an effort on their part to project force around the world, or at least to take excursions around the world.”
Tug visit link?
The New York Times report cited a U.S. official saying that one of the submarines was believed to have sailed south towards Cuba.
A little-noticed RIA Novosti report said a salvage tug from Russia’s Northern Fleet, the Altay, would visit Havana this week, in only the second visit by a Russian Navy ship since the end of the Cold War. (Last December’s mission to Venezuela included a Havana port call.)
The visit by the Altay, described by Russian weapons researchers as 4,000-ton, 300 foot long vessel with more than 70 crew, may be linked to the submarine journey –a precautionary measure in case problems arise.
Since the Russian Navy began extending its international presence further from home ports, salvage tugs have routinely accompanied its ships.
A task force sent to the coast of Somalia in late June for an anti-piracy mission included a tug, as did a destroyer-led Northern Fleet group which visited Syria last January.
The flotilla that sailed to Venezuela and Cuba late last year was also accompanied by a tug – and the State Department suggested derisively that its presence suggested there were concerns about ships breaking down: “It was very interesting that they found some ships that could actually make it that far down to Venezuela,” remarked spokesman Sean McCormack at the time.
The Russian Navy has struggled to jettison a reputation for badly-maintained, poorly-equipped ships.
Last November, a deadly accident occurred onboard an Akula II submarine undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan ahead of commissioning. Twenty people, sailors and civilian technicians, died after inhaling poisonous gas when the on-board fire suppression system of the Nerpa was activated. The vessel, which was built to be leased to the Indian Navy, sustained no structural damage, and began new trials late last month.
The Nerpa accident was the latest in a series that have dogged the Russian Navy over the past decade.
Nine crewmen perished when a decommissioned nuclear submarine sank in 2003 in the Barents Sea, and in 2006 two crew members aboard an attack submarine anchored in the same area died in a fire.
In the worst accident, an explosion sank the nuclear submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in 2000, with all 118 sailors lost. The Altay, the tug reportedly visiting Cuba this week, was involved in the operation to salvage the Kursk.