Response from NOAA + Boston WeFax

After my last blog – Weather Fax from Honolulu – I decided I’d drop the Weather HF Operations in Honolulu an email to see if they could confirm whether it was them that I received or not.

After a few hours I got back the following response from one of their Ops staff:

Aloha Tony!
In reviewing the schedules looking for that particular chart (Honolulu’s 24 hr Wind/Wave), I believe that is only transmitted from Hawaii. While there are Wind/Wave charts sent on all of the stations, the 24 hour Wind/Wave that is produced by WFO Honolulu is only broadcast on the Hawaii frequency.

From this, I’m happy to say it was Honolulu that I received and have noted it as such.

At the time they replied I was actually listening out on one of the NOAA Boston frequencies to see if I could get anything from them.

It was static on 9108.1 kHz (9110 kHz) when I started and was about to give up, when all of a sudden a transmission started part-way through a chart – just like they’d flicked a switch on that frequency transmitter. As you can see below, the chart just started.

Part-way through chart at 2222z on 12th May 2020.

I received a further two charts before the end of that days charts and the service stopped.

Quality not too bad, 4880 km away from here.

Again, all received on my Icom IC-R8500 and Wellbrook Loop, using JWX 3.0 software.

Weather Fax from Honolulu

I’ve been tinkering with Marine weather radiofacsimiles recently. I do this from time to time, especially when the weather is good here and I want to know when it is likely to end – more often than not, very soon, though I’ll have to admit the weather has been amazing in recent weeks.

I’ve used a number of decoders over the years and they have all produced some pretty good results, and each have their different features. Some work with SDRs whilst some don’t – or rather my set up doesn’t let them work with SDRs as I run everything through a M-Track 8 mixer.

Some of the decoders i’ve tried include – Sorcerer, MultiPSK and fldigi. fldigi has been my favourite for some time until recently.

The only receiver I don’t run through the mixer is my trusty Icom R-8500 receiver connected to the PC via the microphone-in input using a mono cable from the record-out on the Icom. I have to say this gives the best results with all the software tried. This is probably because it is less susceptible to PC jitter – when the processor skips due to lag – and the image is put out of alignment. I find, probably because my PC is getting past it, that the processor requirements to run the SDR software is enough to make this happen.

Any misalignment requires some Photoshop manipulation, often quite a few just to rebuild the image. Sometimes this is required anyway to recreate a split image – if the phasing was not automatically detected, the modem could not deduce the beginning of an image causing an an image which is horizontally shifted. This is very easy to fix with Photoshop if this happens.

Some of the software available does the rebuilding for you, but some don’t. Each can control slant error and suchlike, but each is different in doing this. And each Fax sender – Northwood (GYA), DWD and NOAA for example – generally works with a different slant requirement.

The latest software I’ve used – and I think the best to date – is JWX 3.0. I still haven’t managed to get this to work with an SDR but I have tried. But I do know it does work with the AirSpy HF+ Discovery as one of my contacts on Twitter – Gerhard Schweizer – has managed it after I pointed him to JWX.

Anyway. This is all leading to a search I was making for GYA’s fax’s on the 9th May. I wanted to get the 24, 48, 72 and 120 hour surface prognosis charts and had set everything up on 4608.1 kHz USB – the true frequency is 4610 kHz but you have to step down 1.9 kHz in USB mode for a proper decode.

Unusually I didn’t get anything, so after a while I decided to try the other frequencies used by GYA. This included 11084.4 kHz (11086.5 kHz) which I’ve never found anything on before, and even has a question mark next to it in the Wordwide Marine Radiofacsimile Broadcast Schedule produced by NOAA.

On going to 11084.4 kHz, to my surprise, I could hear a very faint signal though I realised quickly that the frequency was off a little. I wondered then if the GYA frequency noted in the NOAA document was incorrect. Turning the dial on 8500 it settled on 11088.1 kHz where a clear-ish image was coming through on JWX.

But the chart didn’t quite look right for a GYA one, it looked more NOAA like, and as it was at the end of the chart, the senders information and chart title box was starting to come through – along with a NOAA badge.

As well as the badge, the ID started to become visible and I was amazed to see NOAA/National Weather services Honolulu – 24 HR Wind/Wave Forecast – pictured below.

First chart received, in progress at 0756z

The transmitter site for Honolulu (KVM70) is located at 21°25’34.82″N 158° 9’12.36″W – next to an impressive weapons storage bunker area – on O’ahu. From my shack this equates to a range of 11,132 km! The schedule states that KVM70 uses a 4 kW transmitter.

In the NOAA schedule it does say many of these charts also broadcast from Pt. Reyes, CA and Kodiak, AK but even so this would be 8118 km from Point Reyes; or 7133 km from Kodiak. However, the Honolulu frequency isn’t listed under their entries in the schedule so I’m not certain whether they are sent in parallel from these transmitter sites at the same time or not. Certainly, the charts aren’t listed under either Point Reyes or Kodiak.

In all honesty, I expect that it is one of these stations that I received, but I’d like to say it was KVM70 🙂

VOACAP grey line at the time of the first reception.

Below are the charts received. As you can see, from the 0856z chart, the signal starts to disappear and they become barely readable – eventually just noise.

0806z 24HR WIND/WAVE FORECAST
0816z 48HR SURFACE FORECAST
0826z 48HR WIND/WAVE FORECAST
0836z 48/96HR WAVE PERIOD,SWELL DIRECTION
0846z 96HR SURFACE FORECAST
0856z 96HR WIND/WAVE FORECAST and the last readable chart.

I did set up the R8500 and JWX the next night to see if I received anything and it drew a blank, but another try today, on the 11th, did produce some weak results. The chart below is the best out of the bunch, received at 0715z. It also shows a good example of phasing error and cpu jitter – the vertical black line should be on an edge so the far left of chart should be on the right; the lower portion has jumped a little due to cpu usage.

The frequency is now stored in CSVUserlist so I’ll revisit it every now and again to see whether I’m able to get some more charts.

More Konteyner

March 19th 2020 produced an interesting news story from TASS regarding a new Konteyner 29B6 OTHR system that is to be deployed in the Kaliningrad Oblast.

The full story can be read here in Russian.

Now, I still have my doubts about it being deployed here, and my first impressions were that it was just propaganda, but it still needs analysing to see what it could produce.

The article, sourcing a “Military-industrial complex”, mentions that the system is to cover the whole of Europe, including Great Britain.

This is, in itself, interesting as most of Europe is actually already covered by the system at Kovylkino. The mention of Great Britain specifically also is interesting as another Konteyner OTHR to cover this country would really only give an extra few seconds of warning that anything was coming from this direction. Moreover, I suspect that the Kovylkino system does actually cover Great Britain anyway, especially with the pulse rates of the system that I’ve analysed myself.

Looking at the image below you can see that if a system was placed at the rough centre of the Oblast, then only France, Spain and Iceland – along with GB – would be the extra countries that would be covered. The east of France is already covered as it is.

Personally, I wonder if – whilst GB might get extra coverage – the true targeting of the system would be to the North.

The Russian military have long been saying that they want to cover the Barents Sea and up to the North Pole with an early warning radar – specifically Konteyner – so this could be it.

If we adjust the predicted coverage to the North in an image then you get the following.

So, depending on the azimuths of the arrays used, we can see that GB, Iceland, East Greenland, North Sea, Norwegian Sea, Barents Sea, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Svalbard archipelago and the Noveya Zemlya archipelago (Severny Island and Yuzhny Island) could be covered by a four array system.Norway and Sweden are already partially covered by Kovylkino.

To me, this is the more likely coverage that will be created SHOULD a Konteyner system be placed in the Kaliningrad Oblast. And it is a should!

The TASS article states that multiple sites are being considered. The system at a minimum requires two sites. And the Oblast is not very big.

In all reality, the city of Kaliningrad itself is just 30 km from the Polish border. It would not take very long for a strike from a foreign land based missile site to reach a Konteyner site in the centre of the Oblast. It is because of this fact that I have my doubts about one being sited here, but who knows?

But say they do choose the Oblast for system two, where’s the likely spot?

If anything is to go by, with their previous sites, near an airfield seems to be a good choice, be it one in service, or one that could be quickly reinstated.

There’s a number of abandoned sites, including:

  • Chernyakhovsk at 54°36’7.12″N 21°47’29.07″E
  • Nivenskoye at 54°33’48.13″N 20°36’13.02″E
  • Marienkhof at 54°51’57.25″N 20°11’0.92″E

Chernyakhovsk has a large military presence – as does the whole of the Oblast to be honest! – and some work has been started at 54°39’1.12″N 21°48’24.77″E that I’ve been monitoring since mid 2019. Here there have been a number of small buildings about 3 metres wide since at least 2005 but I think these are something to do with oil or gas extraction – as is the new development. Moreover, the shape isn’t right for Konteyner as can be seen below.

Marienkhof has what I think is the Kaliningrad Air Traffic Control centre to the SE of the old airfield. There is plenty of land around here for extra development. Moreover, out to the west coast is Yantarny which is home to the 841st Independent EW centre, and to the north is a SIGINT site at Pionersky that houses one of the new Sledopyt satellite signal interception systems amongst others.

Potential Kaliningrad Air Traffic Control centre near old Marienkhof airfield

Nivenskoye certainly has a lot of land available, but it is the nearest site to the Polish border and certainly not top of my list.

My favourite area would have to be near to Marienkhof due to the location of other Russian systems of this “type” – radio/radar/SIGINT based systems. The area is almost as far as you can get from any land based threats, though of course anything from the sea would not be that far.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what develops. One thing is for sure, the system stands out once you have an area of interest and this area is not that big to continually monitor.

For a while, sites like these in the Kaliningrad Oblast took my interest as they were developed a few years ago – this one situated at 54°28’10.14″N 21°39’4.07″E – as they looked liked potential radar or antenna sites. But it soon became obvious they were actually something to do with cattle farming

Konteyner Follow-up

If you read my blog on the Russian Over-The-Horizon radar system Konteyner (29B6) then you may recall that at the end of it I mentioned the report on a Far East site, and that it hadn’t been started:

There has also been mention of another Konteyner site already in construction in the far east. At this time nothing has been found of any construction site that looks to be a Konteyner OTHR and I have my doubts about this. It was first muted in 2010, then again in 2018, and I would have expected something to be there by now.

Well, thanks to a contact on Twitter – Krakek – this has been proven not to be the case!

He was able to point me to the location of the receiver site, though it is very clear that the system has either been abandoned, or it has been postponed.

Located at 53°43’16.27″N 127° 4’29.63″E, the site appears to have been started sometime between 23rd August 2015 and 6th September 2017 according to Google Earth imagery. The site has just been cut through a forest and it appears that no antenna arrays have ever been sited there.

The latest GE imagery available, dated 7/7/19, is shown below with the site not changing since September 2017.

The site is located 9 km west of the town of Zeya. There appears to be no other real military presence, with the region being mainly involved in open pit gold mining. The large dam nearby is also a big employer – an ideal source for the large amount of electricity required to power an OTHR.

At this time I have been unable to locate any sign of the Transmitter site, though it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I went along the same lines of the other site and looked within a nearby radius and discovered nothing of real significance.

Using the GE imagery, I’ve taken a look at the potential coverage the Far East system would provide. As there isn’t a transmitter site available, I’ve based it on a three array system, rather than the four at Kovylkino.

The image below shows the site with added arrows for the direction the antenna arrays would appear to be planned in covering. The rough bearing for each is: 077 (Green), 137 (Red) and 197 (Blue).

The Green and Blue directions are definite as you can also see the areas cut out of the trees into what would be the ground plane that is placed in front of each array. This is not visible with the Red arrow and there isn’t a second ground plane visible for an array pointing to the West. This currently points to a three array system, but should there be a fourth array, my thoughts are that it would be back to back with the Green array. My reasoning for this? The second cut through the trees that extends in front of the Red (197 degrees) proposed array and around to the rear of the Green (077 degree) is the potential extension for the ground plane.

The next image depicts the potential coverage based on the same dimensions from the Kovylino system. The quadrants are colour coded the same as the previous image. The inner ring is at approximately 900 km and shows the skip area, whilst the outer ring is at approximately 3000 km. The lines in each coloured quadrant are extend from the planned arrays to the bearings of 077, 137 and 197 degrees.

As you can see, the OTHR is perfectly placed to cover SE China, North and South Korea, Japan and anything launched from the West coast of the USA. Three of those countries have ICBM capability. Major cities and naval bases such as Vladivostok are covered, as is a lot of the sea areas to the east of Russia.

You can also see that if a fourth transmitter array was to be built and it was put back to back with the 077 (Green) system, that it would point in the direction of India and Pakistan – both countries are ICBM capable.

It will be very interesting to monitor this site, to see if any further development takes place. I wonder whether they are waiting on how well the Kovylkino site copes in a live environment before continuing with any work here.

Krakek was also able to provide me with some further data on the Konteyner system as a whole. The data, shown below with some of the information translated in a separate table, is from the procurement datasheet produced by Радиотехнические и Информационные Системы (Radio Engineering and Information Systems JSC). The paper is further sourced from Oружие Oтечества (Weapons of the Fatherland) – a fantastic site on all things Russian military. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the direct link to the page.

This data confirms much of that already known, in particular the range (min and max) of Konteyner and the maximum number of aircraft that can be tracked simultaneously. Of note is the pulse length – 6 to 8 ms as I was able to ascertain through my analysis.

1Multifunctional Radar Station with increased range of detection of air objects
2Main Technical specifications
3 and 4Wavelength Range : Decametre
5 and 6Antenna Type : Phased Array
7Area of Responsibility
8Maximum Range – 2700 km
9Minimum Range – 1000 km
10Azimuth Width in Degrees – 60
11Within Area of Responsibility
12Number of continuous monitoring zones – 4
13Range size – 450 km
14Azimuth Width in Degrees – 15
15Standard errors of measurement
16Range for single target – 18 km
17Range for single target in degrees – 2
18Radial speed (pulse rate) – 6 to 8 milliseconds
19Number of simultaneously tracked targets – 350
20Service life – 15 years
21Placement Options
22Relocated (note – presumed mobile)
Stationary

The positional error information highlights the issues with OTHR. The plot for each track could be anything up to 18 km and/or 2 degrees out. This shows why the system can not be used for weapons targeting, and can only be used in an information or rough intercept/search area purpose for aircraft or another air defence system.

The title of the paper also alludes to the fact that Konteyner will only be used for air targets and not maritime surface targeting. This explains why there are no ship targets in the video for the Kovylkino activation.

I’d like to thank Krakek again for all the information as this has helped not only in locating the Far East site for further observations, but also for the datasheet that has proven a lot of the analysis already carried out.

I’ll be working with Jane’s, keeping a close eye on the site to catch any further work that may start here in the future.

SDRplay RSPdx with go2MONITOR

Thanks to SDRplay, I was sent both their new RSPdx and older RSPduo SDRs at the end of January free of charge.

The main reason was to get them integrated into Procitec’s go2MONITOR and go2DECODE software, to increase the number of SDRs that the company’s products are compatible with.

This I’ve been successful in doing with the RSPdx – I’m still to unbox the RSPduo at this time of writing.

First of all though, I’ve been extremely pleased with the RSPdx in its own right. The SDRuno software works really well, is pretty easy to use – and it looks good too.

SDRuno running the RSPdx
The RSPdx also works with SDRConsole

The fact that you can have up to 10 MHz of bandwidth is brilliant, and it isn’t too bad on the CPU usage either – running at around 25% with 10 MHz bandwidth on my ancient PC. Used with SDRConsole you can cover a good number of frequencies at once, and can record them if necessary. Of course, you can do this with SDRuno too, but at the moment only IQ – you can’t record individual frequencies.

Saying that, I’ve seen the SDRuno Roadmap for future releases and not only will recording of individual frequencies be possible, a more advanced scheduler is to be included. This is something I feel SDRConsole – amazing though it is – is lacking when it comes to single frequency recording. There is also the issue with SDRConsole that you are limited to recording only 6 hours worth of wav file per frequency.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the RSPdx and go2MONITOR.

To get the SDRs to work correctly with any of the go2 products means creating a configuration file and adding a ExtIO DLL file to the software. This is reasonably easy to do once you get use to it and it enables a GUI to become active so that you can control the SDR through go2MONITOR.

One interesting aspect with the RSPdx GUI is that regardless of what you enter as some of the parameters in the configuration file, the ExtIO file overrides these. Effectively, I just left some of the data as found in a basic configuration template and let the GUI do all the work for me.

So, below are some of the results with today’s first test.

First of all I went into the VHF/UHF side of things and targeted the local TETRA networks. These were found easily and after messing around with the GUI, I was able to get go2MONITOR set up to nicely find all the emissions within the 1.6 MHz bandwidth I’d chosen to use

From there, all I had to do was to select one of the found emissions and let the software do its thing.

Next I moved on to HF where there’s a plethora of data to choose from to test out the SDR. There was quite a large storm going through at the time and my Wellbrook loop and coax feed were getting a bit of a bashing with some considerable interference being produced with the really strong gusts, as can be seen below – the interference between the two HFDL bursts is one such gust.

I’ve frequently mentioned the Results Viewer that’s part of go2MONITOR and with things such as HFDL and TETRA, that process data quickly from lots of signals, this part of the software comes into its own.

The image below is two minutes of HFDL monitoring. All the red blocks is received data that scrolled through the Channel window too quickly to read live. In the viewer you can select any of the signals and you’ll be shown the message as sent. In this case, it is one sent by an Open Skies Treaty observation flight OSY11F.

By looking at the Lat/Long and comparing it to the flight history from FlightAware and its location at 1313z it ties in nicely. This flight was carried out by the German Air Force A319 1503 specially kitted out to make these flights.

go2MONITOR has a basic map function within the Result Viewer function so if there’s any Lat/Long position within any message it will plot it – as shown below for OSY11F at 1313z.

Within the General tab of Result Viewer you can get all the parameters of the signal.

One final test that I carried out was how well everything coped with a bigger bandwidth. In HF I can use up to 3 MHz of bandwidth with the licence I have – going up to 10 MHz once into VHF/UHF. In HF then, I selected 3 MHz in the GUI and then ran an emissions search.

My PC is nearing the end of its life but it coped easily with the amount of data found despite only having 4 GB of RAM with a 3.6 GHz AMD processor – a new PC is in the pipeline that is going to give me much better processing power.

Despite having 3 MHz available, not everything was identified. Most of this was at the fringes of the bandwidth, but some of the weaker signals also failed. That doesn’t mean you can’t then process them further, you can, it’s just the Emissions scan hasn’t quite been able to ID them. Saying that, the software managed to ID things within 2.2 MHz of the 3 MHz bandwidth.

I picked one of the weaker signals to see how both the RSPdx and software coped and they did very well, pretty much decoding all of the CIS-50-50 messages that were coming through on 8678 kHz.

So, overall, pretty pleased with how the RSPdx works with go2MONITOR.

Once I get a better PC I’ll be able to test at bigger bandwidths but even with 3 MHz here I was able to achieve the same, if not better, results than I have with the considerably more expensive WinRadio G31 Excalibur I have been using previously (running with the G33 hack software).

Not that I’m likely to really use go2MONITOR at big bandwidths – 1.6 MHz is probably fine for me – but for Pro’s there’s no doubt that having these “cheaper” SDRs would make absolutely no difference over using an expensive one such as those in the WinRadio range. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ll be holding on to the WinRadio for much longer – I’m more likely to get another RSPdx to cover this area of my monitoring.

On its own, as an SDR, the RSPdx is worth the money I’d say. I like it just as much as I do the AirSpy HF+ Discovery – the only real difference I can see between these two SDRs is the max bandwidth available.

Russian OTHR 29B6 Konteyner analysis

I recently completed an article for Jane’s Intelligence Review magazine on the activation in December 2019 of the Russian Over-the-Horizon Radar system (OTHR) 29B6 Konteyner near Kovylkino in Mordovia.

Like all of the articles I write for them, many parts and imagery are removed due to space constraints in the magazine – for example, see my previous blog on the Murmansk-BN EW system where I have been able to add a substantial amount of extras that couldn’t be published. So, whilst I can’t publish here the actual article on Konteyner, I can show some of the extras that were removed.

How OTHR works

I could go into how OTHR works, but it’s been covered elsewhere in extreme detail. One of the best places for a basic overview is Wikipedia, where the image below is taken from.

How a skywave OTH radar works: A powerful shortwave signal from a large transmitting antenna (left) reaches a target beyond the horizon by reflecting off the ionosphere, and the echo signal from the target (right) returns to the receiving antenna by the same route.
Image by Charly Whisky. More information on OTHRs is available on Wikipedia

Konteyner specifics

Officially designated Object 5452, construction work of the original transmitter and receiver sites commenced in 2000, taking two years to complete.

The Konteyner receiver site, with one array, was situated 6 km to the South West of Kovylkino, whilst the transmitter site – also with one array – was located 5 km north of Gorodets in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast. The system covered airspace to the west of Russia with a central bearing of 275 degrees, arcing out in a fan, with an approximate range of 3000 km (depending on radar pulse rates – covered later). Due to Ionospheric bounce a null area is created that is approximately 900 km in depth from the transmitter site. Here, nothing would be picked up by the Konteyner systems, and other OTHRs such as Resonans-N and standard Air Defence radar systems are used to fill in these gaps.

Gorodets transmitter site on 25/10/16

However, the Gorodets site is no longer in use, despite many blogs and expert publications saying otherwise – Jane’s included (until my article). Located at 56°41’34.1″N 43°29’11.3″E, this site has been dismantled since at least 6/2/18 according to Google earth imagery. All the concrete footings remain, but the antenna array is no longer there.

Gorodets transmitter site as it is now.

The receiver site at Kovylkino is still there, and from June 2016 construction had begun on two other receiver arrays, creating a triangle. Array one continued to cover a 275-degree bearing whilst the new arrays covered 155 degrees and 215 degrees.

Kovylkino receiver site with the original first array on the West.

Each receiving array contains 144 masts, all approximately 34 metres in height. They are split into three sections where the two outer ones – consisting of one group of 23 masts and the other of 24 – is between 300 and 310 metres wide. Each antenna here has 14 metres of spacing between them. The inner section contains the remaining 97 masts with 7 metres between each. The total length of the array is over 1.3 km.

Matching these receiver arrays was a new transmitter site just 15km to the South East. Imagery on Google Earth from 29/6/16 shows that there are three arrays being constructed in a Y pattern, each with the same three bearings as the receiver site. By 18/8/17 it is clear that the southern array originally thought to be covering 275 degrees instead covers 095 degrees. A second array is visible being built back to back with the 095 array to cover 275 degrees. Moreover, this meant that the original 275 degree receiver array was also being used by both transmitters.

Kovylkino transmitter site with many areas still under construction

The closeness of the transmitter site to the receiver site for long range OTHR systems is a strange one. In general they are a good 100 kilometers apart – the Australian JORN system is good example of this. Moreover, putting all the arrays so close to each other – at both sites – opens the whole system up to being destroyed, or put out of action, by just one air strike!

Each transmitter array has up to 11 generator buildings located to the rear of the antennas. Four of these buildings are also located at the original 095/275 degree receiver array. Google Earth imagery from 24/2/18 shows both sites still under construction. From 1st December 2018, combat testing of Konteyner had started and satellite imagery shows all four arrays to have generators in place by November 2018.

Generator buildings situated to the rear of the 095/275 receiver array. These appear to be the same as the 11 situated at each transmitter array.

The transmitter site consists of 44 masts in a line, 500 metres in length. The masts themselves are of differing height with the 22 tallest ones approximately 34 metres tall. The remaining 22 are approximately 25 metres in height. The masts are split up into groups of 11 of each kind.

095 bearing transmitter array at the new Kolvykino site, with the footings in place for the 275 degree array

With ranges of over 3000 km for each transmitter – effectively there are four OTHRs in use – the number of radar tracks that are captured will be in their thousands, many of which are civilian. Moreover, static features such as large buildings are also captured, showing as background noise or unknown tracks.

There are two methods used to eliminate the background noise. Firstly, during testing many of these will show through time and are deemed static and can be filtered out. Secondly, this type of OTHR – known as OTH-B or Over-the-Horizon Radar (Backscatter) – employ a Doppler effect to distinguish between static and moving targets requiring fast computers with high processing power. Doppler uses frequency shift created by moving objects to measure their velocity and so can track targets travelling at any speed, even down to 1 or 2 knots for ship traffic. Whilst older Russian OTHRs – and likely Konteyner in its early days – would have struggled in this area, modern computers can cope with the Doppler methodologies used. Anything deemed not moving by the Doppler effect can be eliminated as a potential threat or track, and are also filtered out.

To further eliminate any overloading caused by unwanted tracks, areas of interest are set up within the radar coverage which are then further split into smaller areas or “search boxes” where radar returns outside of these are ignored. These search boxes can be moved by operators as required.

The radar system is unable to determine any height parameters therefore each track is just a target at an approximate GPS position, and could be on the ground or anywhere up to 100 km in altitude! In other words, it is the equivalent to a primary track in the standard radar world. Moreover, each track could be displayed at an operators console with a radar return that depicts the target to be kilometres in size! This further complicates determining the actual location of the track.

Finally, OTHR technology does have another drawback that is much harder to filter out. Just by looking at the images below you can see that a substantial number of aircraft tracks are still captured within the search boxes, particularly in busy airspace such as around airports and heavily used civil ATC airway systems.

Here, a screengrab of a video release from 1st December 2019 when Konteyner went live shows the four areas covered by the four OTHRs, which then have search boxes at areas of interest.
A close up from the video, here showing Lt. General Andrei Demin, Commanding Officer of the 1st Air Defence Division, provides a better view of the search boxes from the 215 degree array. This antenna array obviously set up to cover the Black Sea region and Mediterranean Sea. The search boxes appear to only show air traffic, though Konteyner has the potential to pick up shipping too, and it clearly shows the busy airspace around Istanbul. It is highly likely that this area was selected for the search boxes to highlight the OTHRs potential at picking up traffic, but also to NOT show what it can pick up in the Med.

One thing that OTHR doesn’t have is an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) capability. Without IFF, this then makes it even harder to determine who is friendly, who is just an airliner or who is a potential threat.

Each of these tracks needs to individually interrogated and the routes plotted to eliminate the potential threat. For instance, all traffic into Istanbul pictured above tends to fly the same routes in and out of the airport there, so whilst the track can’t be fully removed from the display (or filtered out) it can be “ignored”. If IFF was an OTHR capability – and this is the same for other OTHR systems, not just Konteyner – then known transponder codes allocated to airports/airway systems etc. could then be filtered out. This happens in everyday ATC operations where certain transponder codes can be filtered out to remove clutter at the press of a button.

This then can make OTHR monitoring reasonably labour intensive for operators covering areas of high aviation activity despite modern computer technology being there to help.

OTHR range capabilities are controlled by the pulse rate of the signal sent by the transmitter site. In general, Konteyner operates at 50 pulses per second (pps) giving a range of approximately 3000 km. This pulse rate is also used by many other OTHRs such as the Australian JORN system (Jindalee Operational Radar Network).

Another screenshot taken from the media video at the operational handover of Konteyner showing the standard range of approximately 3000 km from Kovylkino, Mordovia.

OTHR has a potential advantage over standard radar systems in that it can track stealth aircraft such as USAF B-2s and F-35s. JORN reportedly tracked a USAF F-117 Stealth in the 1990’s that was on a round the world flight proving it couldn’t be picked up by radar! The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) were so confident they’d tracked it, they gave the details of positions the F-117 took to the USAF. I couldn’t find any confirmation on this from USAF documentation but it is possible.

By using the Ionospheric HF bounce, the radar is effectively looking down on top of the aircraft rather than at a very low angled Microwave radar signal head on to the target. This creates a larger return and using Doppler frequency shift is able to establish whether the track is moving, and at what speed. An early heads-up of a potential stealth bomber attack on Russia gives them the advantage of knowing where to send intercept aircraft and set up other defence methods. In the case of an ICBM strike, extra vital minutes warning can be provided. But, as previously mentioned, the position isn’t 100% accurate and can only provide an approximate location of the target – the system can not be used for any weapons fire control.

Konteyner signal received using an AirSpy HF+ Discovery SDR in high resolution with SDR# software
Close up of same signal. Due to the high resolution, the individual pulse sweeps can not be seen and are instead show as a blurred pattern.

As previously mentioned, in general Konteyner uses a 50 pps radar signal sent as frequency modulation on pulse (FMOP) using an approximate 12 to 14 kHz of bandwidth. However, through analysis of the Konteyner signals other pps rates of 25 and 100 have been recorded giving ranges up to 6000 km and 1000 km respectively. The manufacturer of Konteyner, NPK NIIDAR (Scientific and Research Institute for Long-Distance Radio Communications), has confirmed the 3000 km range, along with an altitude coverage of 100 km.

When analysing the signal in Procitec’s go2MONITOR software, the pulse sweeps can be seen much clearer, though still at this resolution there is a blurring to the sweeps. The software has automatically ascertained the sweep rate of 40 Hz – or 40 pps – at a bandwidth of around 12 kHz. A 40 pps sweep for Konteyner provides a radar coverage range exceeding the stated 3000 km – up to approximately 4000 km.

One find in my analysis of Konteyner signals was quite interesting.

Quite often when analysing OTHR signals closely, you can see weak Back-scatter return signals between the main pulses. These weak signals travel in the same radar sweep direction as the transmitted ones in either a down-sweep mode from a high frequency to a low one, or in an up-sweep mode from to low to high.

In the image below though you can see another, weaker, radar pulse emanating from the point the first down-sweep pulse ends, travelling up in frequency range and creating a V. If you look closely you can also see a very weak back-scatter signal from both.

My conclusion from this is that the up-sweep pulse is from the 095 degree Konteyner transmitter array, whilst the stronger down-sweep one is from the 275 degree array – the stronger signal is in theory pointing at my antenna in the UK and hence would be emanating from the 275 degree array.

The fact that this signal comes from the 095/275 arrays is a guess of course but I think I’m right. I am also going to guess that the complete radar pulse for the 095/275 transmitters starts at one end of one array, travelling along the 44 masts. When this pulse ends the other array starts in the opposite direction. Moreover, with this method there should be zero interference between the two arrays as they wont be transmitting at the same time.

In the image above, taken from from a screen grab of Procitec’s go2DECODE, you can see that each pulse is every 25 ms, therefore confirming a rate of 40 pps – the software also determines this automatically as shown in the table to the right. Also of note is the analysed signal in the frequency window (Hz) at the bottom. Here you can clearly see the V created by the two pulses.

When we look at the Time display window in go2DECODE (shown below) we can see that I’ve measured the total length of both pulses to be around 6.5 ms. But on closer inspection I think I’ve cut that short a little and it should be 8 ms. This would mean each pulse lasts 4 ms and ties in nicely with the 25 ms per pulse gap as there’s a 21 ms spacing between the end and start of each individual pulse.

I also wonder, that with a gap of 17 ms between the end of the second pulse and the beginning of the first one again, in theory there’s enough of a gap to fit two more 4 ms pulses between these from the the two remaining Konteyner arrays transmitting at 40 pps. Even at a higher 50 pps rate, the 12 ms gap is enough to allow the two remaining pulses to take place with a 4 ms buffer.

This then means that all four Konteyner transmitter arrays can be operational at the same time without causing any potential interference to each other, whether they use the same frequency or different ones. In this case, I’ve been lucky to capture two of the arrays using the same frequency – well, I think I have 🙂

Nevertheless, monitoring the Konteyner signals should bring some further interesting finds, especially if they are using the same frequency occasionally for different surveillance areas. Moreover, it would also be interesting to find all the various pps rates so that system ranges can be established.

Whilst for many, OTHR signals are a pain, wiping out other signals, they still have a lot to give when it comes to SIGINT gathering.

And it may not end at just the one Konteyner system. On the 1st December 2019 it was also announced that a further system would be activated to cover the Arctic region. At the moment, any potential sites have not been mentioned or found, but a likely site would be near Severodvinsk in the Arkhangelsk Oblast, or near Severomorsk in the Murmansk Oblast. Both of these are close to the 1st Air Defence Division headquarters located in Murmansk. My only negative thoughts on this would be that these sites are too close to areas of interest because of the ionosphere skip created, and also probably too far north – ionospheric bounce is not so good towards the poles.

As the original Konteyner transmitter site seems to be being maintained still, be it without any antennas, it also has the interesting aspect of being around 900 km south of the White Sea and areas of coverage needed – perfect for the ionospheric skip. Could this site be changed in aspect so that a transmitter array points to the north to cover the White Sea, Barents Sea and the northern Island? There’s certainly enough room to do this at the Gorodets site.

There has also been mention of another Konteyner site already in construction in the far east. At this time nothing has been found of any construction site that looks to be a Konteyner OTHR and I have my doubts about this. It was first muted in 2010, then again in 2018, and I would have expected something to be there by now.

I highly suspect that this plan has been abandoned, and the 095 degree OTHR of the Kovylkino Konteyner site has taken over the far east coverage.