According to reports in state-owned media, Russian nuclear attack submarines successfully approached coastal American military installations without being detected by U.S. defenses, before turning around avoiding detection once again on their way back out to sea.

In an interview with RT, a media organization so notorious for the use of propaganda that it has been forced to register in the United States as a Foreign Agent, a Russian Naval Officer describes a recent military drill in which an unknown number of Akula-class Shchuka-B nuclear-powered attack submarines were ordered to take positions in the vicinity of a number of American military installations on the nation’s coast. The drill is set to be the topic of an upcoming television series scheduled to air on Russia’s official military TV channel.

“This mission has been accomplished, the submarines showed up in the set location in the ocean and returned to base,” the commander of the submarine squadron, Sergey Starshinov, was quoted as saying. He went on to say that their objective throughout the drill was simply to come and go without being detected, stipulating that they came “close enough” to American shores but did not violate US maritime borders, remaining in international waters.

American territorial waters, for the most part, extend 12 nautical miles from the shore, so if the commander is to be taken at his word, the nuclear attack submarines would have come at least that close to American shores.

There are, of course, a number of issues with Russia’s claims of stealthy nuclear submarine activity. While it is entirely possible that Russia may have managed to sneak their Akula class submarines to within 12 nautical miles of American military installations, there is little evidence to substantiate their claims beyond taking the Russian Navy’s internal propaganda at face value. In fact, the very nature of such a “secret mission” dictates that, whether it was successful or never happened at all, there remains no way to confirm or deny their claims without either acknowledging a strategic and tactical failure of American coastal defenses or showing the Russians how U.S. defenses were able to identify and track their stealthy submarines.

If U.S. Coastal Defenses did manage to pick up the approach of Russian submarines, it remains likely that they may not have made their awareness known. As long as the Akula class subs remained in international waters, they were operating within their rights of freedom of navigation. Detecting submarine activity is extremely challenging, particularly when it comes to the far quieter nuclear submarines like the Akula-class, but if the United States has developed the ability to do so, it seems unlikely that they would tip their hand as a result of Russian military exercises in international waters – even if they were encroaching on U.S. waters.

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Telling the Russians that they detected them would undoubtedly provide hints as to how they detected them.

Of course, there remains two other distinct possibilities: the first is that the Russian Navy really did successfully manage to sneak an unknown number of nuclear submarines to within striking distance of U.S. military installations. Russia’s Akula class of subs, which first took the to the water in 1984 and are among the most advanced in the Russian fleet, are theoretically capable of accomplishing this feat. Further, Russia’s new “Status-6” doomsday weapon, a massive nuclear drone submarine designed to decimate coastal regions, seems to indicate an reemergence of emphasis on Russia’s submersible nuclear capabilities within Putin’s regime.

The United States has been working on a number of new submarine identification and tracking methodologies intended to counter just such a possibility. DARPA’s PALS program aims to track the behavior of marine animals to serve as an early indicator of encroaching submerged vessels, and the Navy’s ACTUV program includes massive drone ships that can be used to continuously criss-cross waterways looking for hidden submarines beneath the surface.

The Sea Hunter Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, is a 132 foot long, 140 ton drone warship perfectly suited for hunting down enemy submarines. (U.S Navy)

Finally, the last possibility is that the operation detailed by RT and in the forthcoming television show produced by Russia’s military simply never happened at all. While it may seem bold to present an entirely fictional account of military events for the sake of propaganda, Russia has demonstrated a propensity for doing just that on a number of occasions in recent months.

One notable example took place in December of last year. The Kremlin released a fictional account of an intercept between a U.S. Air Force F-22, arguably America’s most capable dog fighter, and Russia’s own Su-35. Russia claimed that the F-22 was effectively run out of the area by the superior maneuverability demonstrated by the Russian fighter. The American Department of Defense quickly dismissed the story, noting that not only did no such intercept take place with an F-22, but no such intercept took place at all.

Adding insult to injury, a very real encounter between a Su-35 and an F-22 did take place only days after the Russian story broke, but it didn’t happen anything like Russia would have hoped. When a Su-35 approached the American F-22s, one of the American fighters immediately managed to get behind the Su-35 and shadow it, prompting the bevy of Su-25s and 35 to vacate the area.

It’s possible that the world may never know the full truth regarding Russia’s new claims of deploying nuclear attack subs to the American coast, but the threat posed by the possibility remains all the same. Regardless of the veracity of Russian TV programming, the decision to conduct or even just to claim this operation sends a very specific message to the United States: Russia’s nuclear arsenal remains, and America is still its target.

Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press