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The Hunt For Russia's Mystery Submarine Continues

Whether or not Sweden finds a Russian sub allegedly spotted just off its coast, the incident could have military and defense repercussions in the region.
October 21, 2014, 9:50pm
Photo via Wikimedia

Last Thursday, a Swedish newspaper reported that the Swedish military had intercepted Russian-language radio traffic on a Russian emergency channel, and that the communications were between Russia's European enclave at Kaliningrad and a source somewhere in the Stockholm Archipelago. What followed were a slew of news and allegations — including alleged photos of a Russian submarine just off the Swedish coast not far from Stockholm, and reports about a mysterious man swimming ashore.

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This is the first time the Baltic Sea has seen this kind of old-school, Cold War, James Bond stuff in ages, so it's understandable that it's generating lots of excitement.

Given the intriguing situation and the slow trickle of new developments, the internet has been speculating the hell out of things. To start, the Russian-owned tanker NS Concord has been piddling about in the middle of the Baltic while all this has been going on, making people wonder if it's a floating base of operations for some sort of chicanery.

En bild säger mer än.. — DefenceChemist (@defencechemist)October 18, 2014

The Russian owners of the vessel have said that while they're flattered by all the attention — after all, how many Baltic Sea oil tankers have their own Wikipedia pages? — the NS Concord really is just a tanker, and it's been milling around as ships sometimes tend to do because it's been awaiting loading instructions.

There's also a Russian research vessel named the Professor Logachev zipping through the Baltic. Some folks claim it's involved in all this drama, but as Dutch warships are apparently tailing it, the vessel is unlikely to have had the chance to do anything clandestine.

For their part, the Russians are claiming that the mystery vessel is a Dutch submarine that was near Sweden for some training exercises earlier last week. The Dutch, however, say that whatever is causing all this consternation isn't theirs, because their sub was docked in Estonia on its way back home to the Netherlands.

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Sweden hunting for suspected Russian submarine near Stockholm. Read more here.

There's also some suggestions that this is a secret, high-tech Russian ship that travels on the surface like a speedboat and then submerges for a sneaky final approach called the Triton NN (scroll to bottom). It's unclear why anyone would actually suggest that this is the vessel in question, but maybe the lack of information makes people grab any old grainy photo and go nuts.

All in all, the Swedes' search now involves some 200 troops combing the shore along with helicopters and other vessels. The military is reportedly extending the search farther and farther south, clearing some areas of civilian vessels entirely. According to onboard position monitoring, it appears that the Swedish Navy has pressed at least four of its five training vessels (the HMS Altair, Arcturus, Argo, Astrea, and Antares; the Altair and Argo are pictured in the photo at the top of this story) into the search. The vessels have been working south from Stockholm very close to the coast, although some now appear to be heading back to the main Swedish naval base at Karlskrona. It's unclear if they will resume the search.

If Russian leaders wanted to send a message, they could just fly more planes into Swedish airspace and stage some more big military exercises next door.

The rugged Swedish coast and 30,000-plus islands of the Stockholm Archipelago provide lots of opportunities for submarines to hide, so it's reasonable that it would take the government time to find the mysterious interloper. Nonetheless, tension is mounting and there is increasing pressure on the Swedish government to do so.

Although this was first characterized as an "intelligence operation" intended to gather information about the "foreign undersea activity" occurring in Sweden's territorial waters, the tone is now shifting. A report from earlier today quotes a naval commander as saying Sweden intends to make the vessel surface "with weapons if need be."

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During the Cold War, Sweden (which remained neutral along with Finland) was subject to regular incursions by Soviet submarines — a 1990 RAND Corporation report cites Swedes who said they'd detected between 17 and 36 Soviet submarine incursions into territorial waters per year over the previous decade.

The most famous of these was the 1981 grounding of the U137, a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine subsequently dubbed "Whiskey on the Rocks." The submarine, which was carrying nuclear weapons, ran aground just 6 miles from the Karlskrona naval base. It was eventually returned to the Soviets following a major diplomatic row.

Given the history of incursions by foreign submarines for espionage and intelligence gathering, along with the inherent oceanographic difficulties presented by the Swedish coastline and archipelago, it is perhaps a bit surprising that one of the major consequences of this whole drama is that it's highlighted exactly how far Sweden's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities have fallen.

Sweden retired its ASW helicopter fleet in 2008, with no replacement expected until 2018. This has been of a part with steady defense budget cuts in Sweden over the last decade. However, these cuts are enduring increased scrutiny.

Why is Russia simulating nuclear strikes on Sweden? Read more here.

Sweden formed a new government earlier this month, built around a coalition between the Green Party and Social Democrats and described as a "feminist government" by the new Prime Minister. While this government hasn't been enormously hawkish, putting a break on some defense exports — including, funnily enough, some very effective submarines — they did call for increasing defense spending between 5 percent and 10 percent per year through 2024.

This interest in rebooting Sweden's lackluster defenses got an enormous boost with Russia's pseudo invasion of eastern Ukraine earlier this year — but even that activity left Swedes far from enthusiastic about joining NATO. Since then, a string of air incursions, flybys, and Russian amphibious assault exercises seen as an implicit threat to Sweden's Gotland Island have started shifting the debate.

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The first rounds of visible Russian muscle-flexing could, in theory, be seen as a way for the Kremlin to signal to Sweden that it better not veer too far into NATO's orbit. Some analysts have claimed that this possible submarine incursion is more muscle flexing, but that doesn't make much sense. Submarines are meant to be hidden; one of their main roles is intelligence collection. Sending a submarine in with the mission of being detected but not caught would compromise the very things that make a submarine useful. It's like sending in a master burglar with instructions to leave clues at the scene of a crime. If Russian leaders wanted to send a message, they could just fly more planes and stage some more big military exercises next door.

The general running the US-South Korea military drills talks power projection and saber-rattling ninjas. Read more here.

If the sub can be found and it turns out to be Russian, it might suggest that there really is something to the fears of NATO's Baltic members about Russian expansionism demonstrated both in the violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity by "Little Green Men" during the early days of the Great Crimean Heist, and sailing submarines all up in Sweden's business.

If no sub is ever found, it could bolster those calling for Sweden to boost defense spending; after all, if the Swedish Navy can't find a submarine within their own waters after days of searching, then it must be in dire straits.

And so, perversely enough, if there is a Russian sub skulking about, it might be in Russia's best interests for it to surface and claim a navigational mishap much like what was done during the Whiskey on the Rocks incident. After all, Russia probably doesn't want to encourage its neighbors to always assume the worst about Russia's intentions.

CORRECTION: Sweden's new government came to power this fall, not last fall as initially reported.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Wikimedia