Reports from the Russian Defence Ministry yesterday revealed a strange incident involving Russia’s fleet deployment to the eastern Mediterranean, which includes the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and the nuclear powered missile battlecruiser Pyotr Veliky.
The Russians say that a Dutch Walrus class submarine tried to approach the fleet, engaging in dangerous manoeuvres, and was chased away. The Russians say the submarine got within 20 km of the Admiral Kuznetsov but was observed and tracked by the fleet’s anti submarine helicopters after being spotted by two of the fleet’s anti submarine destroyers.
The destroyers in question were presumably the two Udaloy class destroyers that have been reported as forming a part of the fleet deployment.
This incident is more interesting and stranger than the media is reporting.
First of all, there is no doubt this incident actually took place. NATO and the Dutch navy are not denying the Russian reports, which is a sure sign they are true.
Secondly, it is interesting that the Russians are making such a huge fuss about it. It is standard practice for the Russian and NATO navies to keep watch on each other and on the face of it there is nothing to suggest that this was anything other than what the Dutch submarine was doing.
However certain Russian officials are talking about the incident as if something more was involved. By way of example, TASS reports Mikhail Nenashev, Chairman of the All-Russian Movement for Supporting the Fleet, making these highly interesting comments:
“The Dutch sailors were creating a dangerous navigation situation, hindering our ships from performing their tasks to fight against terrorists. Following their command’s order, they might have been looking for a pretext so that they would have said afterwards that the Russians’ manoeuvres were dangerous.”
(bold italics added)
What the Russian reports do show is that Russian naval sonars are sophisticated and sensitive enough to monitor and track the Dutch navy’s Walrus class submarines.
This is important because the Dutch navy’s Walrus class submarines are amongst the few ocean going diesel electric submarines that are left with NATO navies. Diesel electric submarines are inherently quieter than nuclear submarines, and are regularly used by the Great Powers for spying purposes. Walrus class submarines are said to be especially quiet and this combined with the fact that they are amongst the few ocean going diesel electric submarines NATO still has means that they are regularly used by NATO for spying missions.
Consider for example these comments on the Wikipedia page discussing Walrus class submarines
“The submarines were in high demand by NATO during the Cold War since they combined a highly skilled crew with a very silent boat. At that time the majority of NATO submarines were either nuclear or brown water subs, with the Walrus class being among the rare blue water diesel electric submarines in service. After the Cold War, the subs have been tasked for many highly confidential intelligence gathering operations (still classified) in the Yugoslavian region, Iran, Iraq and the Caribbean often on request of Allies, including the United States.”
(bold italics added)
Unless the position of the Walrus class submarine spying on the Russian fleet was given away by a mistake on the part of its crew – which is possible – then the incident in the Mediterranean shows that Russian sonar can detect and track these submarines, in which case their security has been compromised.
Contrast this with stories which circulated back in 2007 of how a Chinese Song class diesel electric submarine successfully penetrated an anti submarine screen around a US navy carrier before intentionally giving itself away; or the frequently expressed concerns in the Western military media about the legendary quietness of Russia’s Kilo class submarines, dubbed by NATO navies “the black hole”.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that the reason the Russians have publicised the incident is because at a time of heightened international tension they want to let the world – and not just NATO – know that they are able to detect and track NATO’s diesel electric submarines coming close to their fleet at a time when NATO navies are struggling to do the same to Russian and Chinese submarines.
Wild talk in some of the more extreme fringes of the Western alternative military media of NATO deliberately engaging in underwater sabotage of the Admiral Kuznetsov in order to prevent it completing its mission – using as cover Kuznetsov’s inordinately over-publicised engine problems – may also be what provoked the Russian action, and may be the reason they are giving it so much publicity.
Regardless of the Russians’ motives and the full truth about this strange incident, the fact the Russians seem able to detect and track NATO’s diesel electric spy submarines will be causing concern in NATO.