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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.