Torpedo Run

Senate Armed Services Committee member demands answer from Navy chief on Russian sub in Gulf of Mexico

Akula / AP
August 21, 2012

A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee has asked the Navy’s top admiral to explain reports that a Russian submarine operated undetected in the Gulf of Mexico recently.

"The submarine patrol, taken together with the air incursions, seems to represent a more aggressive and destabilizing Russian military stance that could pose risks to our national security," Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) stated in an Aug. 17 letter to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert.

"This is especially troubling given the drastic defense cuts sought by President Obama, which include reductions in funding for antisubmarine defense systems."

Cornyn wrote Greenert in response to a report in the Free Beacon Aug. 14 that a Russian nuclear-power attack submarine sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and stayed several weeks without being detected by Navy anti-submarine warfare hunters.

In Moscow, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry declined to comment, according to state-run newspaper, RIA Novosti. The spokesman was quoted as saying all movements of Russian submarines around the world are classified.

Cornyn, in his letter to Greenert, said the Russian submarine incursion reportedly took place in June and July and coincided with "incursions by Russian strategic bombers into restricted U.S. airspace."

"If these reports are accurate, the repercussions are serious," Cornyn stated. "It is my understanding that an Akula-class submarine can be armed with an array of weapons, including torpedoes and long-range cruise missiles, capable of destroying both U.S. nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers."

Cornyn asked Greenert to provide a detailed explanation of the facts surrounding the reports.

A spokesman for Greenert did not respond to emails regarding the Cornyn letter.

Pentagon and military spokesmen gave conflicting responses to the Free Beacon report.

Initially, a Navy spokeswoman declined to comment when asked about the submarine activity in the Gulf.

After the story was published, Cmdr. Wendy Snyder, U.S. Defense press officer, told the Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper Global Times that the report was inaccurate.

Asked by the Free Beacon to specify the inaccuracies, Snyder stated in an email: "I don't have anything else for you. Your article is false."

Pressed for an explanation, Snyder refused to say on the record whether a Russian submarine had operated in the Gulf of Mexico recently.

Earlier, a senior official within the Office of the Secretary of Defense public affairs declined to provide details of the incident. The official said: "I cannot discuss intelligence matters."

U.S. submarine operations and efforts to identify and track Russian and other foreign submarines are tightly guarded secrets.

The senior official initially was asked if the submarine had been detected during its lengthy underwater incursion in the strategic waters of the Gulf, and said the information was "wrong."

It was later learned that the submarine patrol by the Russian Akula-class attack submarine was not detected by the U.S. Navy, which is in charge of anti-submarine warfare efforts, until after the submarine left the Gulf and sailed to the Caribbean and Atlantic.

It was the first time an Akula had sailed close to U.S. shores since 2009, when two Akulas were detected near the U.S. East Coast.

The submarine incursion followed two Russian strategic bomber incursions into restricted U.S. air space in June and July.

In June, as part of a major strategic bomber exercise in the arctic, a Russian Bear H bomber flew into the air defense identification zone near Alaska, prompting U.S. and Canadian interceptors jet to meet the bombers.

That bomber incursion occurred around the time President Obama met Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Mexico and was viewed by analysts as indirect saber rattling by the Russian leader.

The Russian bomber exercises in the arctic also violated provisions of the 2010 New START strategic arms treaty that requires both Russia and the United States to notify each other of strategic bomber exercises. Russia failed to provide advance notification, U.S. officials said.

Then, on July 4, another Bear H bomber made what U.S. officials said was an air incursion close to the California coast that has not been seen since before the Soviet Union collapsed. The timing of that bomber incursion was viewed by analysts as another example of growing military assertiveness by Moscow.

U.S. officials said the Russian submarine activity highlights weaknesses in U.S. anti-submarine warfare efforts, which are facing cuts under the Obama administration’s plan to cut $487 billion from defense over 10 years, and an additional $600 billion that could hit next year as a result of the 2011 congressional budget agreement.

One U.S. official said the Akula submarine, which is armed with long-range cruise missiles and advanced torpedoes, was designed specifically to kill U.S. ballistic missile submarines.

The Navy operates a major missile submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia.

The new military assertiveness by Russia is believed by U.S. officials to be based on Moscow’s opposition to deploying missile defenses in Europe. The Russians believe the missile defenses are a threat to Russian long-range missiles. The Pentagon has said the missile defenses are not designed to counter Russian forces but will be targeted on Iran’s missiles.

The Obama administration has sought closer ties to Moscow through conciliatory policies dubbed a "reset" in relations.

Instead, Russia’s government has adopted increasingly tougher and more anti-U.S. policies under President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB intelligence officer who has said he hopes to restore some elements of the communist Soviet Union to Russia.

Analysts do not know why the submarine was in the Gulf of Mexico. Theories range from strategic messaging as a signal of opposition to European missile defenses, to plans by Russia to sell the Akula to the leftist government in Venezuela. A Brazilian newspaper reported Aug. 2 that Russia plans to sell an Akula to Venezuela as part of a deal for 11 new submarines.

Recent reports from Russia have also said that Moscow is seeking to re-establish naval facilities in Cuba and Vietnam.