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Venezuela’s New Mini Submarines Threaten US Underwater Cables

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Venezuela's New Mini Submarines Threaten US Underwater Cables

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The Venezuelan Navy recently revealed a newly acquired submarine. The vessel is small, unarmed and short ranged. The Italian designed VAS-525 mini-submarine is relatively deep diving, able to reach down 525 feet. It can carry up to three divers who can leave the submarine to conduct specific missions and then return to the submarine.

Yet it has some US commentators concerned, claiming it could pose an asymmetrical threat to US interests in the Caribbean. This is because it is a type of submarine designed for diver-lock-out work, meaning that it can be used to transport underwater saboteurs.

In particular, there is concern that they could be used to target undersea communications cables and the internet.

After years of economic troubles and strict unilateral sanctions imposed by the US, the Venezuelan Navy (Armada Bolivariana de Venezuela) has been struggling to maintain its existing fleet and improve its naval capabilities in the face of frequent US threats to intercept merchant shipping and possibly even invade the South American country. Historically the Venezuelan navy has been relatively well equipped with frigates and patrol boats built in Spain as well as a small fleet of submarines. But the sanctions and turmoil have hit hard. According to media reports, its two conventional submarines haven’t been to sea in years.

The mini-submarine is seen as posing a threat to US underwater communications cables. The sea floor is crisscrossed with internet cables and other fiber-optic communications. A key location in the Caribbean is the US territory of Guantánamo Bay, a large military base established on an enclave of Cuban territory carved from Cuba’s territory during the US military occupation following the 1898 war with Spain and maintained notwithstanding the vehement objections of the Cuban government for over fifty years. Several fiber optic cables are known to be connected to the military base. And there are many other cable links within reach of Venezuelan ships.

To be most effective an attack on the underwater communications networks would have to be made in relatively deep water, to make it harder to repair. Undersea internet cables are often damaged by ships anchors but this is usually close to shore. Consequently they can be fixed quickly. But an attack in deeper water could be more difficult to repair, especially if repair vessels face the possibility of attack.

Conducting an attack would not be easy for Venezuela however. The mini-submarine would have to be carried to the target area somehow. The Venezuelan Navy’s submarines are reportedly inoperable so they couldn’t carry it. And while it technically possible, using a submarine to launch another submarine is an extremely difficult and risky operation.

Using surface warships would be difficult to conceal, and the area is heavily patrolled by US warships and aircraft. But a civilian vessel could also be used as a support ship to launch and retrieve the submarines. The mini-submarine can be towed into position in a floating barge which has a hole for the mini-submarine to be lowered into the water. Venezuela is believed to have one of these. A crane could also be used to lift the sub into and out of the water from a mother ship.

While the Venezuelan Navy has very little combat experience and has not been called on to undertake substantial offensive operations, it appears to be upgrading its fleet to the extent prevailing conditions permit to broaden its offensive and defensive capabilities. LINK

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