Russia’s controversial intelligence ship Yantar has been operating in the Caribbean, or mid-Atlantic, since October. She is suspected by Western navies of being involved in operations on undersea communications cables. Significantly, she appears to be avoiding broadcasting her position via AIS (Automated Identification System).
I suspect that going dark on AIS is a deliberate measure to frustrate efforts to analyse her mission. She has briefly used AIS while making port calls, where it would be expected by local authorities, for example while calling at Trinidad on November 8 and again on November 28. However in both cases she disappeared from AIS tracking sites almost as soon as she left port. Based on the exact locations where she disappeared, she likely turned it off. We can see this because other ships, which were much further away, were being picked up by the same AIS station. Another possibility is that her AIS transponder is operating with an unusually low power output. It amounts to the same thing. She also has a satellite AIS system, which we can be sure has been switched off.
Yantar has visited the region before. On a previous voyage in 2015 it was reported that she might be operating near internet cables near to the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. This turned out to be incorrect as detailed AIS timelines show exactly where she went on that voyage. Steffan Watkins, an open source intelligence analyst, pieced together her exact route and it did not go close to Guantanamo Bay. The current voyage is the first one where we do not have a detailed AIS log.
Yantar has been observed conducting search patterns in the vicinity of internet cables, and there is circumstantial evidence that she has been responsible for internet outages, for example off the Syrian coast in 2016.
The Caribbean has a large number of undersea internet cables including many which lead to and from the United States. A study by British think tank Policy Exchange described undersea internet cables as “Indispensable but insecure.” It noted that they are “jugulars of the world economy which are a singularly attractive target for our enemies.” The report mentions Yantar, saying that she carries two submersibles capable of “cutting cables or tapping them for information.”
A well as civilian Internet, cables of interest to the Russians could involve military communications. Historically the Caribbean was home to several U.S. Navy SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) arrays. These monitored Soviet warship and submarine movements using hydrophones placed at an optimum depth to listen to naval operations from extremely long ranges. As a result, Russian submarines became quieter to reduce their susceptibility to this. SOSUS itself has been replaced by more advanced systems, the location of which is conjecture.
Whether Yantar’s presence involves undersea cables, or some other target of interest to the Russians, it will be of particular interest to U.S. forces.