Even as the U.S. and Russian presidents meet, the Putin government is moving to counter U.S. military might -- with technology from an unusual source: the U.S. Navy.
It appears that Russia has penetrated the American submarine program, possibly through the work of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
For years, Russia's underfunded navy has languished in port and new ship construction has virtually ceased. But two new vessels have been put to sea in recent weeks, surprising Western intelligence.
Early this month, the Russian navy began sea trials of a new, third-generation Akula II-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, the Gepard, in the White Sea. The Gepard is to be delivered for service in the Northern Fleet in July. Moscow has also deployed a Delta III nuclear ballistic missile submarine in the Pacific Ocean from the port of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula - the first such deployment in months.
The attack submarine Gepard represents a fundamental surprise. The vessel was estimated to be five years behind schedule and was believed to be part of a vast body of evidence that Russia's fleet is in a poor state. The Gepard, however, represents an important qualitative, as well as quantitative, departure from recent shipbuilding trends.
In some respects, the new attack sub is believed to be superior to the U.S. Navy's Los Angeles-class attack subs. Capable of moving as fast and as quietly, the Gepard can dive deeper than the American vessels and has more firepower than its counterparts, according to Russian media reports and independent naval experts.
But the Russian ship program also appears to be aided by an unwitting suspect: the U.S. Navy. The Russian navy apparently has garnered significant technology that will enable it to make future submarines quieter and harder to detect. This technology probably has come from Russian espionage that has penetrated the U.S. submarine program, according to intelligence sources.
The super-quiet Akula II-class of nuclear-powered attack submarine is believed to have benefited from technologies stolen from the United States and Japan's Toshiba Corp. The Akula II-class has been built at the Northern Engineering Works in Severodvinsk. And the Russian government has maintained that this class of submarines, which first emerged in 1996, is the result of homegrown Russian ingenuity.
Ironically, evidence that Russia has penetrated the U.S. submarine program can be found in a small report by a U.S. government agency. Radio Free Europe broadcast a report last week saying Russia was stealing U.S. submarine technology. The report was attributed to anonymous U.S. officials and appears to have been an attempt to downplay Russian technical prowess.
Russian submarine technology could have come from the espionage allegedly conducted by former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, according to intelligence sources. Currently, the U.S. Navy is trying to figure out the extent to which its submarine program was penetrated and whether Hanssen was involved, according to those sources.
Intelligence sources say the U.S. government is also investigating how badly the American program was compromised. It appears the investigation inside the U.S Navy is fairly recent, but it may focus on possible pilfering of quieting technologies that make it difficult for adversaries to detect American submarines.
Whether or not Hanssen himself compromised these secrets is unclear. But because he worked in the national security division of the FBI, he would have had access to a wide range of secrets. And his arrest last spring likely triggered new concerns inside the U.S. military.
Russia is developing new naval technologies for the first time in many years. In addition to the new attack sub, Russia has developed a new supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, the Yakhont, which can be launched from surface ships, submarines and coastal mobile platforms, according to Rusoboronexport, Russia's arms export agency. The Yakhont has a range of 300 kilometers, a vertical trajectory up to 140 kilometers and can travel twice the speed of sound, surpassing most if not all other types around the world.
The Putin government is making a determined change in strategy. It has also embarked on an ambitious shipbuilding strategy through 2010. And the navy has developed a new doctrine intended to increase training as well as the effectiveness of the various Russian fleets.
But the navy faces important challenges. To succeed, Russia will need a significant infusion of money in the coming years to take part in the global naval competition. Without funds, the navy will risk losing what little deterrent power it wields.
A re-emergence of the Russian navy would have widespread implications, fueling the naval arms race already underway in Asia between China, South Korea, Japan and others. This would represent a fundamental upswing in Russian global influence.
Bryan Bender is the Washington bureau chief of STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. Its website is STRATFOR.com.