Liman follow-up

Well, it’s a couple of days now since my blog on the Liman incident went live. I’ve had some great feed back on my coverage.

There has however been one individual that has not liked it so much. This is Steffan Watkins, owner of the blog Vessel of Interest. Mr Watkins was one of the unnamed characters I referred to in the Liman blog. He is widely regarded as a conspiracy theorist, and even has to go to the extent of denying it on his own blog. Whether he is or isn’t is irrelevant really.

Interestingly, a recent piece of work I was asked to do for Jane’s Intelligence Review magazine was to analyse an image of Russian navy Vishnya-class AGI Viktor Leonov to try and work out the various intelligence gathering systems that may be on board via all the different antennas visible. The actual article was written by Mr Watkins.

Now, up until this stage I really didn’t pay much attention to anything Mr Watkins wrote, mainly because what he wrote was aiming towards being the aforementioned conspiracy theories. But, he kind of came through with an interesting article – though it was nothing I didn’t know, as a group of us have been following Viktor Leonov for a few years now.

So, why hasn’t he enjoyed my blog? Well, I suggest you read it and see what he has come up with, and then come back here where I’ll answer his “questions”.

Hopefully, then you have read his blog on Liman now.

Firstly, lets talk about the “expert” part. He seems to think that I am condescending towards others from my comments. I am fully open to ideas and theories if there is evidence to back these ideas up and people also listen to what is being presented to them. In this case he did neither. And my references to things such as the Heather Sea evidence is clear – the ship wasn’t involved, it never was and yet people were still saying it was (not Mr Watkins I hasten to add, he hadn’t looked into anything outside the bubble of Liman). It was a quick and easy search through AIS history to see that it wasn’t, and yet people weren’t doing this. My reference to not being an expert is correct. I have no qualifications in the field of Radio Communications, I do not have an amateur radio licence and such like. I do not have a degree or a masters or any other diploma in the theories of radio – therefore I am not an expert. In ATC we have engineers that are experts in that – I wouldn’t dare tell them their job, just like they wouldn’t tell me how to keep aircraft apart. This is the reference I am making to being an expert.

He also mentions banter on twitter. There was no such thing, certainly not in my eyes. I’ve been around banter for decades – in the forces you need to be able to take it, and give it – and it is actually worse in the world of ATC. I can recognise banter when I see it. He also mentions an exchange of ideas. Yes there were exchanges of ideas, but he really wasn’t coming up with anything of substance. Instead, from his comments, he gave a picture that there was a conspiracy behind the incident – there had to be something because of the nature of the ship involved – an Intelligence Gatherer.

He actually says this in his blog:
Any ship could have an accident while at sea, in the fog, early in the morning. But, this wasn’t “any” ship; just by being a Russian Navy AGI (a “Spy Ship”) it makes me +1 suspicious. There is no good rational basis for that suspicion, except it’s a Russian Navy AGI, it definitely has sensitive gear aboard, and having it sink leaves a gap in whatever task it was doing, on the deployment it was on.

Why does this receive an extra degree of suspicion? Oh, that’s right, there’s no rational explanation, it’s just suspicious.

I wonder what Mr Watkins reactions were to the collision between a French Navy SSBN and a Royal Navy SSBN in the middle of the Atlantic in 2009. Holy shit, the French are at it again, trying to sink our navy 🙂

He refers to the fact that surely the Youzar Sif. H must have been able to have seen the Liman on radar:
The Liman was not a “stealth” ship, and as far as I understand, should have shown up on the navigational radar of the Youzarsif H; isn’t that why navigational radar exists?
Well, if two of the most expensive vessels in the sea, with some of the most sophisticated sonar and listening equipment ever made managed to thump into each other in the wide open Atlantic, then it is perfectly feasible for two ships to hit each other in thick fog in one of the busiest shipping lanes on the planet.

And it doesn’t even have to be in thick fog or underwater – ships hit each other. His Canadian navy had such an incident in 2013 in perfectly good weather when they were approaching each other.

Or there’s the Turkish Coast guard patrol boat that was hit in broad daylight, in the middle of the Bosporus, by a 158ft long Bulk carrier in August last year

Further about the radar he stated:
They were in thick fog, only navigating by instruments, and didn’t see a ship directly in front of them on radar?
Isn’t that weird?
I don’t think it reflects well on the Youzarsif H’s crew, unless the operations of the Liman were causing issues for the radar of the Youzarsif H. Yes, that’s wild speculation, because it makes no sense how a ship doesn’t notice a giant hulk of floating steel in front of it on radar. Make up your own crazy theory! It’s better than what we have now, which is nothing.

None of us know what radar system Youzar Sif. H has in place. I’ve been on quite a few ships in my time, civil and military – and of course I work with radar all the time. You get plenty of radar returns or “primaries” which you don’t know what they are, and you do your best to avoid them if you are not sure, but you have to make an assessment as what you think is a ship/aircraft and what is just weather (or a wind farm in a lot of ATC cases these days). The image here shows just a basic ships radar image, a modern one at that, so actually could be much better than the one on Youzar Sif. H – we won’t ever know I expect. Other radars are available of course, with more detail, but if Mr Watkins can work out what is what in this image then well done.

The next statement he produces is:
There have been no reports regarding who ran into who; or if it was a mutual effort. The news media is making it sound like they were both moving and collided in the fog. I’m not sure that’s correct.
He produces a list of things that could have happened – yes all obvious – but then doesn’t actual state why he thinks the news media are incorrect?? So why do you think this Mr Watkins?

He then mentions jamming of the AIS frequencies, but thankfully seems to have realised that this wasn’t the case. At the time of the “banter” he wasn’t stating that though:
See, there you go down the rabbit hole again. I’m wondering if the AGI screwed itself by engaging in EW in the same frequency range as AIS. 161.975/162.025 MHz range, within the usual Marine VHF band, right? Might explain the sketchy AIS coverage immediately prior.
Firstly, I’m still not sure what he’s referring to with EW. Early Warning?? Electronic Warfare?? Neither of which Liman is equipped for. And, secondly I went into great depths, the best I could at the time (see later) to try to explain the likely reason for the sketchy AIS coverage – all of which he kind of brushed aside for his more extreme likelihoods. Here, again he gives the air of being a conspiracy theorist.

We now get on to my favourite part of his blog:
•The Youzarsif H’s AIS signal was being received by terrestrial based AIS receivers, which Mr Roper described in his blog post with excruciating detail. The signal was very spotty before the collision, and crystal clear after the collision. This is the thing that really draws my eye and triggers my curiosity; it is the basis for much of my suspicion regarding this event. On the day Mr. Roper and I were discussing this he specifically dismissed my speculation that the issue could be related to the sender and insisted the gap in reception must be related to the receiver, or environmental conditions.
“This totally depends on the receiver not the sender! The receiver may have been off.”
-Tony Roper, 6:29 PM EST, May 4 2017
I tried to convey that my interest was less with the gap before the collision, and more with the immediate change to the signal quality (seemingly crystal clear reception) instantaneously after the collision, which Mr Roper had no explanation for at the time. It seems after reflection, he now theorizes the sender, may have had their antenna(s) facing away (blocked by the ship’s superstructure?) from the shore-based receiver when travelling Southbound (toward the Liman) and immediately after the collision turned around and faced their AIS antenna(s) toward the shore-based AIS-T receiver. This is fantastic speculation, and would explain how the signal went from terrible, to perfect, immediately, while other ships in the area had AIS-T signal all along.

Firstly, by excruciating detail I’m guessing Mr Watkins didn’t understand it. You must forgive me for trying to explain how something works instead of just giving less than half information on how something works. If he thinks my information was excruciating then maybe he should read the Propagation pages in the ARRL handbook which is spread over 30 pages. Or maybe he should go to websites such as:
Make more miles on VHF
HF Propagation tools
Or one of the many pages by Tomas Hood on propagation
It is obviously a fault of mine to make something interesting for the reader, that will hopefully teach them something.

I said above that at the time I did my best to try to explain to Mr Watkins what may have happened. This he seems to have thrown back in my face, alluding that I may have changed my mind on my original thoughts. I didn’t dismiss his thoughts but pointed out that there may have been a break in coverage. The interesting thing is the quote he has used, taken at 6:29PM EST. This was actually 23:59PM UK time, I was in a hotel room, 450 miles away from my computers and AIS systems. Maybe Mr Watkins has presumed that the rest of the planet is running at the same time as Canada, and that we were all glued to our PC’s? I made the best assessment at the time – and you know what, I wasn’t far wrong in the theory of coverage, as I proved in the blog.

He says I have “reflected” and changed my mind. No, I haven’t Mr Watkins. It’s a combination of both sender and receiver. I didn’t reflect. What I did was, on getting home, do some further analysis. Something Mr Watkins has quite clearly not done. He can only produce the same data on the what Youzar Sif. H did both before and after the incident. He still hasn’t come up with anything else – yet he has the nerve to criticise my analysis.

Come on Mr Watkins, show us some workings out. Do some actual analysis.

Here’s something for you. Data taken today from the same region.

The image below shows the tracks for various ships and their plots as received on AISLive

Holy crap – how do we explain all those gaps in the plots especially the ones on the rough route Youzar Sif. H took?? How the hell does the furthest ship away from any receivers have the best plot history?? Hmmmm, please do tell Mr Watkins. Maybe the Russians are jamming the area from outer space? Maybe there’s another AGI there?? Or maybe there’s just a poor area of reception.

The picture below shows the same area, at the very same time, but this time taken from MarineTraffic.

I’ve purposefully highlighted Reina as it is also highlighted in the AISLive image. The red ship to at the bottom is also on the AISLive image as the fully tracked ship. But what is that? MSC Eleonora is showing here, but isn’t on AISLive – what the hell?? How does that happen?? Please explain with all your worldly knowledge Mr Watkins.

Here’s some extra data for you, just so that you realise that AIS receivers aren’t on all the time (mine was off whilst 450 miles away for the weekend by the way). The three receiver examples that I used for the blog have the following averages for receiver availability over the last two months:
Istanbul = 93.3%
Burgas = 98.9%
Elena = 97.95%
So, not available all the time then.

He ends the large waffle with:
Can we prove this theory with the available data? Well, it’s certainly not as clear as I would like it to be. It is still crystal clear that immediately after the collision the AIS transmissions went from random times between successful transmissions to a steady stream at 3-4 minutes

The following day, still in the hotel 450 miles away from all my gear, I sent Mr Watkins roughly the same as the above showing a plot of another ship with the same loss of coverage. That obviously wasn’t enough evidence to make it “crystal clear”. I then produced my blog with further evidence – including an example of Youzar Sif. H with a loss of 14 hours of coverage – which again obviously wasn’t “crystal clear”, but was in fact excruciatingly full of too much detail for Mr Watkins. I have now produced the above which explains – yet again – that there are gaps in the coverage, yet other ships somehow have a better plot history. I suspect though, that all this will be far too foggy for Mr Watkins and he still will not be able to see anything clearly – except for a conspiracy.

Propliner Annual 2017

Just a quick post to inform you that this years Propliner Annual is now available to purchase.

Going on from last years successful year book, the 2017 edition is 108 pages of fantastic articles and photographs – many of which are in full colour (though the black and white images of days gone by are also great to see).

As well as a run down of what has been happening in the Propliner world over the last year or so, the year book contains 16 articles, including the following:

The history of the Avro 748 with VARIG in Brazil
The Barkley-Grow T8P-1 operations in Canada
A tour around Austria on Austrian Airlines Avro 748s in 1969
The aviation enterprises of John Gaul
BOAC’s fleet of early Lockheed L-049 Constellations
Flying on a Wilderness Seaplanes Grumman Goose in British Columbia
NASA’s Super Guppy
A tour of the ramp at Opa Locka
A tour of airfields in southern California and Arizona
The history of a Douglas DC-6A delivered new to Canadian Pacific Air Lines in 1958 which is still operational in Alaska with Everts Air Cargo.
Lockheed Electras flown by Cathay Pacific
Polynesian Airlines Percival Princes operations
Airlines of South Australia Douglas DC-3s operations
The early history of TACA in Central America

At just £11 in the UK including p&p this is a bargain. Prices outside of the UK are a little bit more at £13 for Europe and £15 for the rest of the World, but this is marginal for such a high quality publication.

If you’re interested in buying a copy then head over to the dedicated page on the Propliner website, where you can pay by PayPal.

Monitoring the Russian Navy Northern Fleet in CW

I have realised that I haven’t posted an article that I wrote for The Spectrum Monitor, published in October 2016, on monitoring the Russian navy Northern Fleet. Here it is its entirety, with a few extras. A French translation of the article is available at the bottom of the page.october20161

A brief history of the Northern Fleet

The Russian Northern Fleet has to be my favourite one of all the fleets for monitoring in CW mode. I suspect the main reason goes back to my childhood days, during the heat of the Cold War, when we were constantly warned about Russian submarines leaving the frozen north to wipe out the Western world with a nuclear strike from the deep. The Cold War days are long gone now, but the Northern Fleet (NF) continues to exist, be it in a much reduced way. However, things are afoot, and it seems as if the Russians may well be starting to build up their forces again in the frozen North.

In the 1950’s, when the first ballistic missile submarines were brought into service, the Northern fleet went from being the least funded of the fleets to the most funded. The direct access to the Barents Sea and North Atlantic meant that bases in the Kola Peninsula could let out SSBN’s almost undetected – something the submarine bases at that time in the Baltic would not, and still cannot, manage.

The Northern Fleet covers not only the Northern Coast of Russia, but also the White Sea, Barents Sea, Kara Sea and the Arctic. The main base is at Severomorsk with an additional base at Severodvinsk covering the White Sea. As well as these there are numerous outposts and smaller bases used by all vessels of the NF, including Submarines.

Severomorsk became the fleet’s headquarters at the end of 1956, taking over from Polyarny in the Kola Bay, but expansion throughout the whole area was rapid, effectively making the entire region one large base with many of the areas being “closed” towns. The bastion strategy was created to protect the ballistic missile fleet, most of which operated in the Arctic region, close to home, it was only the older class of missile boats that ran the risk of passing through the GIUK gap for the Eastern shores of the USA. With modern SSBN’s being created at a fast rate, these boats were built with the ability to launch their weapons whilst still in harbour – they actually didn’t need to go anywhere to bring about their death and destruction. The large destroyers and cruisers were created to protect the region, whilst the aircraft carriers, or aircraft carrying cruisers as they are known, were also constructed to defend the bastion areas from western submarine activity. Unlike US Carrier groups, the Kutzetsov-class aircraft carriers operated as a regional defender rather than a strike group leader, and because of this they only carried interceptor aircraft. It is only now that the single carrier remaining is being given an aircraft strike capability, though this hasn’t been entirely successful in the recent operations in the Mediterranean.

Webcams are a great source of information and can help in identifying either callsigns of ships or at least a potential build up in traffic. Here, Sierra II-class SSN “Pskov” departs Severodvinsk for trials of what is believed to be a sonar system. The required permanent attachments (only recently added) can just be made out on the bow of the boat

The bastions that were created weren’t totally impenetrable, We now have post-Cold War stories emerging of various missions by British and United States submarines that managed to infiltrate the protected waters. Collisions in 1992 and 1993 of Russian and United States submarines in the Kola bay highlight this very fact, though by this time the fall of the Soviet Union had already taken place, and the NF was in a big decline capability wise.

Just over an hour later after the departure of “Pskov”, Zvezdochka-class support ship “Zvezdochka” heads into the White Sea and was captured on the webcam. This ship uses the callsign RMNN on the CW networks.

Funding seemed endless for the Russian forces during the Cold War years, but with the end of the USSR, came the end of the funding. The NF no doubt felt the blow the most as the majority of the fleet were intended to act as a deterrent to the forces of the west and no longer were there these threats. Submarines and ships lay rotting in harbour, the carriers were decommissioned and the many outlying bases were abandoned. Nowhere else, from satellite imagery, shows more the effects of the fall of the Soviet Union navy than the ruins of remote outposts, small naval bases, SAM sites and wrecks of the NF that are scattered along the whole of the coast of Northern Russia. If you have quite a few hours to kill, going to Google Earth/Google maps and scouring the coastline will bring you to places where you can only imagine what it was like to live there, though many are still lightly populated. Google Earth’s linking to the photo website Panoramio brings you even closer to these locations with places such as Goryachiye Ruchyi and its images of a Primorye-class Intelligence ship wrecked on the shore (69°10’31.87″N 33°28’29.90″E) or the near abandoned submarine servicing base at Gremikha (Ostrovnoy), a “Closed city” complex on the shore of the Barents Sea (68° 3’54.14″N 39°27’30.64″E).

In its current form, the NF is still the largest in the Russian navy, consisting of approximately 80 warships, half of which are submarines. There is around this number again in service ships, tugs, Icebreakers etc. However, despite being the largest fleet, it isn’t the most modern! Most of the ships in the fleet are approaching the end of their career, having been upgraded on numerous occasions. The actual readiness of most of the ships is unknown but utilising the historical imagery facility in Google Earth shows that many of the ships have not moved for months, even years. They move from pier to pier, but this will be to make a landing area available for a serviceable ship and the move will unlikely to have been under the ships own steam. A good example is Kirov-class Battle Cruiser Pytor Velikiy which is either alongside or moored in the Severomorsk bay when analysing images from the last year or so. This ship is almost definitely waiting on its sister ship Admiral Nakhimov completing a substantial modernisation programme at Severodvinsk before having the same work carried out. Using Google Earth you can follow Admiral Nakhimov’s refit with the historical function at position 64°34’34.16″N 39°48’53.78″E, though it is very noticeable that the ship has been in Severodvinsk since 2003!

With satellite imagery available to the public getting better all the time, the use of Google Earth can help identify ships that are active by using the historical imagery function and noting any movement. Here, with just a small amount of work, I’ve been able to identify the ships in port at Severomorsk, including naming two if the ships. Taking notes of what is where on which dates helps with the analysis.

The main Severomorsk region is made up of seven bases, shipyards and nuclear waste facilities, including the submarine bases at Polyarny and Gadzhiyevo. Further to the North, and the frozen (and unfrozen now) Arctic are more bases, shipyards and nuclear facilities. Following the coast round to the White Sea, there are the base and shipyards of Severodvinsk and many other smaller ports and bases. It is this region of the NF that has generated many of the unknown CW callsigns that we have for the fleet.

The White Sea in itself can be classed as a big military testing area. Not only are trials carried out for new ships that have been built at Severodvinsk, it is also used for testing of ships out of maintenance, testing of new equipment such as sonar; and it is used heavily in weapons trials, including cruise missile testing. There is what is believed to be a weapons range at the entrance to the White Sea from the Barents, on the Eastern shore at Chizha (67° 4’12.71″N 44°18’17.18″E – the area surrounded by hundreds of craters, some of which are actually natural from meteorites) and to the West of Severodvinsk is the missile testing launch facility of Nyonoksa (64°38’44.78″N 39°13’21.78″E). Here they oversee the testing of cruise missiles, but from land based launchers.

The bigger missile tests, those from SSBN submarines, generally take place in the Barents Sea, with launch ranges set up when required in the areas between Murmansk and the White Sea. Most of these will point to the NE where the missiles will head for the Kura missile range.

Severomorsk also has webcams. Here the two images show how you can roughly log arrivals and departures of certain ships. In this image various ships can be seen including a Borey-class SSBN highlighted by the arrow. This is likely to be "Vladimir Monomakh" which left Severomorsk for its new base at Vilyuchinsk in the Pacific on the 15th of August. In the image below, captured just two hours later, the only Russian Aircraft Carrier, Kuznetsov-class “Admiral Kuznetsov” has arrived in port. This was undergoing pre-deployment maintenance and trials before she headed to the Mediterranean. You’ll also notice that the Borey has drifted around making it harder to identify from this angle.

Severomorsk also has webcams. Here the two images show how you can roughly log arrivals and departures of certain ships. In this image various ships can be seen including a Borey-class SSBN highlighted by the arrow. This is likely to be “Vladimir Monomakh” which left Severomorsk for its new base at Vilyuchinsk in the Pacific on the 15th of August. In the image below, captured just two hours later, the only Russian Aircraft Carrier, Kuznetsov-class “Admiral Kuznetsov” has arrived in port. This was undergoing pre-deployment maintenance and trials before she headed to Mediterranean. You’ll also notice that the Borey has drifted around making it harder to identify from this angle.


Monitoring the Northern Fleet

Whilst operating within the NF area of operations (AOP), instead of using the standard frequencies of 8345kHz and 12464kHz, the ships use a pool of frequencies in a regional network system. There are a large number of frequencies in this pool, seemingly all within a seasonal schedule system as used by other Russian forces networks. The interesting thing is that even though they do stick to the set frequencies available to use within a set period of dates, the selection of which frequency to use would appear to be random, though I doubt for a moment that it is.

Frequencies that have been used by the Northern Fleet in CW mode, downloadable in PDF format.

As there are so many frequencies available to the NF, the radio operators would need to monitor all of them for any calls that are made – this would be huge task. The theory is that within each season grouping there is an additional frequency network schedule that is either transmitted in a coded format, or it is in a document, which then tells both ends which frequencies to use on specific dates. In general, all the ships on the same day will use the same frequency so whatever system they use, it definitely works.

Sent out by Severomorsk (RIT) to callsign RLO, a collective callsign for all ships operating in the NF, “RADIOPROGNOZ” messages seem to be one of the main methods used by the NF to assist with this, an example of which is below.

RLO DE RIT QTC 110 34 1 0057 110 =
01024 03003 30000
00001 00006 30009
00002 00006 30010
00005 00006 40010
00006 00006 40012
00102 00006 30009
00001 00612 40009
00002 00612 40010
00005 00612 50012
00006 00612 50013
00102 00612 40010 =

In Cyrillic, RADIOPROGNOZ is actually радиопрогноз, and translated into English this means Radio Forecast, literally it is Radio Prognosis. Luckily, there’s plenty of documentation available that confirms that радиопрогноз refers to propagation, including the Great Soviet (and Russian) Encyclopaedia which states: Pадиопрогноз – forecast radio conditions on shortwave (as translated).

In the above RadioPrognoz example, if you ignore the first line of the message for now, it is clear that the first column is numbered regions and the second column is times (ignore first zero, it is a spacer, so 00006 = midnight to 6am). As far as I can find online there has only been a few messages logged by an amateur that refers to the afternoon (has column two with groups of 01218 and 01824), the majority have been morning ones only, but this is probably down to monitoring habits more than anything. Column three then refers to the MUF, Frequency range or frequency channel number in some way or other, and my thoughts are that the first number is possibly the lower frequency available, the other figure is the higher one, with spacer zeros in-between.

So, this would be helpful in determining what frequency or frequencies to monitor you’d think? Well, unfortunately not. Most of the frequencies used by the NF are in the 4MHz range which as you can see is pretty much covered by the propagation prediction. I can honestly say that it is still a bit of guesswork at the moment.

Going back to the first three groups, the first one refers to the date the forecast covers, in the case of the example it is 01024 = 01 (day) 02 (month of year) 4 (year without the first digit) or 1st Feb 2014. Not sure on the other two groups, but possibly average previous MUF numbers, solar activity etc. The zeros could well just be spacers like the rest of the message.

One final note on this is that as far as I’m aware, no other fleet uses RadioPrognoz messages.

Severomorsk, NE of Murmansk, is really one large military base made up of numerous small ones. The main base is at Severomorsk (which in itself also has two airfields), with Kola Bay being used for the Submarine fleets and small patrol boats used to defend the whole area. Polyarny is where you’ll find the Patrol Submarines and ships, with Gadzhiyevo being the home of the larger Submarines, including the SSBN’s.

All other messages found within the NF networks are those found elsewhere, including of course the FM-13 weather reports. Unfortunately, these are not as useful as they are when ships are operating outside of their AOR. As a lot of the ships tend to stick within the NF region there is little way of tying up the callsigns to the ships. Some of the ones we have been able to tie-up are the long range Hydrographic ships which leave the area frequently. Quite often their missions are given news space on official Russian navy webpages and newspapers, and with some investigation work most have been worked out. Some of the other larger ships have also been tied up including Udaloy-class Destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov (CW callsign RGR35), with the others generally being tankers and support ships.

In one of my first TSM articles (Monitoring the Russian Navy – Part One) I mentioned callsign RMMA and how we worked out that this was Vishnya-class Intelligence ship Viktor Leonov of the NF, so if you are able to find that article then you can see how hard and how long it takes to sometimes work out which callsign belongs to which ship. Sometimes callsigns do fall into your lap though, such as NF Survey/Research Ship Yantar that has a callsign RMM91. This ship actually uses its CW callsign as its AIS identification callsign and can be fully tracked using any online AIS monitoring website. At the time of writing (18th Sept at 1330z) the ship is about 180nm east of Malta, heading east, and its destination is eventually Novorossiysk. Yauza, a cargo ship, was also tied up using AIS plots when an unknown callsign on CW was moored off the SE of England to wait to transit the English Channel. I took a quick look in the area using MarineTraffic and found the ship immediately. Just good luck really.

Not many ships in the Russian navy use AIS, but you will find that some of their smaller tugs are starting to have the systems installed. These ships are not CW fitted I doubt due to their operations, but they can be an indication of possible activity of larger when you see them moving. Tie these movements up to some areas that have webcams and you can get some interesting results.

I personally split my NF callsigns up into two regions. One that operates in all areas of the NF AOP, and another that operates in the majority within the White Sea. It’s not 100% accurate as the ships do move around, but there are some obvious ones that only ever stay in the White Sea. They are very active in this area, especially when it is the summer/autumn periods (when the White Sea isn’t frozen over) and especially when there are exercises and trials taking place. Ships seem to station themselves close to the same locations quite often and my guess is that they are guard ships closing off the whole of the area when tests are taking place. Because they rarely leave the White Sea, of all the callsigns that have been heard only one has been tied up – RMNN which is rescue tug Zvezdochka.

This image shows the areas in the White Sea that many FM-13 messages refer to, especially during weapons trials.

It is because of this rarity of leaving the White Sea that I find the NF fleet frequencies the most interesting. And, as I’ve said earlier, they can be extremely busy. One of the busiest weeks was down to the testing of a Bulava missile that was launched from a new Borey-class SSBN in 2013. Unlike most tests for SSBN launches which take place from the Barents Sea, this was from the White Sea because it was just a test of the submarines launcher system and not the actual missile. Because of this test there were around ten ships operating in the area for support and security, with around 30 FM-13 messages and others sent in a day.

Although it is fairly unlikely we will ever tie-up most of these NF callsigns, it is the challenge of analysis and intelligence gathering on what they could be that is the most fun part.

The main transmitter site for Severomorsk is the West of the city, NW of the main airfield on a hill overlooking the bay. Here is almost definitely the HF site (CW callsign RIT) and probably a VLF site. There are also numerous other transmitter and radar sites dotted around the whole area.

French translation of the article provided by Andre

Recent published work and photography processes

It’s been a busy six months or so for me with regards to having work published.

My main work has been the continuous analysis of the Russian navy to assist the editor of Fighting Ships, Stephen Saunders, to keep the data in the yearbook as accurate and up to date as possible. This information is also used in the on-line version of the yearbook. The current 2016/2017 edition is now available with plenty of my Russian navy data included, along with photos that I’ve taken. jfs2016_001

As you know I stopped selling the yearbooks last year (apart from a large sale at the beginning of this year) and since then IHS have added older titles to their online store. Though not as cheap as I was able to get them, it may be worth taking a look to see if there’s any titles you may need in your collection. Here’s the link to the Fighting Ships page in the store.

As with all things involved with data analysis, looking into one thing generally off-shoots into another. From the OSINT work that I generally do for Fighting Ships, I normally have to take notes and data which would also fit into some of the other yearbooks. Some of this data has been sent to the various editors of the C4ISR yearbooks, which I hope will also be included in future publications. And there’s also photographs of radars, weapons and other systems that I’ve been taking over the last few years that hopefully will also be of use.

jir_july_001 jir_aug_001








The OSINT work also brought me to the attention of one of the IHS magazines, Jane’s Intelligence Review. Since May I have worked on three articles for this magazine, two in conjunction with other writers, and one on my own. I am currently working on two more pieces for them, but at this time I can’t divulge on the subject matter. jir_sep_001

The work has been very interesting indeed, and has brought me a couple of new acquaintances and friends from it. I’m hoping that that I can carry on with other articles for them once the two I’m working on now are complete. jir_aug_002

Another magazine by IHS, Jane’s Navy International, has used a couple of my photos in recent months with hopefully more to follow. The magazines can be subscribed to from the IHS magazine online store.

It’s good work editing images for magazines, but its certainly a lot harder than it used to be – in general for less money than what you used to receive. The advent of digital photography has reduced the prices one gets for inclusion in magazines, mainly due to the fact that so many people now do it and so the editors have a plethora of images available to them. The silly thing is that in the old days you used to only take the photo, normally on slide film (Kodachrome 64), with no further editing by yourself (unless you happened to process the images in your own darkroom – I didn’t!). You’d send away the film to Kodak who would process it for you, and then you’d check over the slides after they’d been returned, deciding on which ones to send away. The only real work needed was to annotate the slide with basic information, and include a letter with further notes and where to post the cheque payment if used. Of course, you’d never see the slide again, and so if you wanted to have a copy for yourself then you’d need to take two photos – it was costly business using slide hence the payments you received being greater than they are now for far less work (one trip to the USA cost me more in Kodachrome 64 than it did in flights!!).

These days, the full photo process takes much longer.

Take the recent Joint Warrior (JW) exercise that I photographed. For this exercise I set aside two days for the actual photography. I then needed a further four days to carry out the actual editing of the photos for various publications! With current copyright laws, and the fact that most publishers are aware that photographers send away the very same image for inclusion in different magazines, the publishers now insist on exclusivity with an image (including publication online). Because of this, as a photographer you have to think ahead about who you are taking photos for. With JW I was thinking of three main possible targets – Fighting Ships, Jane’s Navy International and Warships IFR. As well as these I also had to think about the various other yearbooks by IHS (C4ISR and Weapons). So, if one ship comes along I need to take at least three images of it, maybe milliseconds apart, to cover the three main publications. Multiply that by a few hundred and you can see that there is a lot of images to go through once back home.

Back home then, I now need to process the images myself – no longer do they go away to Kodak for initial processing, and the publication no longer fine tunes the image for what ever use they may have. You need to trim it, get the exposure and colours right and make sure it’s sharp. Not only do you need to edit each image, you also have to include additional information for each one. This needs to be a title, your name, copyrights, what the subject is, when and where you took it and any other information you may think is needed for the publisher. With over 400 photos to go through for this JW it took a lot of time to carry out the whole process – 4 days as I’ve already said. From the 400 or more images that I took, I sent away around 70. How many of those will finally end up being published is unknown but I hope that it is around half of them.

Saying all that, it really is good fun and I still enjoy seeing my photos in any publication, be it book or magazine. I recently bought a new gadget for my GoPro, a time-lapse timer that moves the camera, and I decided to test it out whilst editing one of the images taken at Joint Warrior. The result of that test is below:


wifr_001 Talking of having things published in Warships IFR, I have actually had quite a good amount put into print for this magazine recently. And I believe there is to be a good spread in the December edition with images taken from the Joint Warrior exercise that I have mentioned above. I also hope to start writing the occasional piece for the magazine.

I’ll keep you informed.

The Spectrum Monitor article June 2016

tsm_june_001A few months later than normal, but here’s a copy of my article from the June edition of The Spectrum Monitor

Russian Navy around the World

The Russian Navy has started to get active again after the usual period of rest over the winter months. The main reason for this is because most of the areas the Navy operate from in the North are frozen over, and are only just now starting to thaw out. There are three busy areas that produce the most traffic in the summer, but one of those practically disappears over the winter; and that is the area that falls under the command of the Northern Fleet, and in particular the White Sea. I intend to cover the Northern Fleet in much greater soon.

One thing that is noticeable is that the fleets seem to have moved to a more regional network of frequencies. They used them anyway before, but in general they tended to stick to 8345 kHz at night and 12464 kHz during the day as the main ship frequencies. I suspect that with the large increase of ships becoming active these frequencies were getting saturated with calls – something that was becoming noticeable as ships were “stepping” on each other. I mentioned last time that these main frequencies were quiet, and it now looks like this it was the reason.

As I say, I’ll go into regional stuff through the rest of the year so I’ll concentrate on a couple of interesting things that have happened over the last few months.

One of my favourite ships is Admiral Vladimirskiy, a Akademik Krylov Class Survey/Research Ship that uses the CW callsign RHO62. From late August 2014 this ship carried out a round the world trip, starting from the Baltic Sea headquarters at Kronshtadt, routing around the north coast of Russia through the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea and through the Bering Straits. From there it head south down to Taiwan and then across the Pacific to Corinto in Nicaragua, down through the Panama Canal, across the Atlantic to Brest, through the English Channel and home to Kronshtadt. It returned home on the 18th of January 2015 – a huge trip and one that our small group of monitors was able to track the whole way round, probably getting around 95% of all weather/TESAC reports that it sent. After that, it needed a good rest, and that it had until November last year when it set sail for the Antarctic.

Again, we have been able to follow its travels all the way down to the Northern edge of the Antarctic Ice belt, where it operated for some time near Davis Station, part of the Australian Antarctic program. They have a great website which provides various webcams, but unfortunately Vlad didn’t get within their sights. It’s worth checking out their website, just so that you can watch the fascinating time-lapse videos that are produced from the webcams. Vlads route took it this time through the Med, through the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden, along the East coast of Africa, stopping off at Madagascar for Christmas. Then it was down to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, before its final push to the Antarctic, getting there mid-January. For its time down to around Madagascar it stuck to 8345 or 12464 for its reports, but later on it transferred to 8460 kHz where it then spent most of its time. It would try the other frequencies should it not get through of course, there’s a huge selection that it could choose from.

8460 kHz is noted as being used by RMP (Baltic Fleet HQ at Kaliningrad) but in fact Vlad was calling RJH25 to pass on its messages. RJH25 is a RX/TX site in Kyrgyzstan and in this case is used in simplex instead of the normal duplex. This was good because it meant we were able to get both sides of the conversation easier than having to monitor lots of frequencies in duplex mode. A link to Google maps is in my callsign list which shows the RJH25 antenna site.

Here is one of my receptions of a FM-13 weather report from the 15th February on 8345 kHz:
0010z RHO62 586 20 15 0301 586 = SML FOR RJH45 RJH48 RJH74 RJD38 =
15001 99655 30900 22233


Distance from RHO62 to my Wellbrook Loop antenna using Google Earth

I’ve missed out most of the weather information to show the relevant data for positioning. The data equates to RHO62 being at 65.5S 90.0E heading SE @ 11-15kts. This is approximately 9670 miles from ship to my Wellbrook Loop antenna!! I must say, I am very pleased with that achievement.

So, what are the Hydrographic ships of the Russian Navy doing? Their main task is to carry out data acquisition of the waters that the Russian navy operate in, which is why the TESAC is very important to them. The checking of sea temperatures against salinity levels helps them in various ways, but there are two particular reasons for this data. One, is that temperature and salinity actually affect how torpedoes and missiles from underwater launches travel through the water – the higher the salinity and colder the sea water is, the more it can cause drag. The second is for much the same reason, but in this case it is for Submarines. Not so important for the Nuclear powered ones, but a little more so for the SSK’s as this can affect the time they can stay underwater before requiring to surface to “snort” and power up their batteries.

The TESAC data also provides the depth of the sea though most of the Hydrographic ships will have equipment that fully maps the sea beds. Again, depths are important, especially for the Submarine fleets, and I suspect they use these ships to map potential routes to strike areas for the SSBN’s. You see a good amount of Hydrographic ship activity in the Northern waters of the Arctic for instance, as with the higher sea temperatures, and the receding Ice cap, more routes are becoming available there – and this is useful for the ships too.

And finally, of course, the Hydrographic ships will be providing information to the Russian Government, not only on things like climate change but also in the search for oil and minerals. The Russians have a civilian Hydrographic fleet for this, but it is not large and so they will use data acquired from the navy too.

The navy fleet consists of around 80 ships that are potentially capable of providing Hydrographic readings, though it is hard to find out exactly whether each one can or cannot. There’s certainly quite a few in the Baltic, where they test the SSK’s and torpedoes. And there’s also plenty in the Northern fleet which has a huge areas in the Barents Sea and White Sea for the testing of missiles launched from SSBN’s. They will use the Hydrographic ships to analyse the water before and after any trials of the submarines or weapons.

Monitoring 8460 Khz for RHO62 also brought us some luck with another callsign, RMGZ, a Prut Class Submarine Rescue Ship named Epron. This had in late summer 2015 travelled east from its home at Sevastopol in the Black Sea, again via the Med and Suez Canal where it was eventually lost from our radios off the east coast of Sri Lanka. It had been erratic on 8345 up until then anyway, and this was probably because it looks like it was using 8460 as its primary frequency. Of course, we didn’t know this as we weren’t monitoring it. Epron was heading towards Visakhapatnam in India to take part in exercises and later on in a Navy exhibition. My furthest east report from it was at 16.3N 82.5E, about 50km SW of Visakhapatnam. Epron is now at home in Sevastopol after its long journey.

Prut-class Submarine Rescue ship “Epron” transits the Bosporus on its journey home to the Black Sea – Photo by Yörük Işik

I mentioned last time Project 550 Large Dry Cargo and Passenger ship Yauza which uses the callsign RHM80. Yauza has been a very busy ship over the last few months as part of the Russian ferrying of equipment and troops to Syria – named by many as the “Syrian Express”.

In all, our tracking of RHM80 shows it made five trips to Tartus from either Sevastopol or Novorossiysk , both being Russian Navy bases in the Black Sea. The last trip to Tartus has ended, and instead of heading round towards the Bosporus, it headed towards Malta, arriving there on the 4th of April; it will probably travel onwards to its Northern Fleet base of Murmansk after picking up some supplies for the journey from Valletta. The Russian navy quite often uses Valletta as a stop off point and with plenty of ship photographers there, it is a useful port for tying up callsigns to ships.

Of course we will be tracking it all the way home on 8345 and 12464 as it is very good at sending FM-13’s every six hours as required. It also sends lots of “11111” messages – so called because of the first five figure group in messages to Moscow (RIW), Sevastopol (RCV) and Severomorsk (RIT). These are status messages I believe and of low priority, and are very common. But, you don’t need to be listening out on the Russian frequencies to track Yauza, you can just use MarineTraffic to track it. Just enter its name into the search area.

Yauza wasn’t the only ship involved in the “Syrian Express” so there was plenty of traffic from other ships. Some of the callsigns we know and some of them we don’t. There’s still a couple of Large Landing Ships that are avoiding us, but it looks like I have been able to tie-up at least one ship that is currently involved in Syria – and this is RKA80. This I believe is Slava Class Missile Cruiser Varyag, and it’s given itself away by sending messages via RCV for RJS, the callsign for Pacific Fleet HQ, Vladivostok. The messages started around the time that Varyag arrived in the Mediterranean Sea so time will tell if it disappears from the frequencies once it departs the operational area. It has recently stopped sending messages with the extra section for RJS so I wonder if it’s realised it was giving itself away? An example of their messages is here:

1900z RKA80 639 106 29 1230 639 = SML FOR RJS =

I removed most of the message for ease as this one was 106 groups long, but this was part of what looks like a standard schedule of three priority messages, each well into the hundreds of groups (normally around the 150 mark)

Well, I hope I haven’t gone on too much. Not much frequency information for you this time but I that I plan to change when I start with the Fleet information articles in the future. 8460 kHz monitoring has also bought us some other interesting things which wasn’t known before – but that would fill one article on its own.

As I say, keep an ear out on 8345 Khz and 12464 kHz. And if you’re on the West Coast of North America then try 8348 kHz which seems to be the Pacific Fleet primary CW frequency. If you do decide to give it a try then if you do manage to get anything, in particular from North America, then please do contact me either using my contact info in my blog, or via the TSM editor. I’m very keen to see what coverage there is elsewhere in the world.

Since the time that I wrote the article I have confirmed that RKA80 is Varyag

Project 21631 Buyan-M class Patrol ship Zelenyy Dol transits the Bosporus, heading for its first ever patrol. It was heading for the port of Tartus as part of the Russian Syrian crisis fleet. Since this image was taken, sister ship Sepukov also deployed to the Med, and after further deployments both have transferred to the Baltic. Both of these ships will be two of the unknown callsigns we’ve picked up recently – photo by Yörük Işik

February’s Blackjacks

After a couple of days of teasing us with the standard “W” markers in CW, on the 17th February the Russian Air Force (Военно-воздушные cилы России [BBC России]) carried out a Long Range Aviation mission using two Tu-160 Blackjacks.

I was able to monitor nearly the whole mission on HF (both in CW and Voice USB), with a small amount on UHF (though no Russian Air to Air voice comms were received on VHF/UHF) and following some investigation into my data along with other logs and reports from the internet and friends, I can now compile a rough idea of the routing they took on their journey to the English Channel and back again.

The first reception I had that showed a mission was taking place was at around 0830z when a standard 3 figure group message was sent by IWV4 but unfortunately I was just setting up my gear and so missed it to write down. Further “W” markers took place at the usual every 20 minute schedule of 0840z and 0900z, with IWV4 sending another message at 0903z to the aircraft. This call gave us the CW callsign for the aircraft, probably the IL-78 Midas4YMA

Russian Air Force TU-160 Blackjack RF-94104 “Alexander Golovanov” © Crown copyright 2016

As is standard, the early part of the mission was relatively quiet on CW with markers only, though there was one unusual thing that took place around 0920z. Firstly there was no 0920z “W” (this only happened one other time for the whole day at 1600z – the 20 mins schedule was kept going solidly otherwise) and secondly, at 0922z, there was a sending of data on the frequency. The first eight minutes was a carrier tone centred exactly on 8112; with the full data commencing at 0930z continuing until 0943z. Unfortunately, the CW recording I had for the day got corrupted so I wasn’t able to analyse the signal to at least try and determine what type it may have been. Of course, it could have been coincidence as we all know that many of the frequencies used by the Russians are shared, but this does seem almost too good a coincidence. One thing is noteworthy in recent missions, and that is the big reduction in CW messages over the large increase of voice messages – are the Russians trying out a new data messaging system for their Long Range Aviation fleet?

8112 continued in the usual manner for most of the morning, with the occasional message or “radio check” [QSA] but there wasn’t much else. The Winter CW frequency for the aircraft side of the “Bear Net” had always alluded us and was in fact the only missing frequency we had for the whole net, so it was just the ground side of the duplex network that I was receiving. I had 8990 down as a back-up frequency for their voice comms and I was monitoring this frequency on my Icom IC-R8500 in USB mode, with all the remaining Winter frequencies on the Titan SDR Pro. I was also using the Titan to monitor most of the Oceanic frequencies in case they were coming this way, something useful to do as this can sometimes give away the rough position of the Russians. Because of this set-up I had the SDR monitoring the Oceanic frequencies in the 8MHz range. The bandwidth I’d allocated also incorporated 8990 and it was during a QSA check at 1205z from IWV4 on 8112 that I noticed a faint trace of CW on the frequency! I quickly changed the mode on the Icom to CW and caught the end – “QSA3” – nothing else followed, but it looked like I had found the Winter CW airborne frequency for the “Bear Net”. But, I had to be sure.

Russian Air Force TU-160 Blackjack RF-94101 “Paval Taran” © Crown copyright 2016

Up until now there had been zero voice comms on 8131, the primary Winter voice frequency, but not too long after the 1205z QSA check on CW the first call came with 44732 calling KATOLIK followed by a call to BALANS after not much luck with KATOLIK. There was one more call after this on 8112 before this frequency went to markers only, but there was a reply on 8990 confirming that this was the Winter CW frequency for the aircraft. The complete 8112/8990 transcript can be found in PDF format in my full CW log

Going from various reports, the Northern QRA had not launched so this led me to believe that the Russian aircraft were not coming in the direction of the UK, but when I noticed on my SBS that the Tanker was travelling north from Brize Norton, then I wondered if they were. The only comms I had was from the Tanker with Swanwick Mil so I presume (and with no logs showing anything from Lossiemouth) that a long range track of the Blackjacks was taking place.

Certainly, on Oceanic warnings were being passed about the “unknown” traffic heading south and it’s from this information that I’ve been able to roughly guess their initial routing, down through the Shetland Island and Faeroe Island gap to near ERAKA, before tracking south along the 10W line – like I say, a rough guess, but going on previous routes this won’t be far out. They probably got to around the NIBOG area before tracking SW to go around Ireland, before heading in again towards Lands End and the English Channel.

Voice comms on HF with BALANS was pretty continuous by this stage, with three potential callsigns heard. Two would have been the Blackjacks, 44731 and 44732, with a third more than likely the support IL-78 Midas tanker that remained clear up to the north and so was much weaker with me – I think it was 60991 but was too weak to tell, with only the readback from BALANS copied.

At about 1505z it was reported that two Typhoons from Coningsby that had launched about an hour before, and had been holding in ARA10W, had joined up with the “unknowns” and these were identified as Tu-160 Blackjacks. The comms were again picked up by Kyle, and the Typhoons gave full details including the tailcodes, with the lead aircraft being RF-94101, the second RF-94104. The Russians name their Tu-160’s and these are given “Paval Taran” and “Alexander Golovanov” respectively.

By coincidence, at 1510z, 44732 calls BALANS with a message starting 502. I always suspect that they send messages out when they’re intercepted and I expect this was one of those messages. It could well have been that they were entering the Channel though, it’s hard to tell, but certainly for the whole time they were in that area, the messages sent began with 502. Around 1600z the French QRA also joined up and from images produced by the MOD, these were shown to be a single Rafale and a single Mirage 2000C – callsigns noted on Fighter Control as MASTIFF01 and MARAUD03.

Russian Air Force TU-160 Blackjack RF-94104 with a French Air Force Rafale and Mirage 2000C © Crown copyright 2016

From there the Blackjacks turned around and I expect pretty much followed the same route back. I could certainly tell that they were near to me later on, they were ridiculously loud on HF.

Below then is a copy of my voice logs, along with the recordings I made. A good test of my recently installed Wellbrook Loop that I’d finally been able to put up on the mast just the week before, after having it for nearly three months! Scottish weather!!

NOTE – These recordings are copyrighted to me. It has been noted that other recordings have ended up on YouTube, uploaded by a third party. Should this happen with my recordings, further action will be taken


1216z 44732 calls KATOLIK

1217z 44732 calls KATOLIK [KATOLIK very faint]

1218z 44732 calls KATOLIK, BALANS replies

1220z BALANS passes message 130 525

1222z BALANS calls 44731 numerous times
– Note, contains all of the above

1226z 44732 answers, BALANS passes message 130 525

1232z 44732 calls BALANS with message [too faint to copy]

[messages continue until 1245z, all too faint, multiple callsigns]

1302z 44732 calls BALANS with message 157 133 796 290 525 853

1306z BALANS and 60991[?] 532 598 757 706 057 162 363 395

1318z BALANS passes message 727 to 44732

1356z 44732 calls BALANS with message 197 077 950 525 305

1510z 44732 calls BALANS with message 502 549 447 360 981 848 842 366 215 492 481

1551z 44732 calls BALANS with message 502 956 447 339 822 532 842 942 563 592 339

1612z 44732 calls BALANS with message 502 411 447 132 196 010 565 564 978

1641z 44732 calls BALANS with message 926 429 564 695 525 447

1745z 44731 called by BALANS

1750z BALANS calls 44731 with message 861 408 850

1826z 44732 calls BALANS with message 976 170 408 953 525 055


Approximate routing of the Tu-160 Blackjacks

One final thing to note – on exactly the same day in 2015 (day of the year, not actual date, so the third Wednesday in February) the Russians carried out almost the same flight, going down the West coast of Ireland. Further information on that mission, including HF recordings, can be found in Bear Hunting – part two

Bet you a few quid they’ll be back same day next year 😉

Propliner is back

Around 11 months ago I reported the sad end of Propliner magazine in my article “End of an era”.

I’m very pleased to say that due to requests to the editor that Propliner be kept in some form or other, he has decided to try out whether it could succeed in an annual format.

In his words “Within days of announcing my decision to suspend publication of Propliner as a quarterly journal, I became aware of the enormous sentiment surrounding the magazine, and that there were a large number of disappointed readers.”

He continues ” Having remained in touch with many of the regular contributors and having canvassed their opinions, I have decided to go ahead and publish a Propliner Annual in April 2016″.ProplinerAd

A brief outline of what is intended in the first (and hopefully not last annual) was also given – 96 pages full of features and photographs, as well as news on the past years events. Further information is on the advert to the right.

Amazingly, the annual is still going to be priced very reasonably indeed. For those in the UK, it is to be priced at £11 including delivery, with Europe at £13. The rest of the World is still only £15 for air mail delivery.

The target publication date is April 17th and orders can be placed at the Propliner website

PlaneBaseNG Update

Another bit of aviation news is a new update to the PlaneBaseNG database software. I ran a review of the database just over a year ago if you’d like to look back at what I wrote. Otherwise, head over to the website for more information, screenshots etc. PBlogo

If you’re looking for an aviation database then this is definitely the one to have.