America’s nuclear secrets were smuggled in a peanut butter sandwich only to be foiled in a counter-intelligence operation. But what exactly were they trying to steal and why?
Naval engineer Jonathon Toebbe and his wife Diana Toebbe, a couple from Annapolis, Maryland, were arrested for espionage on October 9 following a year-long trap set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
The couple had allegedly made attempts to sell the US nuclear submarine designs to a foreign power and have since been charged with violation of the Atomic Energy Act. The key accused in this espionage case had ‘top secret’ security clearance, allowing him to leverage his access to sensitive data in an effort to sell this information to interested buyers.
The accused had access to information pertaining to naval nuclear propulsion, classified military design elements, operating parameters, and performance features of the reactors for nuclear-powered warships.
Court documents related to this case indicate that the information stolen included design, operations, and performance of Virginia-class nuclear submarine reactors and potentially some documents concerning the upcoming Columbia-class submarines.
The Virginia-class submarines are the latest underwater vessels inducted into the US Navy. They are suitable for anti-surface warfare ASuW and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) roles. However, subsequent enhancements added some moderate land-attack capabilities in the form of non-nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles as well.
A Technical Lead-Turned-Spy
The accused’s LinkedIn profile highlights that he was working as a ‘Technical Lead’ on the upcoming Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine’s design. This project is considered one of America’s most ambitious naval procurements in recent times. The reason for its uber-sensitive status stems from the submarine’s role to accommodate a significant portion of America’s nuclear arsenal.
It has been claimed that the accused had first sent a secret package to an unknown foreign entity. The return address listed was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The package allegedly contained a sample of classified information along with instructions on how to initiate a covert liaison to further the transaction.
It may be interesting to note that it had an attachment, which apologized for the poor quality of translation and requested that the end-user transfer it to their domestic military intelligence. The accused went on to mention that the package is not a hoax and that it will serve their national interest.
The accused heard back from a prospective buyer and began a year-long correspondence. Little did he realize that the prospective clients were undercover FBI agents posing as a foreign handler for the accused. An FBI agent had reportedly acquired the covert package sometime in December last year under peculiar circumstances.
It is claimed that the accused made two dead drops using memory chips containing documents and schematics in Pennsylvania and Virginia in July and August, respectively. These were smuggled in a band-aid, chewing gum wrappers. The accused was paid $100,00 in cryptocurrency. These payments were made by the FBI. The last payments prompted the accused to deliver a decryption key to access the classified data.
The accused was in the process of delivering the fourth memory card in West Virginia. Before agreeing to travel to West Virginia to complete the deal, the undercover agent made a payment in good faith at a prearranged dread drop. The accused concealed an SD card within a peanut butter sandwich while his wife was acting as a lookout.
A decryption key was received by the undercover agent after making a cryptocurrency payment of $20,000 to Toebbe. The key was given for the SD card containing restricted data on US submarine nuclear reactors. Following this, both Feds and the NCIS swooped in and arrested the target of the sting operation. Judicial proceedings are to follow.
Exactly how much sensitive information has been stolen has not yet been ascertained, nor has the foreign power it was sent to been revealed. The only details known are that the information pertained to the Virginia-class submarines rather than the forthcoming Columbia class.
Experts believed that the accused by the virtue of his position could have leaked enough classified details about the Columbia-class submarines. However, whether he is able to leak any potential data about the upcoming Columbia class is not yet established.
The Columbia class is the US Navy’s replacement for its existing 14 Ohio-class submarines, also known as ‘boomers’. These subs can carry up to 20 Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles laden with up to 8 independently targetable nuclear warheads. The US Navy signed a $15-billion with General Dynamics Electric Boat for Columbia class subs.
These submarines are slated for delivery in 2028. The US Navy intends to order 11 more Columbia class submarines through 2035 for a total procurement cost of $109.8 billion. Analysts estimate the program is at high risk of going over-budget and falling behind schedule. This timeframe coincides with China’s ambitious naval modernization plans as well.
The Columbia class of submarines will be the largest underwater boats in the US Navy’s inventory, however, will hold fewer missile tubes in comparison to its Ohio class counterpart with only 16 missile launch tubes. The advantage with the Columbia class is that the subs are likely to require less maintenance and overhaul over the course of its expected 42-year service life.
There is a possibility that Toebbe may have tried to steal information pertaining to the Columbia class submarines’ propulsion system.
In these submarines, reactor-heated steam turbines will be used to generate propulsion electrically rather than mechanically via reduction gears, which should make it quieter and more power-efficient, according to Forbes.
The US Navy’s boomers would carry 2,000 nuclear warheads. These are of greater significance than the US’ aerial and ground-based nuclear weapons combined.
The rationale behind this is that US missile silos and airbase positions are known. But SSBNs cannot be easily detected or attacked at great distances. The elimination of all boomers cannot realistically be assured in a pre-emptive strike.
Any development which jeopardizes this nuclear trump card is a major threat to America’s national security. A potential leak is a direct threat to the US’ nuclear deterrence capabilities.
- Aritra Banerjee is a defense journalist who has worked in both online and print media. He has laid an emphasis on issues related to military human resources, tactical psychology, military-media relations, professional military education, and combat fitness. He can be reached on email: [email protected].
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