U.S. military wants to buy Guantánamo Bay a backup fiber-optic cable

In the latest sign that the Pentagon is preparing for Guantánamo prison operations after President Barack Obama leaves office, the U.S. Southern Command is shopping for a second fiber-optic cable for the base — this one from Puerto Rico. Price tag? Unknown.

A division of the Defense Department invited contractors on June 8 to submit proposals to “design, manufacture, install, test and commission” a 750-mile underwater cable linking the U.S. Navy base to Puerto Rico, near San Juan. The work should be done, it said, 18 months after a contract is awarded. It set no projected award date.

The Defense Information System Agency said in a statement that the new underwater cable “will provide secure, high throughput, highly reliable, low-latency network redundancy” for the Department of Defense “and other government communications” connecting Caribbean sites of the U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command to the Department of Defense Information Network.

The fiber-optic line from Florida went live in January; now the military is proposing another one from Puerto Rico.

Southcom is in South Florida. Northcom is in Colorado. DISA would not elaborate on what “other government communications” might run between the military base and Puerto Rico. But the Obama administration has been proposing changes to its war court structure to let judges hold some hearings by teleconference between the base and United States, including allowing some Guantánamo detainees to plead guilty that way in civilian court.

The base’s first fiber-optic line went live in January, according to the Defense information agency statement.

In 2013, a retiring senior Pentagon official testified at a Guantánamo military commission hearing that the projected $40 million undersea cable between Florida and Guantánamo would have sufficient bandwidth to serve not only the base but the island of Cuba. A Southcom spokesman subsequently dismissed the idea of extending service to Cubans.

Since then, the U.S. started normalizing relations with Cuba, the Castro government renewed its call for the U.S. to evacuate Guantánamo Bay — and the first fiber-optic cable went online at the base.

It went live in January, according to the Defense information agency statement.

Southcom won’t discuss the possible cost of the alternative to the existing cable, which was projected to cost $40 million.

Now, Southcom’s new spokeswoman says that the secondary cable is essentially meant to offer redundancy to the remote base in southeast Cuba, which goes by GTMO in military lingo.

“The additional cable will provide an alternate path,” said Army Col. Lisa Garcia, “preventing isolation for both islands in the case of a fiber break.” She would not elaborate on whether, or when, there was a break in the Florida-Guantánamo cable.

The Pentagon currently has 79 captives at the base’s sprawling Detention Center Zone and a staff of 1,950 to 2,200 to operate it. More than 3,000 or so sailors, their families, contractors and other federal employees also live on the base. In May, prison leaders described some of the discussions under way to plan for a prison in coming years. They did not mention an expanded communications infrastructure or problems with the current cable.

For that first fiber-optic cable, the Defense Department put the projected price tag at $40 million. The contract was parceled out piecemeal, and Southcom has never put a final price tag on the Florida cable. This time, Garcia would not offer a prediction on what the backup cable could cost taxpayers. “Public release of this information could taint the outcome of bidding,” she said by email.

The Defense Department clarified that the cable would go to northeast Puerto Rico, not far from San Juan.

The DISA solicitation created confusion on the proposed place on Puerto Rico where the cable would originate.

It said alternately that it would go to a “government landing site on the west and southwest coast” of Puerto Rico, then identified the landing site as Punta Salinas, which is on Puerto Rico’s opposite corner. The Air National Guard maintains a small facility in Punta Salinas on the northeast part of the island, near San Juan.

The Pentagon clarified Thursday that inclusion of the “west and southwest” landing site in the solicitation was by error.

“The correct cable landing site for this requirement is Punta Salinas,” said Army Lt. Col. J.B. Brindle, a Department of Defense spokesman. “This cable will provide an important alternate path between the U.S.-GTMO network and the U.S.-Puerto Rico network, preventing isolation for both islands in the case of a fiber break.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

More reading

▪ See the full Defense Information System Agency solicitation here.

▪ Read about the earlier contract award to a Texas firm here.

▪ Read about the war court testimony here.