Sergey Andreev & Evgeny Zhukov
On paper, it’s all about saving animals: The Norwegian underwater sensor network Love Ocean (LOVE – Lofoten-Vesterolen observatory) is 66 kilometers of cable laid in the confluence of the North and Norwegian Seas with the Atlantic Ocean at a depth of up to two and a half kilometers. The entire system is equipped with a network of sensors, sonars, high-precision microphones and surveillance cameras.
A decent part of this system – 10 tons of secret “reconnaissance cable” – Norwegian anti-submarine warfare specialists lost in the spring. But this event was recently made public, not only making it the property of the world community, but also suspecting Rus-sian submarines of damage and loss of the cable.
Love Ocean consists of five cable and two self-contained nodes. It is a multipurpose super-project funded by the government, en-ergy multinational Equinor, which has donated NOK 150 million, and other private investors, including some contracting companies for NATO. Nexans and Siemens Subsea are suppliers of fiber optic cables, Metas is a manufacturer of underwater monitoring systems – a scientific node with sensors.
“Ocean of Love” allows you to observe the life and migration of fish, narwhals, lobsters in real time, track changes in current and the level of methane emissions, and with the help of special programs, Norwegians can see, for example, how the waters of the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean mix. Also, the sensor network records information about all trawlers and submarines passing by.
The information rece-ived first passes through the filter of the FFI Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, which collects confidential military information, and only then falls into the hands of scientists at the country’s Institute of Marine Research. Norwegian military bases are located not far from where the cable is located, in Andey and Evenes. For many years, the Norwegian military hid the fact that surveillance of submarines, including the Russians, was a priority of the project, and always attributed the emergence of the tracking system to purely environmental goals.
The cable theft story began with a delay in the transmission of information to the control room of the data center in the hamlet of Hovden. Geir Pedersen, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Marine Research, and Love Ocean’s direct curator, initially thought it was a temporary disruption caused by weather or power outages. But already on April 3, all the screens displaying the observation data of the sensor network went out, and all the echo sounders of the system were also silent. Then the Norwegian specialists began to sin on coastal switches connecting ground computers with a cable. They had been asked to change them for a long time, but the government could not find money for this.
When it became clear that the problem might be in the cable itself, the research vessel Havila Subsea joined the solution. In the midst of the troubleshooting operation, the engineers received help from Equinor, which has a direct stake in the safety of the project. They tried to find the damage all summer, but in the fall they had to send a deep-sea drone to the place where the cable was located, and on Septe-mber 10 it finally became clear that the platform shift and the cable break with the second data transmission node were to blame.
There was hope that the cable came off only in one place, but it turned out that it was torn off, or, to be more precise, cut off from the third node. During the assessment of the damage, the first figures became clear – the specialists of the center for deep-sea research in the form of NATO who arrived at the scene found that 4.3 kilometers of cable were missing. A piece weighing 10 tons could not be found in the corridor 100 meters wide, to which it could have been carried. According to Equinor, not only the cable itself is missing in both breaks, but also the cable attachment – special masts, which can only be torn off from their place in the presence of heavy equipment.
Who could rip and steal?
The Norwegian specialists faced several problems. First, it was always believed that it was impossible to steal a surveillance system cable without catching the eye of military patrols and civilian operators. The first of the versions under consideration is an accidental break in the course of oil exploration work. On this, in particular, insisted on the project security manager Oystein Brun.
But after NATO intelligence got involved, it became clear that the problem, literally and figuratively, is deeper than it seems at first glance. Suddenly it turned out that the data collected by the system is not being transferred anywhere, but to the Joint Defense and Security Service of Norway. A structure that in its essence re-sembles the Russian Gene-ral Staff. The Norwegian military refused to disclose the nature of some of the data, and a week after an active investigation, Amer-ican specialists arrived at the scene, whom no one had ever seen before.
After their arrival, someone from the military let out to reporters that due to a broken cable, a huge array of data disappeared, which was regularly sent to FFI – the Norwegian Institute for Defense Research. Then it became known that it was impossible to simply wind the cable around the anchor or screws – if some passing ship accidentally touched it, a border guard ship immediately arrived at the place. According to the director of technical infrastructure, Oystein Brun, such incidents are always reported to the authorities, in which case everyone – from the military to civilians – remains silent.
Norwegian journalists suggested that since the Americans arrived on the scene, it means that the local tracking system may be part of the American SOSUS system (SOund SUrveillance System, sound surveillance system). Representatives of the United States and NATO immediately began to blame the Russian submarines that periodically cruise nearby. Among them – BS-64 “Podmoskovye” and special purpose nuclear submarine “Belgorod” – the latter in the summer of 2021 entered the factory sea trials. Washington is haunted by the Yantar reconnaissance ship, equipped with a sonar system and deep-sea vehicles, which sailed there in August. However, Norwegian specialists cannot explain how this vessel could have gone unnoticed to the shores of Norway and send an underwater vehicle to steal the cable.
But the theft version looks very strange. If the break occurred in April, then why did the Russians, who “cut the cable”, realize only in August that they could take it for themselves? However, it is not worth rejecting the version of “withdrawing the infrastructure of interest for the purpose of studying”. Back in 2017, US Rear Admiral Andrew Lennon stated that the Russian GUGI (General Directorate of Deep Sea R-esearch) of the Russian N-avy was breathing unevenly towards NATO’s underwater infrastructure.
The resource Milita-ry.com added fuel to the fire, and earlier suspected Yantar of deploying secret deep-sea buoys and spying on NATO submarines. In fact, the Love Ocean incident was set on the ground. American military expert Thomas Newdick noted that, most likely, the cable was cut with the help of the AS-12 deep-sea submarine, or Losharik.
“Losharik” did someth-ing similar in 2012. The un-ique submarine sank to a d-epth of two kilometers in t-he North Pole region from the BS-136 “Orenburg” car-rier submarine. The rock m-aterials extracted from the bottom proved that the L-omonosov and Mendeleev ridges belonged to the Rus-sian part of the continental shelf, which gave the right to develop oil and gas fields. The capabilities of “Losharik” make it possible to cut a cable of almost any thickness at the bottom of the sea: in addition to manipulators, the submarine has special hydraulic shears, similar to those used by rescuers to cut the body of a car in an accident. The ship’s crew consists entirely of officers of the highest category – they are specialists with unique experience who can perform any task. But there is one inconsistency. As early as July 1, 2019, a fire broke out at the AS-31 Losharik nuclear deep-water station located at the Northern Fleet’s combat training ground in the Kola Bay area. The incident was not without casualties, and the boat itself got it – the ship urgently got up for repairs.
The Russian Navy and the GUGI have not yet commented on the incident with the cable off the coast of Norway, but if many years later it becomes known that Russian ships were able to steal part of the secret tracking system for submarines, then this will mean at least two things. Firstly, if the previously injured Losharik was involved in the case, it means that the ship’s combat readiness was restored in record time. Secondly, three submarines can be carriers of Loshariks at once: BS-64 “Podmoskov-ye”, K-329 “Belgorod” and BS-136 “Orenburg”. This means that the GUGI and the Russian Navy can have at least three deep-sea submarines, which, if necessary, can cut off the entire naval component of NATO forces in northern latitudes from observation.