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.

Advertisements

Full analysis of the sinking of Liman

With it being a month this weekend since the Russian navy Moma-class AGI Liman was hit by another ship resulting in its sinking in the Black Sea, I thought I’d publish my full analysis on the incident.

Originally this work was created for Jane’s Intelligence Review, but due to space limitations in the magazine, it was condensed into a half page report. This blog includes all the imagery and extra text that was left out, but also some further analysis that I’ve been able to do in the mean-time. Because of this, I must state that the analysis published here has nothing to do with any IHS publication, and that any views (unless otherwise stated) are all my own.

Liman, taken in November 2015 by Yörük Işık

A brief account of what happened

On the morning of Thursday 27th April 2017, at approximately 0830z, reports on social network starting coming in that Moma-class Intelligence gathering ship Liman of the Russian navy had collided with a livestock ship in the Black Sea at a position approximately 30nm to the North of the entrance of the Bosporus Strait. There was thick fog in the area at the time of the incident.

Early information from the Russian Defence Ministry stated that Liman had collided with a ship named Ashot-7 but a search through ship registries quickly showed that this ship did not exist. From AIS analysis however, a ship identified as Youzar Sif.H had departed the port of Midia in Romania for Aqaba in Jordon at approximately 1645z on the 26th April heading for the entrance of the Bosporus Strait. The ship was carrying livestock, reportedly sheep. From the AIS data it was noted that Youzar Sif.H was cruising at a speed of 11 knots for most of the journey across the Black Sea until at 0845z on the 27th April the ship came to a sudden stop. It is here that the two ships collided.

Liman was operating without any form of AIS at the time, despite being in thick fog – it is likely not to have had the system installed. To this date, the Russian Defence Ministry, has not reported what tasks Liman was carrying out but it is known that it wasn’t due to pass through the Bosporus Strait.

The collision holed Liman below the waterline which led the ship to starting to sink. Though most of the [up to] 85 crew members evacuated, it is known that some remained on board to, in the words of the Russian Defence Ministry, [remove] all special equipment, documentation, weapons and ammunition. [The] ship’s crew were evacuated to life-saving appliances, and then safely transported to the base of the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea.

Almost immediately following the reports of the incident, new Project 22870 Ocean-going Rescue Tug SB-739 was sent to the scene from the Black sea navy base in Sevastopol. SB-739 does carry AIS equipment and analysis of this shows that the ship departed at approximately 1030z on the 27th, arriving 20 hours later. SB-739 carries the latest ROV to be deployed to the Russian navy, the Marlin-350 made by Tetis-Pro. This ROV can operate up to depths of 350 metres, with charts of the incident area showing depths of between 50 and 100 metres.

It was noted at the time of the incident that a Russian flagged Civilian Survey ship Хезер Си (Heather Sea) had commenced operations approximately 20nm to the NW of the collision site. The final position where Liman supposedly sank has been reported on social media at 41.50N 28.95E, the area where Heather Sea was operating, but this is a long way for the Liman to have drifted prior to sinking. A good friend of mine intercepted a navigational warning sent out by the Turkish authorities on Navigational Telex (NAVTEX) stating the final sinking position as 41.30 24 N 028.57E and it is here that SB-739 positioned itself on arrival.

Youzar Sif.H rescued some of the Liman crew members, and it is believed that another Russian flagged cargo ship, Ulus Star, also took part in rescuing crew as AIS analysis shows the ship deviating from its course to the incident area, before continuing on through the Bosporus later on in the day. At one stage it rendezvoused with both Youzar Sif.H and a Turkish government tug, Kutarma-3, which was one of the Turkish SAR ships sent to the area.

AIS data combined into one image
1 – Youzar Sif.H cruising at 11kts at 0813 UTC 27 Apr 2017
2 – Youzar Sif.H technical stop/malfunction at 1854z having started to return to Midia
3 – SB-123 arrives at the incident site at 0615 UTC 28 Apr 2017
4 – Heather Sea stays on task throughout incident

Youzar Sif.H returned to Midia, whilst SB-739 remained on site. Another Russian research vessel, Project 11982 AGOR Seliger, broadcasting as a “Law Enforcement” vessel on AIS, joined SB-739 at the area where Liman sank on the 1st of May . Seliger carries a submersible vehicle which was used to examine the wreck of Liman. Further reports of two other ships arriving around the 10/11th of May were given. These were KIL-158, a Kashtan-class buoy tender that has lifting equipment capable to take weights of up to 130 tonnes and Epron, a Prut-class rescue tug which is used for diver operations.

With the arrival of KIL-158 and Epron, it is highly likely that the Russian reports that all equipment was evacuated before the sinking were false and that these ships were here to recover those items still left on board. In particular, recent images of Liman show it with a large SATCOM dome towards the stern. This will almost certainly have contained a dish used for a SATCOM system given a NATO codename “Punch Bowl”. This communicates with store and dump type satellites such as Strela, Raduga and Rodnik. Information is collated and stored within the system and transmitted when a satellite passes within range. The satellite stores the information and “dumps” the data once in range of an appropriate ground-station. It would not have been possible to remove this system from the deck quickly and it is likely it went down with the ship.

With the final result of this incident being a lost ship, luckily with no loss of life , it highlights why the requirement of AIS on all shipping, even military, should be mandatory, especially in areas of high intensity traffic such as the Bosporus Strait.

What happened next….

There quickly followed a media frenzy of accusations and denials.

Russian media accused the Turkish government of sending divers to the wreck within an hour of Liman sinking and stealing all the equipment left on board – this is despite publishing on the same day how all the equipment had been recovered by the heroic crew of Liman. It is totally unlikely that the Turks had managed such a feat. Apart from the fact that it is dangerous to be diving on a wreck that soon after it has sunk, as shown by the ships needed by the Russians to do the actual task of recovery, the Turks sent nothing of the sort to the area. In fact, they did a great job of assisting a ship in distress.

Close-up of Youzar Sif.H’s track following the collision. The grey ship is Kutarma-3, which stayed to assist the sinking Liman.

The Russians then accused the crew of Youzar Sif.H of operating their ship dangerously in conditions that were unsuitable for a speed of 11 knots, including suggestions that the crew were drunk. Of course, they said nothing of the fact that their own ship was operating clandestinely (be it in open sea and legally) without the safety net of AIS equipment. The Russian navy is currently trying to sue the operating company of Youzar Sif.H for the loss of Liman.

Also of note was an interesting statement by Captain Vladimir Tryapichnikov, the head of naval shipbuilding, at the recent launch of the second Project 18280 AGI Ivan Khurs on May 16th. He alluded to the fact that Ivan Khurs would replace Liman in the Black Sea fleet, and that there would be a further two ships of the class built. His actual words were:
Let’s give the fleet the second ship, and then talk about the next two. Defence plans indicate that the Navy will receive them before 2025

This is almost likely to be false – on both counts. There has never been four ships planned and the replacement of Liman with Ivan Khurs would be a ridiculous waste of money. The Russian navy has a terrible funding problem, with not even enough projected funds available to build new Destroyers they have planned. They are also desperate for a new Aircraft carrier, but funding makes this highly unlikely; and they are seemingly already having problems funding the refit of Kuznetsov(orel)-class Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov which is about to begin. With this in mind, and other on-going funding problems with frontline ships and submarines, it is very unlikely they will put aside any cash for two more AGI’s.

Further more, the Project 18280 AGI’s are not designed for operations in areas such as the Black Sea, but more for in areas further from Russian shores such as off the East coast of the USA – for example, those tasks carried out by Project 864 Vishnya-class AGI Viktor Leonov which is often operating near to Cape Canaveral and the USN Naval Submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia. If Liman were to be replaced by anything it is more likely to be by one of the remaining Project 861 Moma-class AGS Survey/Research ships that the AGI versions were converted from. This makes even more sense if equipment was rescued before the ship sank as it would be an easy fit. My analysis of Liman makes me think it wasn’t a fully converted AGI as it still retained the crane on the forward deck, which other AGI’s had removed and that the AGS’s retain. This to me shows that not much structural work would be needed to get a quick replacement available – and at not much cost.

Liman, taken again by Yörük Işık, but this time in October 2016. Now the ship has the “Punch Bowl” SATCOM dome at the stern.

The statement by Tryapichnikov was more than likely a face saving one following the sinking of Liman and I totally expect Ivan Khurs to eventually end up with the Pacific fleet as planned. It may, however, first make a trip to the Black sea/Mediterranean to prove some sort of point.

Ironically, exactly one month later, Youzar Sif.H anchored to North West of the Bosporus awaiting its turn to transit through, having left Midia on the 26th May. It did so on the 28th, it’s destination this time is Misrata.

Whilst then, the dust has settled on the actual incident itself, it did highlight some other points.

Social media and its self-professed experts

Now, we all kind of love Social media and the internet – we do, there’s no denying it. After all, I wouldn’t be here doing this, I wouldn’t have access to endless amounts of information, data and history at the click of a button. But, what I ALWAYS do is check, check and check my facts.

I know my stuff, but am I an expert? No, I would say I’m not. It would be a dishonour saying I am to those that are actually experts. For instance, despite being quoted as a Jane’s Fighting Ships correspondent in IHS publications, I still quite often ask for advice from the yearbooks editor. He is after all an ex Commander of Royal navy ships, NATO and the MOD – totalling over 30 years in the Royal navy. I’m, in reality, an Air Traffic Controller that has a high interest in the Russian navy because of my “hobby” of monitoring their ship HF frequencies. One thing, has effectively led to another.

What this incident has very much highlighted is just how quickly false information is put out to the World without any actual analysis before doing so.

Take the operations of Heather Sea. Many social media “experts” stated that Heather Sea was sent to the aid of Liman when in fact, from simple analysis of AIS information, it was obvious that the ship had departed Varna in Bulgaria at approximately 2030z on the 26th April – some 12 hours before the collision reportedly took place! Very clever of the Russians to know that the collision was going to happen and send a ship there, ready for it to take place! Moreover, Heather Sea remained on its task site for over a week, 20 to 30nm from the position of the collision – having arrived there at 1500z on 27th April, some 8 hours after the reports of the collision started to filter through. It is fitted with modern ROV’s and so would have been ideal to carry out rescue/recovery, but it didn’t. It had nothing to do with the rescue of the Liman and the “experts” had given out incorrect data and positions.

Other experts suggested, even betted, that the arrival of KIL-158 and Epron was so that Liman could be raised from the sea bed and taken back to base. This just shows sheer stupidity rather than any knowledge.

Epron taken by Yörük Işık

And then there are the “There is something highly suspicious about this incident” people of social media. They deny it, but they are similar to conspiracy theorists. And I say this because unless they carry out full analysis on what happened and look into every possibility, what they are stating as fact, is actually incomplete and cannot be relied upon. Their ignorance and stubbornness of just basic principles again shows them as being a theorist – and yet, they say they are an “expert” even when they are shown strong evidence that shows their thoughts as being wrong. Even worse is the fact that some get a social-media following that believes everything they say and that they are an expert – this leads them to believe even more so that what they are saying is correct, when it isn’t.

One ridiculous suggestion was that Liman was jamming the AIS frequencies with its operations. Firstly, why would it have only hampered Youzar Sif.H, as every other ship in the area at the time was perfectly ok; and secondly, it would be a very clever ship to be able to carry on its frequency jamming from the depths of the Black Sea as other ships, including Youzar Sif.H on its revisit this weekend, have been lost from AIS receivers – as shown later on.

Let’s get back to Liman then, and the events leading up to the collision.

There are people out there that have stated that Youzar Sif.H had drifted off-course or wasn’t on the standard route and had even switched off their AIS equipment to hide this. Firstly, there isn’t a set course for getting from Midia to the Bosporus – the ships can get there in whatever route they want to. The fact is though, that they are on a schedule and want to get there the quickest and cheapest way possible and so they will go direct.

The social media experts have concluded that Youzar Sif.H was off-course because they ran a quick look at the traffic density data available on MarineTraffic. Now this data is all well and good, but it has it’s faults. The main one is that the data is basic. It draws a line from one point to another, taken from position reports from AIS data – and if the there’s a gap of 100nm it will draw a line still between these points. In areas of no AIS receiver coverage these lines will still be drawn, but there’s no proof that the ship actually travelled this course. The same principle occurs with all other basic online AIS software providers, including AISLive provided by IHSMarkit.

Youzar Sif.H was tracked pretty well after departure and did deviate from the route shown on the traffic density maps, but only just. A few hours before the collision took place Youzar Sif.H was no longer tracked by any MarineTraffic or AISLive feed, until at 0813UTC when it appeared again. Not long after, the collision took place.

Because the ship was tracked fully after the collision it has been alluded to by some that the AIS system on Youzar Sif.H was switched off for a while, and was only put on again just before the collision. Now why would a ship carrying sheep do such a thing, especially in dangerous conditions such as fog? The ship had nothing to hide, and the likelihood of switching off the one thing that would help them from hitting another ship in such conditions is certainly unlikely. AIS is only useful if all ships carry it, and here Liman didn’t. No doubt there would have been a basic primary return on the radar of Youzar Sif.H but it may well have been too late by then. The cause was that Liman was operating in fog with no anti-collision system in place. To further add to the conspiracy theory, Youzar Sif.H was able to be tracked most of the way back to Midia.

Youzar Sif.H transiting the Bosporus on the 28th May 2017 taken by Alper Boler

I go back again to me saying that I’m not an expert, but I’ve listened to radio since I was around 13, especially Air Traffic Control. This led to my 28 year career in the RAF and Civil ATC. From this I’ve learnt about how radio waves travel. But am I an expert in this principle? No, I’m not. There are guys and girls out there that know a hell of a lot more about it than I do. Here’s the thing though. I know the basic principles.

A very basic and simple fact is that Very High Frequency (VHF) radio transmissions travel with a line of sight principle called the Radio Horizon. In other words, two antennas need to be “in sight” of each other to receive that which the other is sending. No, you don’t actually have to see the other one, but in theory you need to be able to – in most cases. There are other principles and phenomenon such as VHF Tropospheric Ducting which allows for radio waves to travel hundreds of miles, but even then they can skip the hundred miles in-between leaving a null zone.

Take ATC again. The higher an aircraft is, the more likely it is to receive a signal from the ground as the “line of sight” is better, though it does also rely on the power of the transmitter. The curvature of the Earth can stop this and does. As an example, at work we have difficulties sometimes with USAF C-130 Hercules aircraft that are operating at the furthest range of one of our transmitters when they are cruising at FL230/FL240 – the Earths curvature, along with where the antenna is placed on the airframe gets in the way. Two or three thousand feet higher and they would receive us. If flying towards the transmitter then this isn’t a problem as the aircraft will come over the horizon and within “sight” of the transmitter, but going away means that sometimes a relay is required from another aircraft.

The same goes for things such as Mode-S receivers widely available for tracking aircraft. They only have an optimal range before the amateur can no longer pick up traffic – actually, this applies to physical radars too hence why many countries have a large amount of them to cover the whole country, and further. Stick a mountain, or even just a small hill somewhere and the reception range will be reduced for aircraft “below the horizon”. There’s a reason why military aircraft fly at lowlevel.

A great page for showing the principle of VHF reception is on Neal Arundale’s AIS page where it has a graph showing the principle.

My Mode-S antenna is on the roof of the house and I get a range of about 250 miles for aircraft that are at a high altitude. Out to the east of me, less than a mile away, is a hill of around 300ft which means I tend to lose aircraft descending into Edinburgh for instance when they go through around 15000ft – yet 200 miles away I’m picking up traffic over the North Sea.

My AIS antenna is lower than this. And it is in the loft. I have great reception to the North/Northwest, yet to the Southwest it is dead for me. Why? Well, because the signal from any ships has to not only pass through three houses, it also has to get through the three foot thick, sandstone walls of the house. The signal is wiped out.

My AIS coverage taken from MarineTraffic. Very strong to the North, but poor to the SW

Add to that that I am only a few metres above sea level and it makes my Radio Horizon not very good. You see, taking into consideration Neals data, I quite often struggle to get a small fishing boat which is between me and a large oil tanker that is further away that I am receiving. This is because, more often than not, ships radio masts are at the tallest point on a ship and an oil tankers one will be near on 60 metres above the sea, whilst a fishing boat around 10m. An oil tanker is also likely to have a more powerful transmitter as the ships size means it can carry bigger equipment.

So, where am I going here with relation to the Liman incident?

As previously stated, it has been suggested that Youzar Sif.H had switched off its AIS system. But a simple look at coverage information available on MarineTraffic would show that the Black Sea has some patches that are not covered very well by AIS receivers. I always say this about things like AIS or Mode-S feeds – they are only as good as the information that is fed to them.

The image here shows the coverage from the two main receivers for the area approaching the Bosporus from the Black Sea from this afternoon – 29th May. The receiver to the NW is on a 90m high block of flats and the one at Istanbul is on a two storey building on a hill. They have a great range because of this height. But, nearly the entire area SE of Varna is blank. These receivers do not pick up anything. Now, these coverage maps, like the density ones, can be a little false because they only work because they’ve picked something up, so the darker areas that show a dense level of traffic here, could be lighter at another time due to a quieter day – and vice-versa. But I’ve been looking at these areas frequently since the incident to see if my conclusions are correct, and they have remained pretty much the same. Further north are a few more receivers, but except for one they rarely stretch far into the Black sea – in other words there is a reception black hole for the receivers that feed MarineTraffic and AISLive. It just so happens that Youzar Sif.H travelled through the black-hole on the day of the collision.

This image shows the coverage from the Elena Station in Bulgaria which has fantastic coverage of the Black Sea in this region, but even this has reception black holes, particularly on the Youzar Sif.H route.

The image below shows the reception plots of Youzar Sif.H on the 26/27th of April on AISLive

Whilst the image here shows the reception on the 26/27th of May. This one is in fact worse than the day of the collision! It went near 14 hours without being picked up by any AIS receiver that fed AISLive.

Not only does this happen to Youzar Sif.H, it happens to many other ships that travel the same route.

This is the reason why Youzar Sif.H was not picked up until just before the collision and not because of stupid reasons such as it had switched off its AIS or been jammed by the operations of Liman. In fact, it had its AIS on at all times and other ships within its Radio Horizon would have picked it up, just as it would have picked up the other ships.

Now, the conspiracy theorists will be saying ” Well, hang on, Youzar Sif.H was tracked very well following the incident”. Well yes it was, but there’s a couple of good reasons why. Firstly, the main antennas on Youzar Sif.H are at the back of the ship but it also appears that there is one at the front on the mast. Is this the AIS antenna? Whilst it is hard to see which one it would be, if it is the one at the front this would explain a lot. The average reception distances for the stations is interesting for the day of the incident. The Elena station showed an average of 112nm which actually nearly corresponds to the site of the collision, so this station was covering out to that area. The signal from Youzar Sif.H would fade as it travelled away from the receiver. But after the accident and it was heading back to Midia, the front of the ship would have been facing the receiver which could mean a better signal getting through. The fact that on its journey back to the area this weekend produced the same tracking results, if not worse, than the incident ones shows that Youzar Sif.H has problems with being tracked in certain areas.

The station on the flats at Burgas had an average range of 26nm and would have possibly covered the early part of the voyage too.

And the Istanbul receiver only had an average of 10nm – but again this is roughly where the collision took place, and of course, Youzar Sif.H was head on to the receiver.

At the end of the day, I doubt we’ll ever find out for sure what happened. But I can honestly say that I believe it was a pure accident, and the fact that no AIS data was received from Youzar Sif.H was down to the pure science of a lack of radio reception at the AIS receivers covering the area, rather than the switching off of the systems on the ship.

One thing is for sure though. Those people that insist on churning out information, data and theories need to be sure to get their facts right first; and they need to do some basic research on things that they are commenting on. Otherwise they just make themselves look like complete idiots.

TitanSDR Pro demonstration

After receiving quite a few requests on information about the Enablia TitanSDR and it’s capabilities, I decided it would be good a good idea to create a demonstration video that would hopefully show just how good an SDR it is. The video is at the end of this blog.

I think that a lot of people can’t understand just why the two versions are the price they are, especially when it seems that a new dongle SDR is being evolved every day at a ridiculously cheap price. Yes, they are expensive but when you compare the price of these SDR’s to a top end desktop receiver, such as the Icom IC-R8500 for example, then it is fairly comparable.

But you must consider the fact that the Titan is really more than one receiver. The Pro version is 40 receivers, the standard is eight. You can’t record independently using the Icom, you need some additional software or a digital voice recorder plugged in to the receiver; and even then you can only record the one frequency – the Pro can record 40 frequencies, the standard can record eight.

The TitanSDR Pro can monitor up to 40 frequencies at the same time. Here, 10 frequencies are being monitored, mainly Oceanic ones.

The TitanSDR Pro can monitor up to 40 frequencies at the same time. Here, 10 frequencies are being monitored, mainly Oceanic ones.

Then, you can’t really record any bandwidth to play back using the Icom, but both versions of the Titan can record up to three separate bandwidths. These can then be played back, either through the SDR itself, or on another PC using the supplied USB dongle that carries a second version of the software – and if you did this you could be listening to, or recording, further frequencies or bandwidths. And all these separate bandwidth recordings can, of course, be played back multiple times, with multiple recordings being made within them; or data can be decoded; or signals analysed – what ever you require from an SDR.

This image shows the Titan monitoring 12 frequencies, 6 of which are decoding ALE using PC-ALE. This can take place in the background, while listening to the other frequencies on the SDR.

This image shows the Titan monitoring 12 frequencies, 6 of which are decoding ALE using PC-ALE. This can take place in the background, while listening to the other frequencies on the SDR.

But, of course, this is just standard for any SDR isn’t it?? But is it?? Can you think of another SDR that has the capability to monitor/record 40 frequencies at once? I can’t.

The nearest SDR I found to the Titan in quality of not only recording capabilities but in quality of filters etc. meant that I would need to buy around 13 SDR’s of this model and spend over €30,000. Yet, just one of this model costs pretty much the same price as the Titan. Now, with that knowledge, the price of the TitanSDR’s really doesn’t seem that bad after all.

Don’t forget, the TitanSDR is a Military spec. SDR, designed originally for agencies to monitor multiple frequencies for analysis and data collecting. It already has top specifications but Enablia are still willing to listen to the users and add requested features if they can. They have already done this with quite a few ideas that myself and other users have suggested.

You'd think that the Titan would be a CPU guzzler wouldn't you? Well it isn't. Here the SDR is running 31 frequencies, multiple decodings using MultiPSK, and PC-ALE. The CPU is running at only 27%, and that was it's max reading.

You’d think that the Titan would be a CPU guzzler wouldn’t you? Well it isn’t. Here the SDR is running 31 frequencies, whilst making multiple decodings using MultiPSK and PC-ALE. The CPU is running at only 27%, and that was it’s max reading.

 

Antennas

With everything else that’s been going on, I totally forgot to do a blog on my new antenna set-up; and when I say new it’s now nearly 12 months old

My old set-up wasn’t too bad with a longwire stretching from the study and just tacked on to the top of the fence and wall around the garden, then from an old washing-line pole to the corner of my garage at the far end. This created a horizontal L shape with a slight incline. Reception was very good although as the antenna wasn’t earthed there was a bit of noise. Luckily I live fairly remote so there isn’t the usual interference from neighbours TV sets etc, but I wanted to improve the signal by creating a better set-up.

As a back up, I also had a Garex Compact Active antenna in the loft which I also wanted to move outside. This is a great active antenna, designed initially to be used on small boats and was perfect as I live on a harbour and have to cope with the same atmosphere and conditions that would be found at sea. Corrosion of metal is a big problem due to the conditions around here, and this was evident in the longwire.

With this in mind, I selected Military Spec. Kevlar Antenna Wire from Nevada Radio. Not only is this wire weather proof and light, it is green and will blend nicely into the background around here, just like camoflage (another reason why it’s used by the Military). It is also incredibly strong, and once tensioned will not stretch like standard wire

Mil. Spec. Kevlar Antenna Wire

I also ordered a few other things including 100m of Military specification RG58C/U coax cable, some Ceramic Insulators, plugs and sockets. Nevada have never let me down and I can recommend them totally

Prior to all this, in a general conversation with John who supplies me with my firewood I mentioned how it would be great to have an old telephone pole to use as the main mast for my antennas – “well, I have loads of them” he says. So when it was time to get it all together in the New Year, John delivered the pole, all 8 meters of it!

Telephone pole after delivery

Telephone pole after delivery

The design was simple really. It would be the longwire stretching from the house in an L, with the down side running down the wall, connecting to the Co-ax, which would then run into the house via an air brick. Grounding would run from the co-ax connection to a copper rod driven into the garden. There would be a splitter in the loft space which would then feed both my Icom IC-R8500 and SDR-IQ radios.

The Garex would be placed at the top of the pole and the co-ax would then run along the wall and fence to the house; and in through the same air brick. The co-ax would continue through to the Icom as my second antenna

With rough calculations I realised that with a pole of 8 metres in length, I was going to need a pretty deep hole to put it in. BT use a screw type thing to dig the hole to the correct depth for their installations, but I didn’t have that, just a spade. 8 metres was too much anyway so I decided to cut off about a metre and calculated that around a 3 foot deep hole would be ok, with 6 bags of quick drying cement to firmly secure it in.

Garex attached to the pole

First of all though, I needed to attach the Garex to the top of the pole as I didn’t fancy doing that once it was upright and in the ground. Far easier to connect it all up and then plant the post into the hole. There are the usual steps attached to the pole which would be ok to use for general maintenance but it was going to be hard work getting the screw bolts into the solid wood of the pole that were needed to secure the mast mount.

Longwire clamp and step

With the Garex mounted and the cable run complete, it was then time to turn to the longwire. Again, it was going to be much easier to attach first and then raise the pole into position. BT had left the wire clamp on the pole so after a bit of a fight to get the bolts out that connected this, I was able to service them by wire brushing off the rust and corrosion before reconnecting them with some copper grease added to stop any further rust. To help secure the wire a bit better I first threaded some garden wire through some yellow/green earth sleeving which was then fed into the clamp and I then put the wire through one end an insulator. Then I fed the longwire through the other end of the insulator and tied off the wire using a standard camping guyrope tensioner, as unlike conventional wires that you wrap around itself the Kevlar wire uncoils due to its great flexibility. The tensioner butts up against the the insulator stopping the wire from going through the hole

So with both antennas attached and the hole dug, it was time to get the pole up. This turned out to be very easy, and with some assistance to hold it steady and totally vertical, I poured in the 6 bags of quick drying cement. After about 10 minutes it was ok to leave the pole on its own, and I waited a further two days before stretching the longwire across to the house

Whilst I waited those two days, I carried out the remaining tasks of getting all the co-ax in place and fully connecting the Garex to the Icom. Already, with the Garex, I could tell the difference that the new location made. The noise floor was much better, and there was no interference at all from anything electrical. The co-ax and splitter were all connected and the run down to the study was also completed, although I had previously needed to rearrange my whole desk to get everything in a better position in anticipation of this project

Shack

Shack

Prior to the desk change I needed to stretch quite a way to the Icom, normally needing to stand up, but now I can just adjust from my seat as it is within half an arms length. I had also connected up an old NAD amplifier and two NAD speakers to the SDR-IQ via the second soundcard in my PC

When it came to the final connection of the longwire to the co-ax, I just used a standard chocbloc, placed inside a waterproof electical box available from most DIY stores. Getting the wire nice and tight wasn’t a problem using an insulator at the corner and end of the L, and I left a little slack to feed into the waterproof box. The earth rod was connected by some old wire to the outer shield of the co-ax and we were good to go

RG58 running into the house via an air brick. Even in this picture it's hard to see the Kevlar wire

RGU58 running into the house via an air brick. Even in this picture it’s hard to see the Kevlar wire

The results were excellent. Nice clear signals with hardly any outside interference. I get the occasional trouble with electricals, normally my own PCs, but in the modern world this is hardly surprising (or avoidable). The longwire runs almost exactly North-South, which is perfect for what I normally listen too – Russian Navy and Military transmissions, but it’s also perfect for getting the Ocean traffic and USA

Overall, I’m very pleased with it. With the use of an old telephone pole and green wire, the whole antenna has basically disappeared into the background. After some chats with neighbours most hadn’t even noticed it had gone up. In fact, one even said they thought it had been there for years

Finished longwire running down to the house

Finished longwire running down to the house

Looking back to the pole

Looking back to the pole

Another angle on a sunny day

Another angle on a sunny day

Zero… Zero…

Whilst slowly tuning my way through the HF bands about a year and a half ago I stumbled upon a voice that was repeating three numbers followed by “oblique zero zero”. I wondered what it was that I’d found so I looked up the frequency. After some investigation it turned out I’d found one of the many Spy stations that still utilises HF to send messages to their agents – I’d found what is unofficially designated E11, a “Numbers Station”

I was immediately interested in this – countries still send messages to their spies around the world?? Brilliant

I started looking through the internet to see if there was more information about all this and I found Enigma2000, a website dedicated to Numbers Stations. From this site I was able to get hold of the prediction charts for the next months worth of messages; and more importantly the Enigma Control list. This list describes all the Numbers Stations that have been discovered, all the differences between them, and most importantly the format of the messages. It has been compiled over the years by enthusiasts that are just as interested as me on the subject, and there’s a huge amount of knowledge and experience amongst the group.

I felt I was too much of an amateur to join the group so I sat back for a year and just did my own thing, logging what I could and learning from the Newsletters that came out every two months. I have now joined the group, but I soon discovered there was still plenty to learn

The E11 message I’d found was a “Null” message. The three numbers was the recipient (Spy, Agent – whatever you want to call them). The message lasted about 3 minutes in this case, but full messages last a lot longer. There was an E11 message today for instance:

460/38
Attention
07661 48564 90468 42455 12863
02541 31669 31104 59935 49005
36935 61200 65354 53072 11155
68041 98936 67578 19211 44903
72651 11808 00403 66319 03546
31707 31614 98436 74902 91728
50149 18927 08581 43616 17548
81125 41627 62584

This lasted for 10 minutes. The first three or four minutes is a repetition of the “agent number” (460) and the number of groups that there will be in the message (38). This is followed by each group of numbers being said twice until the end, then the whole message is repeated with each group only being said once. This is how E11 sends messages; other stations send them differently

The designation “E11” came about from the E2K group needing to standardize and identify the different stations. In this case E stands for English, 11 being the eleventh station discovered. There’s other languages too, G for German, S for Slovak (Russian included) and M for Morse Code (CW). There’s even different ways in which the foreign stations using the same language say the numbers; and the E2K group have compiled a list of these too

So, what do the numbers mean? Only the sender and recipient will know. The system uses One-Time Pads(OTP), a mathematically unbreakable encryption method used for sending messages. Used extensively during WW2 and the Cold War, they are still popular with Government Intelligence Agencies and Military to send secure messages to people or groups around the world, in the safe knowledge they cannot be decrypted.

The other bonus with OTPs is that the receiver cannot really be traced, not without a lot of hard work (or luck). In modern days things like Emails, texts etc can be tracked by agencies, and tied down to a specific person, computer or phone. With a broadcasted message that can be picked up by anyone with just a basic radio that can receive shortwave, it is a lot harder to trace the exact target, if not impossible. Also, in times of a war, the Internet, Satellites and such like can just be switched off making it difficult to send messages to agents or military personnel in the field. Radio cannot, and it will remain a method of getting important messages out for the forseable future

There are specific rules for One-Time pads to work correctly, one of which is the key is used only once and that the sender and recipient destroys the key after its use. For more information on One-Time pads visit the website of Dirk Rijmenant, but put aside a bit of time as it has a lot of information, with lots of links to even more – including a a website where you can create your own coded messages

So that you can hear what one sounds like I’ve made a recording of a message sent by S06s recently. The message is as follows:
427
901 5
11171 64385 82707 06123 22438
901 5 00000

S06s-2013-02-12-111618 The image is a screenshot of the recording and shows it was a very strong signal, transmitted on 7410kHz. It is in Slovak and can be heard here. I’ve removed the first four minutes where 427 is repeated and gone straight to the message

You may see more about Numbers Stations soon, in fact in the USA there is already a growing interest. FX is currently showing a new TV series – The Americans – set in the 1980s, about two Russian KGB officers who are sent to the USA as spies acting as a married American couple


It’s been given a second season and should be in the UK in the next few months. I’m looking forward to seeing it

And there’s a new film – The Numbers Station

There are some fundemantal flaws in the film from what I can see, the use of only four figures in the numbers groups for a start, but we’ll see what it’s like here in the UK soon

There’s no doubt the two of them will bring added interest to a widely unknown fact – the Spies are getting messages every day and anyone can hear them