As I normally do, a few months after publication in The Spectrum Monitor, here’s one of my articles that was published in the February edition.
Monitoring the Russian Navy – Part One
As I said in one of my first articles for TSM, I only really got back into HF monitoring because of my move to Scotland and treating myself to a desktop radio for listening to VHF/UHF. I decided to push the boat out and get an Icom IC-R8500 as I’d always fancied one and the specifications, as we all know, are top notch. I also thought that as I was going to be working in the same room as Shanwick Oceanic that I would get something that would let me listen to them, I used to love listening to Shanwick. Of course, I soon discovered a lot had changed on the Ocean and the HF got put aside for a while.
It was whilst reading through a Military aviation forum that I noticed that a couple of guys had been monitoring the Russian navy using CW, and that what they had been tracking was possibly the Kiev Class Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its carrier group. Well, I found this fascinating and started listening to the same frequencies they had listed to see if my makeshift antenna could get anything – and sure enough it did.
Since I was a kid I’d been interested in Russian military hardware, after I’d been given a book called “The Soviet War Machine” to read when visiting my grandparents. Even though it was library book, I took it away on a long-term loan and read it hundreds of times, sucking in as much knowledge as possible. There was something about the design and ruggedness of all their equipment that intrigued me, and man, their Submarines were awesome!!
When I joined the RAF years later, my interest in the Russians changed from the navy to the Air Force and Nuclear threat that I was now (in theory) facing. And from then, up until the moment I found out about monitoring the Russian navy on CW, I didn’t really think much about the navy again. Now I was really interested and I wanted to learn more about this side of monitoring.
Through the UDXF Yahoo group I found lots more logs and frequencies; and then I discovered Fritz Nusser’s great website at http://www.astrosol.ch/. Fritz unfortunately died in July 2014 and so did his website (the domain name now used by Asics trainers!!), but the information held there was nothing but brilliant – frequencies, callsigns, examples of messages, the navy bases and the ships in the different fleets. It was the perfect site for a beginner, which I most certainly was.
Well, now a few years down the line I hope I’m pretty good at what I know, though I can honestly say there are guys out there whose knowledge still amazes me – Trond Jacobsen from Norway for starters. What I’d like to do here though is show you how you can listen in on the Russian navy on CW, and amazingly, be able to track their positions.
First of all, I need to show you how the navy is divided up. It is split up into five fleets:
The Northern Fleet (NF) – HQ at Severomorsk
The Baltic Fleet (BF) – HQ at Kaliningrad
The Black Sea Fleet (BSF) – HQ at Sevastopol
The Caspian Flotilla (CF) – HQ at Astrakhan
The Pacific Fleet (PF) – HQ at Vladivostok
The Northern Fleet has recently been incorporated into a new Arctic Joint Strategic Command structure but still operates under its own command system, and it is by far the largest fleet in the navy. Within these fleets there are a large number of submarines and ships, around 265 in total with another 60 or 70 on order, divided between numerous bases within the fleets.
Each HQ has a CW callsign, as does each base and then each major ship. We haven’t found any evidence that smaller vessels, and by this I mean harbour tugs etc., have a CW callsign, and the same goes for Submarines. The tugs will be because they rarely leave the harbour area so would be within normal VHF/UHF range of the base; the submarines have other methods of contacting home though there’s no doubt they use VLF/HF for communications, just like the USN boats with EAM’s. I will say though that we also have a huge amount of unidentified callsigns and that these could in fact be tugs, submarines and such like. The likelihood is though, that most of these are smaller missile boats etc. that also rarely leave the confines of the waters they patrol – and also could be Border Guard ships that also use the same radio networks (they also don’t leave their home waters). There’s also the AGI’s or Intelligence Collection ships that use CW but don’t give away their positions, well most of the time anyway – more on this later. As well as the five fleets, there’s also of course Moscow to think of, and the actual Russian navy high command at St. Petersburg. These too make and receive calls and each has their own callsign.
My Russian Navy Callsigns page here on my blog lists all the CW callsigns that have been found, and if tied up, to which ship/base they belong to. It’s not complete, and there are still some changes that need to be made to it as some of the callsigns aren’t necessarily navy – more investigation and time is required on this front.
I will list the HQ callsigns here though:
Moscow = RIW
National Defence Control Centre, St. Petersburg = RAA
Severomorsk = RIT
Kaliningrad = RMP
Sevastopol = RCV
Astrakhan = RJD52
Vladivostok = RJS
To confuse matters though, St. Petersburg for instance, has a base callsign too – RJC66. This is the actual naval station as opposed to the HQ. And there’s also another callsign associated with Moscow, RJE56, which is the actual transmitter site which sends/receives calls – possibly when RIW (and RAA) are off-line – and these also tend to be between land units only, not to/from ships. RAA also only tends to send/receive to/from HQ’s with messages then forwarded on to ships (and vice versa). It’s not uncommon for bases to have multiple callsigns.
You’ll notice that all the callsigns start with an R which is common for the navy, the ships also beginning with the letter R. But there’s also some other elements within the Russian networks that start with this letter, and it’s because of this that confusion arises as to exactly what is navy and what isn’t – the naval (air) network also uses R as the first letter for instance. Each callsign is either three, four or five digits but there is no correlation between the callsigns and the base or ship name; and the ships don’t have a callsign that links into the base they’re stationed at – ships based at Sevastopol don’t start with RCV for instance. They are totally random.
So, that’s the basic callsigns completed – or is it?
You see, what we’ve done here, and what’s happened for many a long time, is that the CW has been “westernised”, turned into Latin Morse. But the Russians don’t use Latin Morse, they use Cyrillic Morse. Now, this doesn’t really matter that much as I’m “western” so I can use this system for callsigns, but it does throw up some problems when it comes to messages – again, something I’ll get onto later in another article.
If you don’t know Cyrillic CW, and I don’t, I still need to look it up each time (I still don’t know Latin CW 100% and have to check with a list most of the time) there’s a Wikipedia page with it on that I use. But effectively to make the callsigns “proper” they should be given their Russian ones – RIW is actually РИВ, RAA is РАА and RCV is РЦЖ as examples.
But, and here’s the interesting thing, the Russians use CW Q and Z codes! And to be honest I’m not sure whether they translate the Q code into Cyrillic or if they use the codes as normal – QSL for instance. Either way, they use these codes and they have also created some of their own.
For now though we’ll use Latin CW for all the associated callsigns and messages
How to track the ships
I’ll list some of the frequencies required later on, but the best place to start is to monitor 12464 kHz during the day from 0600z to 1800z; and 8345 kHz overnight from 1800z to 0600z. This isn’t always the case as propagation has its way sometimes and the ships will try the other frequency, but these are the primary ship frequencies to start with and their associated times of use. The Russians work in the majority using a duplex system with the HQ’s using their own frequencies to transmit on. Whilst all of the HQ’s will have an operator listening out on the primary ship frequencies, the ships will be listening to their HQ frequency (frequencies) only. The only other frequency the ships will be listening to is that that has been allocated to RIW for that day in case Moscow wants to get in contact with them, or for flash messages. Some of the ships ignore their home base and send direct to Moscow, and then sometimes if a ships HQ doesn’t answer them they’ll try another to relay on the message for them. I want to cover message types and methods in greater detail in another article so for this one I’m going to concentrate on the message type that allows us to pinpoint the location of the ships.
So how do we do it? It’s actually quite easy, and the Russians use another western method to give us this information. For some reason they use the same code used by NOAA for Marine Surface Weather Observations, the FM-13-X-SHIP. Whether these reports are sent on to NOAA or not, we don’t know, but I doubt it. The Russians have their own Hydrographic units as you’ll see in a moment or by looking at my callsign list and we can only presume that they use this code as it’s already there and they don’t have to think up their own method.
If you’re not familiar with the FM-13 code then here’s a link that will take you to the 150 page PDF file on their website. Below though is an example message sent by RKB91 (РКБ91) – Altay Class Tanker “Kola”:
RKB91 605 16 22 1000 605 = SML FOR RJH45 RJD38 =
22061 99572 10081 41598 43408 10004 40110 51024 70202 8////
22252 00140 22012 = + RKB91
What we have here is a combination of both the Russian navy signal method (line 1) followed by the FM-13 code, ending with the Russian message system again. To decode the first line:
RKB91 = callsign
605 = message number
16 = number of groups in message
22 = date
1000 = Moscow time (this was sent at 0600z, but there’s now a three hour time difference between Moscow and UTC)
605 = repeat of message number
SML = Message priority, in this case SML stands for Samolet (fighter jet) – normal priority
FOR = for
RJH45 RJD38 = Hydrographic station callsigns
The next two lines are the FM-13 message giving the weather at the site of the observation. The link to the codebook will give you further information, but the parts we are most interested in are the first three groups:
22061 = 22 (date), 06 (0600z) 1 (1st FM-13 message of the hour)
99572 = 99 (latitude), 572 (57.2N)
10081 = 10 (Longitude – East), 081 (08.1)
The final group we’re interested in is:
22252 = 222 (heading speed), 5 (heading SW), 2 (6 to10kts)
The last number group and the callsign repeat is part of the Russian message system again – 22012 confirming that there’s 12 groups of numbers in the message and the date, in this case the 22nd.
From this then the message translates to an observation position of – 57.2N 08.1E heading SW @ 6-10kts, just off the North Western coast of Denmark. The position can be viewed here on Bing maps
Most of the messages we receive are of course from the Eastern Longitude and Northern Hemisphere, but we do get the odd one from the Western Longitude, in which case in the example above it would have read 70081. I am yet to receive anything from the Southern Hemisphere but if I were to then the first number would be either a 5 (for Western Latitude, Southern Hemisphere) or a 3 (for Eastern Latitude in the south).
Prior to the FM-13 message RKB91 would have called Kaliningrad to establish the connection, and these go like this:
VVV RMP RMP RMP DE RKB91 RKB91 QSA? QTC
So as you can see, they do use Q codes.
With regards to the Hydrographic stations, we don’t know exactly where they are, but we have rough idea. We’re pretty certain that RJH45 is the main one in Moscow. The second callsign in the example above is probably a regional Hydrographic station for the Baltic region, or a collective for all ships of the Baltic Fleet.
Finally, the messages are normally sent every six hours – 0600z, 1200z, 1800z and 0000z. There are certain times where ships send every three hours. As you can imagine, when it’s busy the frequencies can get a bit chaotic as the calls tend to step all over one another.
I said I didn’t know CW that well, and I don’t really. But you do get use to the patterns of the callsigns, in particular the HQ’s. And you also get used to the radio operators and their speed/way of sending the messages. On one occasion we were able to work out the shift pattern of one ship by the changes in the operator methods.
One other quirk to the Russian CW is the short zero. To save time, instead of five dah’s, they will only send one (T), though this is normally in context and is noticeable whether it should be a zero or a T. Not every operator will do this and they’ll send the zero correctly.
So, we have the callsigns for the bases tied up (well some of them) but how do we get the ships? This is down to a couple of methods, the first being the Russian navy themselves. The Russian navy has a very active website and they regularly post movements of their ships and where they’ve docked. You only need to keep an eye on these reports and tie-up arrival/departure dates with any unidentified callsigns to get a pretty good match up.
The second method is down to online photos, blogs and media such as twitter. There’s numerous different websites that promote photos of ships, sites like Marinetraffic.com, shipspotting.com and shipais.com. These all have dates when the photos were taken. A great blog for getting the Black Sea fleet has to be Bosporus Naval News which not only shows photos taken by locals (including some of those in this article by Yörük Işık) but also lists dates when Naval vessels, not just Russian, pass through the Bosporus.
With all these different methods you can find out what callsign belongs to which ship. It’s not easy, and it can take some time, especially if the ships don’t send many FM-13 reports. Of course, we’re not always right at first. In some cases the ships are in a flotilla, and only one ship out of the group will send a report. In this case you haven’t a clue which one you’re listening to, unless you’ve already tied one from the flotilla up previously. Recently we caught a new callsign, RJC20, going through the Bosporus so we waited for some pictures to emerge only to discover that two ships had gone through together, with only one sending reports. For a short while we thought it had to be Sorum Class Sea-going Tug “MB-31” as this was seemingly the escort ship to Dergach Class Missile Patrol Boat “Samum”; it’s normally the case that in a group the tug or tanker escort would do the FM-13 reports. Further into the reports, going on for a month or so, it still looked like the RJC20 belonged to MB-31 until new information came to light that Samum was taking part in the anniversary of the Battle of Navarino memorial flotilla off Pilos in Greece, the exact location of RJC20. It only took another week or so for RJC20 to return to the Black Sea and Samum was captured on “film” again whilst reports were given that MB-31 was escorting another ship off Malta. So this confirmed that RJC20 was Samum – or did it? On the 28th of March RJC20 plotted through the Bosporus again, and this time only MB-31 went westbound. Eventually then, this tied up RJC20. So you see it’s all about patience and almost a bit of Intelligence investigative skills that make this hobby work – its good fun.
Earlier I mentioned the AGI ships. These don’t send FM-13 reports at all, and generally only contact Moscow (RIW) with other message types. This then makes it practically impossible to tie up the callsigns – unless the Russian navy happen to help you out. Callsign RMMA has foxed us for well over two years at least, appearing every now and again, and in fact being one of the very first callsigns that I logged. It always has very strong signals to the UK initially which meant it was in the vicinity of the Northern or Baltic fleet home bases, the North Sea or Eastern Atlantic. It would fade eventually as the distance from here increased, but with the usual propagation affects that sometimes brought it booming in.
In September 2012, a Russian navy ship had been spotted off Cape Canaveral where there were two scheduled launches for the beginning of October. There was also a planned launch of a Trident II D5 from a Royal Navy submarine later on in October. At that time there was an unidentified callsign, RJQ84, operating in that area so at first we thought this would be an AGI of some sort, though sending FM-13 messages was unusual. Then RMMA and RJQ84 sent messages to each other, saying to use VHF radios to communicate. This meant they were close to one another and so we thought maybe RJQ84 was an escort ship to the AGI, RMMA. At the end of September RJQ84 headed for Jacksonville, I seem to remember because of a hurricane hitting the area, and reports followed that a Rescue tug had arrived in port, this turning out to be Sliva Class “Vikr”. A few days later other reports announced that Vishnya Class AGI “Viktor Leonov” had suddenly arrived in Havana. And RMMA had disappeared from sending messages. Was RMMA Viktor Leonov? We never got any solid proof and so I left it pencilled in on my list.
RMMA has cropped up since then but with no news of Viktor Leonov there was nothing to go on. So why is this relevant now you say? Well, RMMA turned up about a month ago (December 2014 at time of writing the article), very strong then fading, again no FM-13 reports. On the 22nd of January Tom spotted a news report that Viktor Leonov had again docked at Havana on the 20th, the day that RMMA went off station. This coincidence was too much and RMMA is now logged as Viktor Leonov.
This is a hard one really. Those of us that monitor the Russian navy have discovered hundreds of frequencies that they use; a file on UDXF lists 578 currently in use. To get you started though here’s a few of the more active frequencies:
8345 Ship night primary (duplex)
12464 Ship day primary (duplex)
11000 Moscow (duplex) c/s RIW
14556 Moscow (duplex) c/s RIW
11155 Severomorsk (duplex) c/s RIT
8120 Navy HQ St. Petersburg (simplex) c/s RAA
4079 Kaliningrad (duplex) c/s RMP
8348 Pacific Fleet ship primary (duplex)
5411 Vladivostok (duplex) c/s RJS
3395.5 Sevastopol (simplex) c/s RCV
19201 Sevastopol (weather/nav warnings) c/s RCV
4635 White Sea area ships calling Severodvinsk (duplex)
4376.5 White Sea area ships calling Severodvinsk (duplex)
I would say, for the West coast of America the best bet is to listen in on the Pacific/Vladivostok frequencies, but this doesn’t mean the others are out of range. We have recently followed Akademik Krylov Class Survey/Research Ship “Admiral Vladimirskiy” (RHO62) on a round the world tour where here in the UK we were able to pick it up on the Pacific primary of 8348 kHz, as well as getting it on 8345 kHz. In fact it used 8345 more than anything in the later stages of being in the Pacific where we able to catch it on the west coast of Costa Rica and going through the Panama Canal. RHO62 is due to go out on another voyage at the end of this year, this time to the Antarctic.
One last tip – always record the frequency, unless you’re super good at CW; and even then, always record the frequency. Sometimes I wonder whether the radio operators are trying to beat the world record for the fastest message sent by Morse code.
Well, I hope you may have found this interesting. Monitoring the Russian navy can be challenging and it has the added element of lots of investigation and research to make it work fully, but that is the fun part. Through this new “hobby” I renewed my interest in Russian military hardware, deciding to buy a Jane’s Fighting Ships a few years ago so that I knew exactly what the ships looked like that I was listening to. Because of this I got to know the editor of the yearbook and I now provide photos as well as carrying out research on the Russian navy for inclusion within the book.
There is still a huge amount to cover and my next article on the Russian navy will be on other message types you may hear when listening in. So until then, do svidaniya i spasibo (до свидания и спасибо)