Russian Sub Patrols Reminiscent Of Cold War

Two Russian submarines have been operating in the waters off the U.S. coast. The maneuvers, though commonplace during the Cold War, are unusual today. Although the Pentagon does not see the subs as a security threat, the development does raise questions about whether Russia is trying to reassert itself militarily.

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Now to a story that sounds as if it were ripped from the pages of a Cold War spy novel. Russian attack submarines are circling off the East Coast of the United States. Defense officials say the subs are in international waters and pose no security threat, but they do seem calculated to reassert Russian military might, as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: It's been at least a decade since Russia last sent nuclear-powered submarines to patrol the U.S. coastline. Now, U.S. intelligence is tracking two such subs, but they remain several hundred miles off the coast. And at the Pentagon today, spokesman Jeff Morrell said there's no reason to regard them as a threat.

Mr. JEFF MORRELL (Spokesman, Pentagon): So long as they are operating in international waters, as frankly we do around the world, and are behaving in a responsible way, they are certainly free to do so and it doesn't cause any alarm within this building.

KELLY: Still, Morrell did acknowledge that in just the last year or two, Russia has stepped up efforts to project military clout.

Mr. MORRELL: We've seen long-range Russian bombers fly to South America. We've seen the Russian naval forces make their way down to South America as well. So clearly, there is an effort on their part to project force around the world, or at least to take excursions around the world. And we note it, and we're mindful of it but again, no one here is overly concerned by it.

KELLY: Besides force projection, another motive for the sub patrols, which were first reported by the New York Times, may be spying. Tom Graham served as the National Security Council's senior director for Russia during the Bush administration.

Mr. TOM GRAHAM (Former Senior Director for Russia, National Security Council): Certainly, part of this effort would be to pick up intelligence.

KELLY: And not only are the Russians trying to spy on the U.S., Graham says they're trying to learn how much U.S. intelligence knows about what they're up to. The very fact that the U.S. can track these subs may be valuable information to Russia.

Mr. GRAHAM: This was done repeatedly throughout the Cold War. We wanted to test the other side's ability to react to something - how quickly the radars go up, for example, how quickly they're able to intercept, and so forth. So, any effort like this, it would be surprising if the Russians weren't also gathering intelligence on U.S. capabilities.

KELLY: Those capabilities include underwater sensors, U.S. Navy submarines, planes flying patrols off aircraft carriers - all designed to track enemy movements underwater, all capabilities finely honed during the Cold War. But there are some key differences this time from the way things were done back then, says Eric Wertheim. Wertheim wrote the U.S. Naval Institute's guide "Combat Fleets of the World." He says it's important to note the type of submarines Russia sent.

Mr. ERIC WERTHEIM (Author, "Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets Of the World): These submarines are not ballistic missile submarines. They're not the kind of submarines that launch nuclear attacks on cities. These are the kind of submarines that are designed to hunt other submarines, to attack ships and to collect intelligence. That's a very big difference from the kind that we were used to thinking about in terms of nuclear war and things like that.

KELLY: Wertheim also notes that Russia may be playing to more than one audience here. Russia's defense industry, he says, is keen to market its wares to countries building up their own military capabilities - India, for example. And he notes the submarines currently patrolling off the U.S. coastline are the same type that Russia has been trying to sell. Not exactly a hunt for Red October, but certainly a 21st century plot line.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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