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 =
RADIO PROGNOZ
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

rho62_davis_001

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 =
MMMMM ХАФЖШ ШЫЖКТ ….. ЦЦЬДЦ ВОПЫУ
АБПУИ = + RKA80

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.

Notes:
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

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.

 

Monitoring the Russian Navy – Part One

As I normally do, a few months after publication in The Spectrum Monitor, here’s one of my articles that was published in the February edition.

Monitoring the Russian Navy – Part One

Amur Class Floating Workshop PM-138 (ПМ-138) passes through the Bosporus. This uses the callsign RBIZ (РБИЗ) on the CW networks. PM-138 is part of the Black Sea Fleet and normally carries out a six month rotation off Tartus, Syria, with the Amur Class PM-56 (ПМ-56), callsign RIR98 (РИР98) - Photo by

Amur Class Floating Workshop PM-138 (ПМ-138) passes through the Bosporus. This uses the callsign RBIZ (РБИЗ) on the CW networks. PM-138 is part of the Black Sea Fleet and normally carries out a six month rotation off Tartus, Syria, with the Amur Class PM-56 (ПМ-56), callsign RIR98 (РИР98) – Photo by Yörük Işık

As I said in one of my first articles for TSM, I only really got back into HF monitoring because of my move to Scotland and treating myself to a desktop radio for listening to VHF/UHF. I decided to push the boat out and get an Icom IC-R8500 as I’d always fancied one and the specifications, as we all know, are top notch. I also thought that as I was going to be working in the same room as Shanwick Oceanic that I would get something that would let me listen to them, I used to love listening to Shanwick. Of course, I soon discovered a lot had changed on the Ocean and the HF got put aside for a while.

It was whilst reading through a Military aviation forum that I noticed that a couple of guys had been monitoring the Russian navy using CW, and that what they had been tracking was possibly the Kiev Class Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its carrier group. Well, I found this fascinating and started listening to the same frequencies they had listed to see if my makeshift antenna could get anything – and sure enough it did.

Since I was a kid I’d been interested in Russian military hardware, after I’d been given a book called “The Soviet War Machine” to read when visiting my grandparents. Even though it was library book, I took it away on a long-term loan and read it hundreds of times, sucking in as much knowledge as possible. There was something about the design and ruggedness of all their equipment that intrigued me, and man, their Submarines were awesome!!

When I joined the RAF years later, my interest in the Russians changed from the navy to the Air Force and Nuclear threat that I was now (in theory) facing. And from then, up until the moment I found out about monitoring the Russian navy on CW, I didn’t really think much about the navy again. Now I was really interested and I wanted to learn more about this side of monitoring.

Through the UDXF Yahoo group I found lots more logs and frequencies; and then I discovered Fritz Nusser’s great website at http://www.astrosol.ch/. Fritz unfortunately died in July 2014 and so did his website (the domain name now used by Asics trainers!!), but the information held there was nothing but brilliant – frequencies, callsigns, examples of messages, the navy bases and the ships in the different fleets. It was the perfect site for a beginner, which I most certainly was.

Well, now a few years down the line I hope I’m pretty good at what I know, though I can honestly say there are guys out there whose knowledge still amazes me – Trond Jacobsen from Norway for starters. What I’d like to do here though is show you how you can listen in on the Russian navy on CW, and amazingly, be able to track their positions.

The Basics

First of all, I need to show you how the navy is divided up. It is split up into five fleets:
The Northern Fleet (NF) – HQ at Severomorsk
The Baltic Fleet (BF) – HQ at Kaliningrad
The Black Sea Fleet (BSF) – HQ at Sevastopol
The Caspian Flotilla (CF) – HQ at Astrakhan
The Pacific Fleet (PF) – HQ at Vladivostok

The Northern Fleet has recently been incorporated into a new Arctic Joint Strategic Command structure but still operates under its own command system, and it is by far the largest fleet in the navy. Within these fleets there are a large number of submarines and ships, around 265 in total with another 60 or 70 on order, divided between numerous bases within the fleets.

A close up of the antennas on Ropucha Class Amphibious Landing Ship “Novocherkassk” (Ножосхеркасск), callsign RFH71 (РФН71) – Photo by Yörük Işık

Each HQ has a CW callsign, as does each base and then each major ship. We haven’t found any evidence that smaller vessels, and by this I mean harbour tugs etc., have a CW callsign, and the same goes for Submarines. The tugs will be because they rarely leave the harbour area so would be within normal VHF/UHF range of the base; the submarines have other methods of contacting home though there’s no doubt they use VLF/HF for communications, just like the USN boats with EAM’s. I will say though that we also have a huge amount of unidentified callsigns and that these could in fact be tugs, submarines and such like. The likelihood is though, that most of these are smaller missile boats etc. that also rarely leave the confines of the waters they patrol – and also could be Border Guard ships that also use the same radio networks (they also don’t leave their home waters). There’s also the AGI’s or Intelligence Collection ships that use CW but don’t give away their positions, well most of the time anyway – more on this later. As well as the five fleets, there’s also of course Moscow to think of, and the actual Russian navy high command at St. Petersburg. These too make and receive calls and each has their own callsign.

My Russian Navy Callsigns page here on my blog lists all the CW callsigns that have been found, and if tied up, to which ship/base they belong to. It’s not complete, and there are still some changes that need to be made to it as some of the callsigns aren’t necessarily navy – more investigation and time is required on this front.

I will list the HQ callsigns here though:
Moscow = RIW
National Defence Control Centre, St. Petersburg = RAA
Severomorsk = RIT
Kaliningrad = RMP
Sevastopol = RCV
Astrakhan = RJD52
Vladivostok = RJS

To confuse matters though, St. Petersburg for instance, has a base callsign too – RJC66. This is the actual naval station as opposed to the HQ. And there’s also another callsign associated with Moscow, RJE56, which is the actual transmitter site which sends/receives calls – possibly when RIW (and RAA) are off-line – and these also tend to be between land units only, not to/from ships. RAA also only tends to send/receive to/from HQ’s with messages then forwarded on to ships (and vice versa). It’s not uncommon for bases to have multiple callsigns.

You’ll notice that all the callsigns start with an R which is common for the navy, the ships also beginning with the letter R. But there’s also some other elements within the Russian networks that start with this letter, and it’s because of this that confusion arises as to exactly what is navy and what isn’t – the naval (air) network also uses R as the first letter for instance. Each callsign is either three, four or five digits but there is no correlation between the callsigns and the base or ship name; and the ships don’t have a callsign that links into the base they’re stationed at – ships based at Sevastopol don’t start with RCV for instance. They are totally random.

So, that’s the basic callsigns completed – or is it?

You see, what we’ve done here, and what’s happened for many a long time, is that the CW has been “westernised”, turned into Latin Morse. But the Russians don’t use Latin Morse, they use Cyrillic Morse. Now, this doesn’t really matter that much as I’m “western” so I can use this system for callsigns, but it does throw up some problems when it comes to messages – again, something I’ll get onto later in another article.

If you don’t know Cyrillic CW, and I don’t, I still need to look it up each time (I still don’t know Latin CW 100% and have to check with a list most of the time) there’s a Wikipedia page with it on that I use. But effectively to make the callsigns “proper” they should be given their Russian ones – RIW is actually РИВ, RAA is РАА and RCV is РЦЖ as examples.

But, and here’s the interesting thing, the Russians use CW Q and Z codes! And to be honest I’m not sure whether they translate the Q code into Cyrillic or if they use the codes as normal – QSL for instance. Either way, they use these codes and they have also created some of their own.

For now though we’ll use Latin CW for all the associated callsigns and messages

Ropucha Class Amphibious Landing Ship “Yamal” (Ямал), callsign RHV42 (РХЖ42), highlights the problems with using Latin Russian versus Cyrillic Russian. A direct translation of the ships name would be Ämal if it was used as the CW callsign. Knowledge of Russian alphabets certainly helps with monitoring the Russians – photo by Photo by Yörük Işık

How to track the ships

I’ll list some of the frequencies required later on, but the best place to start is to monitor 12464 kHz during the day from 0600z to 1800z; and 8345 kHz overnight from 1800z to 0600z. This isn’t always the case as propagation has its way sometimes and the ships will try the other frequency, but these are the primary ship frequencies to start with and their associated times of use. The Russians work in the majority using a duplex system with the HQ’s using their own frequencies to transmit on. Whilst all of the HQ’s will have an operator listening out on the primary ship frequencies, the ships will be listening to their HQ frequency (frequencies) only. The only other frequency the ships will be listening to is that that has been allocated to RIW for that day in case Moscow wants to get in contact with them, or for flash messages. Some of the ships ignore their home base and send direct to Moscow, and then sometimes if a ships HQ doesn’t answer them they’ll try another to relay on the message for them. I want to cover message types and methods in greater detail in another article so for this one I’m going to concentrate on the message type that allows us to pinpoint the location of the ships.

So how do we do it? It’s actually quite easy, and the Russians use another western method to give us this information. For some reason they use the same code used by NOAA for Marine Surface Weather Observations, the FM-13-X-SHIP. Whether these reports are sent on to NOAA or not, we don’t know, but I doubt it. The Russians have their own Hydrographic units as you’ll see in a moment or by looking at my callsign list and we can only presume that they use this code as it’s already there and they don’t have to think up their own method.

If you’re not familiar with the FM-13 code then here’s a link that will take you to the 150 page PDF file on their website. Below though is an example message sent by RKB91 (РКБ91) – Altay Class Tanker “Kola”:

RKB91 605 16 22 1000 605 = SML FOR RJH45 RJD38 =
22061 99572 10081 41598 43408 10004 40110 51024 70202 8////
22252 00140 22012 = + RKB91

What we have here is a combination of both the Russian navy signal method (line 1) followed by the FM-13 code, ending with the Russian message system again. To decode the first line:
RKB91 = callsign
605 = message number
16 = number of groups in message
22 = date
1000 = Moscow time (this was sent at 0600z, but there’s now a three hour time difference between Moscow and UTC)
605 = repeat of message number
SML = Message priority, in this case SML stands for Samolet (fighter jet) – normal priority
FOR = for
RJH45 RJD38 = Hydrographic station callsigns

The next two lines are the FM-13 message giving the weather at the site of the observation. The link to the codebook will give you further information, but the parts we are most interested in are the first three groups:
22061 = 22 (date), 06 (0600z) 1 (1st FM-13 message of the hour)
99572 = 99 (latitude), 572 (57.2N)
10081 = 10 (Longitude – East), 081 (08.1)
The final group we’re interested in is:
22252 = 222 (heading speed), 5 (heading SW), 2 (6 to10kts)

The last number group and the callsign repeat is part of the Russian message system again – 22012 confirming that there’s 12 groups of numbers in the message and the date, in this case the 22nd.

From this then the message translates to an observation position of – 57.2N 08.1E heading SW @ 6-10kts, just off the North Western coast of Denmark. The position can be viewed here on Bing maps

The Bosporus is a busy channel. Here USN Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer USS Ross heads west, whilst Novocherkassk heads east towards the Black Sea - Photo by Yörük Işık

The Bosporus is a busy channel. Here USN Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer USS Ross heads west, whilst Novocherkassk heads east towards the Black Sea – Photo by Yörük Işık

Most of the messages we receive are of course from the Eastern Longitude and Northern Hemisphere, but we do get the odd one from the Western Longitude, in which case in the example above it would have read 70081. I am yet to receive anything from the Southern Hemisphere but if I were to then the first number would be either a 5 (for Western Latitude, Southern Hemisphere) or a 3 (for Eastern Latitude in the south).

Prior to the FM-13 message RKB91 would have called Kaliningrad to establish the connection, and these go like this:
VVV RMP RMP RMP DE RKB91 RKB91 QSA? QTC

So as you can see, they do use Q codes.

With regards to the Hydrographic stations, we don’t know exactly where they are, but we have rough idea. We’re pretty certain that RJH45 is the main one in Moscow. The second callsign in the example above is probably a regional Hydrographic station for the Baltic region, or a collective for all ships of the Baltic Fleet.

Finally, the messages are normally sent every six hours – 0600z, 1200z, 1800z and 0000z. There are certain times where ships send every three hours. As you can imagine, when it’s busy the frequencies can get a bit chaotic as the calls tend to step all over one another.

I said I didn’t know CW that well, and I don’t really. But you do get use to the patterns of the callsigns, in particular the HQ’s. And you also get used to the radio operators and their speed/way of sending the messages. On one occasion we were able to work out the shift pattern of one ship by the changes in the operator methods.

One other quirk to the Russian CW is the short zero. To save time, instead of five dah’s, they will only send one (T), though this is normally in context and is noticeable whether it should be a zero or a T. Not every operator will do this and they’ll send the zero correctly.

Callsign Tie-Ups

So, we have the callsigns for the bases tied up (well some of them) but how do we get the ships? This is down to a couple of methods, the first being the Russian navy themselves. The Russian navy has a very active website and they regularly post movements of their ships and where they’ve docked. You only need to keep an eye on these reports and tie-up arrival/departure dates with any unidentified callsigns to get a pretty good match up.

The second method is down to online photos, blogs and media such as twitter. There’s numerous different websites that promote photos of ships, sites like Marinetraffic.com, shipspotting.com and shipais.com. These all have dates when the photos were taken. A great blog for getting the Black Sea fleet has to be Bosporus Naval News which not only shows photos taken by locals (including some of those in this article by Yörük Işık) but also lists dates when Naval vessels, not just Russian, pass through the Bosporus.

With all these different methods you can find out what callsign belongs to which ship. It’s not easy, and it can take some time, especially if the ships don’t send many FM-13 reports. Of course, we’re not always right at first. In some cases the ships are in a flotilla, and only one ship out of the group will send a report. In this case you haven’t a clue which one you’re listening to, unless you’ve already tied one from the flotilla up previously. Recently we caught a new callsign, RJC20, going through the Bosporus so we waited for some pictures to emerge only to discover that two ships had gone through together, with only one sending reports. For a short while we thought it had to be Sorum Class Sea-going Tug “MB-31” as this was seemingly the escort ship to Dergach Class Missile Patrol Boat “Samum”; it’s normally the case that in a group the tug or tanker escort would do the FM-13 reports. Further into the reports, going on for a month or so, it still looked like the RJC20 belonged to MB-31 until new information came to light that Samum was taking part in the anniversary of the Battle of Navarino memorial flotilla off Pilos in Greece, the exact location of RJC20. It only took another week or so for RJC20 to return to the Black Sea and Samum was captured on “film” again whilst reports were given that MB-31 was escorting another ship off Malta. So this confirmed that RJC20 was Samum – or did it? On the 28th of March RJC20 plotted through the Bosporus again, and this time only MB-31 went westbound. Eventually then, this tied up RJC20. So you see it’s all about patience and almost a bit of Intelligence investigative skills that make this hobby work – its good fun.

2013 was the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic and an event was held at Liverpool docks. One of the ships that participated was Udaloy Class Destroyer, Vitse Admiral Kulakov. I was unable to attend but one of the Russian CW monitors, Roger Hutchinson, did manage it and was able to take the tour around the ship. I’m not jealous at all. Here’s one of the many photos he took showing the huge amount of antennas on board this destroyer, which uses the callsign RGR35 (PГР35). As well as all the antennas you can see the 30mm AK-630 6 barrelled gun used for air-defence (of which there are four on board) and its associated “Bass Tilt” Fire Control radar on the structure to its right. There’s seven other radars shown here with another 8 or 9 out of shot – photo Roger Hutchinson

2013 was the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic and an event was held at Liverpool docks. One of the ships that participated was Udaloy Class Destroyer, Vitse Admiral Kulakov. I was unable to attend but one of the Russian CW monitors, Roger Hutchinson, did manage it and was able to take the tour around the ship. I’m not jealous at all. Here’s one of the many photos he took showing the huge amount of antennas on board this destroyer, which uses the callsign RGR35 (PГР35). As well as all the antennas you can see the 30mm AK-630 6 barrelled gun used for air-defence (of which there are four on board) and its associated “Bass Tilt” Fire Control radar on the structure to its right. There’s seven other radars shown here with another 8 or 9 out of shot – photo Roger Hutchinson

Earlier I mentioned the AGI ships. These don’t send FM-13 reports at all, and generally only contact Moscow (RIW) with other message types. This then makes it practically impossible to tie up the callsigns – unless the Russian navy happen to help you out. Callsign RMMA has foxed us for well over two years at least, appearing every now and again, and in fact being one of the very first callsigns that I logged. It always has very strong signals to the UK initially which meant it was in the vicinity of the Northern or Baltic fleet home bases, the North Sea or Eastern Atlantic. It would fade eventually as the distance from here increased, but with the usual propagation affects that sometimes brought it booming in.

In September 2012, a Russian navy ship had been spotted off Cape Canaveral where there were two scheduled launches for the beginning of October. There was also a planned launch of a Trident II D5 from a Royal Navy submarine later on in October. At that time there was an unidentified callsign, RJQ84, operating in that area so at first we thought this would be an AGI of some sort, though sending FM-13 messages was unusual. Then RMMA and RJQ84 sent messages to each other, saying to use VHF radios to communicate. This meant they were close to one another and so we thought maybe RJQ84 was an escort ship to the AGI, RMMA. At the end of September RJQ84 headed for Jacksonville, I seem to remember because of a hurricane hitting the area, and reports followed that a Rescue tug had arrived in port, this turning out to be Sliva Class “Vikr”. A few days later other reports announced that Vishnya Class AGI “Viktor Leonov” had suddenly arrived in Havana. And RMMA had disappeared from sending messages. Was RMMA Viktor Leonov? We never got any solid proof and so I left it pencilled in on my list.

RMMA has cropped up since then but with no news of Viktor Leonov there was nothing to go on. So why is this relevant now you say? Well, RMMA turned up about a month ago (December 2014 at time of writing the article), very strong then fading, again no FM-13 reports. On the 22nd of January Tom spotted a news report that Viktor Leonov had again docked at Havana on the 20th, the day that RMMA went off station. This coincidence was too much and RMMA is now logged as Viktor Leonov.

Frequencies

This is a hard one really. Those of us that monitor the Russian navy have discovered hundreds of frequencies that they use; a file on UDXF lists 578 currently in use. To get you started though here’s a few of the more active frequencies:
8345 Ship night primary (duplex)
12464 Ship day primary (duplex)
11000 Moscow (duplex) c/s RIW
14556 Moscow (duplex) c/s RIW
11155 Severomorsk (duplex) c/s RIT
8120 Navy HQ St. Petersburg (simplex) c/s RAA
4079 Kaliningrad (duplex) c/s RMP
8348 Pacific Fleet ship primary (duplex)
5411 Vladivostok (duplex) c/s RJS
3395.5 Sevastopol (simplex) c/s RCV
19201 Sevastopol (weather/nav warnings) c/s RCV
4635 White Sea area ships calling Severodvinsk (duplex)
4376.5 White Sea area ships calling Severodvinsk (duplex)

WinRadio Excalibur memory list for the Russian Navy CW network, whilst monitoring one of the Severodvinsk frequencies, RJD99 (РЙД99). Note also the repeated transmission on 4625, the famous Russian enigma net “The Buzzer”

WinRadio Excalibur memory list for the Russian Navy CW network, whilst monitoring one of the Severodvinsk frequencies, RJD99 (РЙД99). Note also the repeated transmission on 4625, the famous Russian enigma net “The Buzzer”

The White Sea frequencies are always interesting ones to monitor. On quite a few occasions we’ve caught a build of ships before an exercise or launches of nuclear/cruise missile tests from submarines. Most here remain unidentified as they haven’t left the White Sea, or certainly haven’t gone far from it.

I would say, for the West coast of America the best bet is to listen in on the Pacific/Vladivostok frequencies, but this doesn’t mean the others are out of range. We have recently followed Akademik Krylov Class Survey/Research Ship “Admiral Vladimirskiy” (RHO62) on a round the world tour where here in the UK we were able to pick it up on the Pacific primary of 8348 kHz, as well as getting it on 8345 kHz. In fact it used 8345 more than anything in the later stages of being in the Pacific where we able to catch it on the west coast of Costa Rica and going through the Panama Canal. RHO62 is due to go out on another voyage at the end of this year, this time to the Antarctic.

One last tip – always record the frequency, unless you’re super good at CW; and even then, always record the frequency. Sometimes I wonder whether the radio operators are trying to beat the world record for the fastest message sent by Morse code.

Well, I hope you may have found this interesting. Monitoring the Russian navy can be challenging and it has the added element of lots of investigation and research to make it work fully, but that is the fun part. Through this new “hobby” I renewed my interest in Russian military hardware, deciding to buy a Jane’s Fighting Ships a few years ago so that I knew exactly what the ships looked like that I was listening to. Because of this I got to know the editor of the yearbook and I now provide photos as well as carrying out research on the Russian navy for inclusion within the book.

There is still a huge amount to cover and my next article on the Russian navy will be on other message types you may hear when listening in. So until then, do svidaniya i spasibo (до свидания и спасибо)

Bear Hunting

After this weeks flight of two Tu-95MSM “Bears” off the South West coast of the UK, I thought it would be a good time to release the article I produced for The Spectrum Monitor in October 2014. The article covers not only information on the Tu-95 and Tu-160 “Blackjack” but also on how to monitor these flights. There’s also some additional information that I’ve discovered I’d left out of the article plus some recordings from this weeks mission. tsmcover

With regards to the flight this week, it certainly caused quite a stir, making it onto the major national news channels. There was lots of speculation that they flew all the way along the English Channel causing lots of disruption to Civil flights into and out of the UK; also lots of rubbish spoken about what ATC can and can’t see. Though I can’t comment much, I will say I don’t believe the Bears flew all the way along the channel, instead I think they went no further than to the SW of the UK. From the playbacks I’ve seen on FR24, it looks like most of the disruption was caused by the tanking of the Typhoons by the A.330 – this area has been available for tanking for many years.

To answer the question about whether the aircraft can be seen on radar because they are not using transponders – well yes of course they can. It’s just there’s no associated height information, (which isn’t always there even if aircraft do use transponders)and of course it makes it harder to track. But, there are primary radar returns that’s for sure. Where I think people are getting confused is when the Bears are flying north/south across the Atlantic tracks in Shanwick’s airspace. Here they can not be seen as they are outside the range of radar, but by this time they would have been met up by Typhoons which gives all the relevant information about height etc over the radio . I hope this clears that up.

Anyway, on to the article

Bear Hunting

When I say Bear hunting, I’m not referring to tracking furry creatures around the countryside using sophisticated radio devices as aides, finally getting into the position for a kill or photograph. No, I’m referring to the monitoring of the Russian Air Force Strategic Bomber networks on HF.

Although in general the monitoring is referred to as “Bear hunting” and the frequencies monitored are in the widely used term, “Bear Net”, this is an incorrect name as it is not always Tupolev Tu-95 “Bears” that we are hearing.

The Russian Strategic Air Force is officially known as the Long-range Aviation Command and is made up of two heavy bomber divisions. The aircraft types used are Tupolev Tu-95MS “Bear H” and Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack” along with the non-Nuclear bomber, Tupolev Tu-22M3 “Backfire C” which is split into four divisions. As well as the bombers themselves, there’s also other types of aircraft used to help support the missions; these being Ilyushin IL-78M “Midas” air to air refuelling tankers, and Beriev A-50 or A-50U “Mainstay” AWACS – these types being based on Ilyushin IL-76 transport airframes.

A Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon F2 from Number XI Squadron at RAF Coningsby is pictured escorting a Russian Bear-H aircraft over the North Atlantic Ocean. QRA procedures entail aircraft being held at continuous ground readiness, so that they can take off within minutes - without pre-warning - to provide air defence. (Photo courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence Crown Copyright Photo Service ©2008 Crown Copyright

A Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon F2 from Number XI Squadron at RAF Coningsby is pictured escorting a Russian Bear-H aircraft over the North Atlantic Ocean.
QRA procedures entail aircraft being held at continuous ground readiness, so that they can take off within minutes – without pre-warning – to provide air defence. (Photo courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence Crown Copyright Photo Service ©2008 Crown Copyright

It is also presumed that other types are used in the missions, such as Ilyushin IL-76VKP and Ilyushin Il-86VKP “Maxdome” Command Posts (much like the role carried out by E-4Bs National Airborne Operations Centre aircraft used by the USAF) and even Ilyushin IL-38 “May” maritime patrol aircraft used by the Russian Navy (the USN P-3 equivalent). In general though, these types aren’t heard by those that monitor the frequencies regularly, especially the IL-76VKPs and IL-86VKPs as their statuses are not widely known, and their believed running costs make them almost too expensive to fly. The Russian Navy participation in exercises must take place, much like the combined exercises that the US Forces carry out – bombing missions/exercises supported by USN E-6Bs for instance.

There are other variants of the “Bears”, these being Tu-142MK’s and Tu-142MR’s (“Bear F/Bear J” respectively) but these are operated by the Russian Navy with Bear F’s used for Anti-Submarine Warfare, equipped with different radar fits and weapons systems designed specifically for Sub hunting; whilst Bear J’s are VLF communication airframes much like USN E-6B’s. There’s every possibility these do take part in some of the exercises we hear.

Getting back to the Air Force Bombers themselves, as previously mentioned above, there are two Strategic Divisions. These are the 6950th Guards Air Base at Engels Air Force base in the Saratov Oblast region of Russia; and the 6952nd Air Base at Ukrainka in the Amurskaya Oblast region. If you have Google Earth I’ve uploaded a kmz file showing their locations.

The bases are then divided into Regiments with the Engels base containing the 121st Guards regiment flying Tu-160s and the 184th regiment flying Tu-95MS’s. Ukrainka is made up of the 79th and 182nd regiments, both flying the Tu-95MS. Because of START, the numbers of each type flying are known, with 55 Tu-95MS’s and 11 Tu-160’s available to the Russian Air Force, but again, the full status of each airframe is somewhat hazy, even in the modern world of information technology available on the internet – there’s certainly many more photos of these types available to view online than there ever was available before the invention of the internet. The split of numbers between each regiment is again unknown, but Satellite images show up to 18 Tu-95’s at Ukrainka on the bombers apron.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, aircraft of the Russian Air Force became popular targets for air show participants. The International Air Tattoo at Fairford, UK got the first bite in 1993 when Russia sent one Tu-95 and IL-78 refueller for the static display. In 1994 they did even better with a Russian Navy Tu-142M “Bear F” in the static and this Russian Air Force Tu-95MS “Bear H”, 23 black, in the flying display. © Tony Roper

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, aircraft of the Russian Air Force became popular targets for air show participants. The International Air Tattoo at Fairford, UK got the first bite in 1993 when Russia sent one Tu-95 and IL-78 refueller for the static display. In 1994 they did even better with a Russian Navy Tu-142M “Bear F” in the static and this Russian Air Force Tu-95MS “Bear H”, 23 black, in the flying display. © Tony Roper

Engels is almost certainly supported by IL-78 tankers either based at Engels itself, or from the Ryazan Air Force base which has the 203rd regiment based there. Ryazan is also a training and maintenance facility for the bombers. Ukrainka possibly has its own regiment of IL-78’s, but details on these are unknown at this time, it could even be another deployment of Ryazan tankers.

The Tu-95MS’s have a crew of seven, and can carry up to 16 Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM), both Nuclear and conventional. Crew members comprise of:
Two pilots, radio operator, nav/defensive operator, flight engineer, bomber/nav and rear tail gunner. There’s also a spare seat for observers. The aircraft operate between 25,000ft and 38,000ft and can fly at speeds of 500kts (Mach 0.83) at the lower level. Unrefuelled they have a range of 3,455 miles, increasing to 4,480 miles with one refuel. They have however carried out multiple refuels extending this range even further. The most unique feature of the aircraft has to be the four Samara Kuznetsov NK-12MP turboprops each with eight-blade contra-rotating propellers – they make a very distinct sound

The aircraft themselves are split into three variants:
Tu-95MS-H6 and Tu-95MS-H16, referring to the number of cruise missiles the aircraft can carry. The main six missiles are on a rotary launcher inside the aircraft, with the H16 types having the ability to hold a further 10 missiles on pylons on the wings. For START purposes though, the H16’s are to be converted down to H6 standard only, if they haven’t been so already. The third variant is the Tu-95MSM which is an upgraded version designed to carry new type of ALCM.

The number of each variant is, as usual as its Russia, not fully known, but it is presumed most, if not all, are now of the Tu-95MSM designation, probably going from the H16 variant to this directly instead of downgrading to the H6 and then up again. The Tu-95MSM can be distinguished by the fact it is carrying eight of a new type of ALCM on pylons under the wings as these missiles are too long to fit in the internal weapons bay. Of course, they still have the option of using the internal rotary launcher and older ALCM’s if required.

The Tu-160’s have a crew of four comprising of two pilots, and one bomber/nav and a comms/nav operator. They have variable geometry wings that can be manually swept back as speed increases, the maximum speed being Mach 2.05 at 40,000ft. They normally cruise at about Mach 0.9 or 518kts at high altitude but they are fully capable of flying low level down to 250ft. The Tu-160 carries its weapons in two separate internal weapons bays, each with six missiles on rotary launchers

Weapons wise, both aircraft types are primarily intended to carry ALCM’s. A recently new ALCM has been designated the Kh-101/Kh-102, the latter having a nuclear warhead. The Kh-101 has a 400kg HE warhead designed to penetrate hardened shelters and has a range of around 5,000km at a speed of about 700kmh. They are reported to be accurate to 12 – 20m from this range. It is believed that an upgrade to the Tu-160s started in 2006 gave them the ability to use Kh-101/Kh-102’s.

An underside view of 23 black whilst it performed a flypast. The Kutnetsov NK-12MP turboprops with the eight-blade contra-rotating propellers are clearly discernible here. The airframes themselves have hardly changed since this was taken in 1994. © Tony Roper

An underside view of 23 black whilst it performed a flypast. The Kutnetsov NK-12MP turboprops with the eight-blade contra-rotating propellers are clearly discernible here. The airframes themselves have hardly changed since this was taken in 1994. © Tony Roper

By far the greatest number of ALCMs available for both aircraft types are Kh-55/Kh-555 (NATO AS-15 “Kent”). There are a few sub types available but for simplicity, the Kh-55 (AS-15A and B) types have nuclear warheads, whilst the Kh-555 (AS-15C) is a conventional weapon with a 410kg HE warhead. Ranges vary from 2,000km to 3,500km. There are over 700 Kh-55 ALCM’s still in existence according to reports. The long term plan was reportedly to be 500 nuclear armed ALCM’s in the inventory made up from both Kh-55 “Kent B” and Kh-102 types.

Monitoring the “Bears”

In all references to “Bears” it could actually mean either the Tu-95s or Tu-160s but it’s just easier to generalise the term to save space. More often than not they are Tu-95s though as there’s a greater number of these aircraft in the fleet.

The Bear networks use both CW and USB for communication; CW is Duplex with ground stations on one frequency and the aircraft on another; whilst in USB mode the networks are simplex. The frequencies are contained in the table provided, but as you’ll see there’s still one missing; in fact it was only recently that I discovered the summer air frequency used – until this time it was not known by the many that monitor the Bears (well no-one else had published it anyway). No doubt there are more frequencies used as, as you can see, there are secondary ground frequencies in other seasons.

The Russian Military in general use a seasonal system for selecting their frequencies and for the Bear net these haven’t changed over the last few years.

**New information**

I also have VHF/UHF Air to Air frequencies that the Bears have used in the past that I forgot to put in the article:
124.000
128.500
136.250
138.550
284.650
289.000
358.125
************

As well as HF, they also use VHF/UHF for normal transmissions to ATC, Air to Air etc. These HF networks are solely for communicating with presumably HQ Moscow and other strategic agencies, their homebase for instance. It’s even possibly transmissions to radar sites or an equivalent to the Mainsail or “Skymaster” calls made by USAF bombers.

Usually the first sign that the Bears are up is the activation of Marker Beacons on the CW networks. Every 20 minutes, lasting for two minutes, a single letter will be repeated by CW. It is always on the H+00, H+20 and H+40 and normally hand sent. The marker most commonly heard is “W” and this is almost certainly Moscow and the Strategic (or Long-Range Aviation) headquarters. Another is “G” which is believed to be Ukrainka. Engels probably has a marker but it is unknown, but various other markers noted include “Q”, “R” and “Z”.

This photo of Tu-95 Bear-A “12 black” was taken in 1985 by my friend who I served with in the RAF, Dave Hedges. Not much has changed to the aircraft externally since then. He had blagged a trip on a VC-10 that was planned to do a routine Air to Air refuel with Buccaneer aircraft, when the aircraft was suddenly re-tasked mid refuel. It transpired the VC-10 was to refuel a F-4 Phantom that had been scrambled to intercept two Bears that were heading towards the UK through the Faroes-Iceland gap. Dutch fighters also escorting the Bears had to RTB due to lack of fuel so the VC-10 joined the Phantom in stewarding them away from the UK. One thing he still remembers is that “the noise and vibration from the Kuznetsov engines with their contra-rotating propellers was astonishing”. © Dave Hedges

This photo of Tu-95 Bear-A “12 black” was taken by my friend who I served with in the RAF, Dave Hedges,in1985. Not much has changed to the aircraft externally since then. He had blagged a trip on a VC-10 that was planned to do a routine Air to Air refuel with Buccaneer aircraft, when the aircraft was suddenly re-tasked mid refuel. It transpired the VC-10 was to refuel a F-4 Phantom that had been scrambled to intercept two Bears that were heading towards the UK through the Faroes-Iceland gap. Dutch fighters also escorting the Bears had to RTB due to lack of fuel so the VC-10 joined the Phantom in stewarding them away from the UK. One thing he still remembers is that “the noise and vibration from the Kuznetsov engines with their contra-rotating propellers was astonishing”. © Dave Hedges

The Naval Bears also use a Marker system, with Moscow using “C” and Arkhangelsk/Severomorsk using “S” , but it’s just as possible they also use the very same network here. Without visual identification of the aircraft you just don’t know who you’re listening too, but more on that later.

The purpose of the markers is so that the aircrew can check their radio equipment, and also confirm they are able to receive the appropriate unit they need to communicate with. If there are two markers on the go at the same time, as recently with both G and W, the one that isn’t Moscow seems to start about a minute earlier so that there’s a slight overlap. On USB there are no markers. I always wonder which is the primary method of communication here, as CW from the ground certainly has a better range, well for me anyway. Moscow “W” is normally very loud, though as usual propagation plays its part sometimes.

The Bears normally start the communications with Moscow, and I would say it’s likely to be an airborne or status message. But there is no way of telling as the messages are coded. Be it using CW or USB the aircraft always send messages containing groups of three numbers. Ordinarily there doesn’t appear to be a pattern to the numbers as such but they obviously have a meaning, examples of CW messages are:

1244z KFE4 DE KL3U QTC = 728 988 046 927 579 274 780 545 419 069 009
1321z KL3U = 871 988 990 084 158 304 182 397

These messages are from an excursion to the edge of UK airspace on the 19th August this year. Interestingly, I also picked them up on the 20th August 2013, also the third Tuesday of August – coincidence? To breakdown the message above, KFE4 is the ground station, KL3U is the Bear flight. There’s a possibility that the ground station callsign “travels” along with the flight, with a different ground station taking over the callsign to give complete radio coverage. This is just another theory though.

Now we all have our own ideas about the numbers and to be honest I just don’t know the true answer as to what they could possibly mean. I would expect them to be position or progress reports, status reports even. Interestingly, in this mission there were multiple messages starting with 728 or 871, and every time a message began with these numbers the second number group matched:

1153z KFE4 DE KL3U QTC = 728 577 046 025 084 920 423 545 091 804 895
1211z KFE4 DE KL3U QTC = 871 577 990 396 743 406 287 753

You may also notice that comparing the message examples, the third group is the same with regards to the first group; 728 is 046, 871 is 990. This repeats throughout the messages of this mission.

To confuse things slightly though, there is a third first group involved with KL3U, this is 558:
1301z KFE4 DE KL3U QTC = 558 130 422 295 396 246

558 messages never matched any of the second group numbers to 728 and 871, and the third group is never the same.

The messages starting 558 are more in line with the other missions I’ve logged which look totally random. There also messages that are short from an aircraft which are then an hour later at the beginning of a longer message from the ground station, such as these sent in March this year:
1612z P9DL = 710 282 073 633
1728z TRL5 = 710 282 073 633 276 040 795 197 136 802 777 539 643 709

It wasn’t until writing this article that I noticed there’s actually a forth first group in the recent mission, 732, which matches the same format as 558. So, as you can see, there’s random and there’s fixed message types. I do enjoy trying to crack these codes, something I managed to achieve in January when I analysed messages from IL-76 transporters ferrying equipment to Syria as part of the Chemical weapons removal. This can be read in my blog from that time.

Part of me thinks that each first group is a separate aircraft within the formation but there are a couple of things that cancel that theory out. Firstly, this pattern doesn’t follow in previous missions and secondly, the keying was almost certainly done by the same person due to the “fingerprint” of the CW. However, as with most formation flights of any Air Force, it could well be that only one aircraft is sending messages for all aircraft in the formation, the lead aircraft for example. The Russian Navy does this when there is a group of ships travelling together, with quite often one ship sending messages for all. It is generally believed that the air callsigns are individual aircraft as there have definitely been other missions were more than one callsign has been in contact with the ground – but were these in fact other airborne assets and not the bomber flight?

The aircraft callsigns seem to be tactical and change every time whilst the ground callsigns appear to be fixed with the same ones being used each season, examples being:
TRL5 – spring
TV6P, IZ2J and KFE4 – summer
4ASU, QZ6Y and PUO7 – autumn
IWV4 – winter

It is always a better monitoring experience if you can pick up both CW Air and Ground so that you can get both sides of the “conversation”, but this isn’t always the case, with just the ground audible. The transmitters on the aircraft are not big, and they are not powerful so it is hard to pick them up. Of course, if they happen to head over towards the UK then they do get very clear indeed, as happened recently when at least two Bears flew close to the Shetland Islands off the NE coast of Scotland.

Another side view of 23 black as it taxies in. The rear tail gun is clearly visible here and if compared to Dave’s picture from the 80’s you’ll see a slight change. The glass observation bubbles under the tailplane which were used by the tail gunner have been removed, as has the second gun positioned on the underneath of the aircraft just before the tail (slightly harder to see in Dave’s picture). The gun itself is also a different model. © Tony Roper

Another side view of 23 black as it taxies in. The rear tail gun is clearly visible here and if compared to Dave’s picture from the 80’s you’ll see a slight change. The glass observation bubbles under the tailplane which were used by the tail gunner have been removed, as has the second gun positioned on the underneath of the aircraft just before the tail (slightly harder to see in Dave’s picture). The gun itself is also a different model. © Tony Roper

Hearing both sides of the R/T isn’t a problem on USB as it’s a simplex network, but range of aircraft from the reception point and propagation will of course play a part in this. Your knowledge of the Russian language though is going to be main hindrance in any monitoring. Usually the ground station is very much stronger, much like the CW network.

Russian is hard enough as it is, but when you’re listening in on HF to something where the crew themselves have to wear headsets with additional noise defence fitted to the earpieces, you can just imagine what it sounds like. To put it another way, you can normally tell you are listening to a Tu-95 and not a Tu-160 because you can actually hear the turbine engines in the background! And the crew are normally shouting down the mic. To add to the difficulty of working out the messages there’s the way the numbers are said. Some say them in singles – Dva Vosem Dva (282); but then other crew members will say them as long numbers, two hundred and eighty two for example which in Russian is “dvesti vosem’desyat dva”. Luckily, you’ll normally get a second chance at the numbers as the ground controllers will read them back, often in both methods as described. I know numbers in Russian, and I really struggle, especially in the non-singular method. A recording is normally necessary to get it right – if possible.

As I’ve already stated, the message formats are the same, three figure groups. But there is a difference in callsigns. For starters the aircraft use a different call to the CW one, comprising of five numbers, 50271 for example. These numbers are logged differently by some people, 50-271 for the previous example. This is because of the way the callsigns are sent: “Fifty, two hundred and seventy one”. But I think this is wrong, and there’s possible photographic evidence that points towards the numbers being a five figure group. There’s a link to the photo evidence at the end of this report.

The ground stations also have voice callsigns as opposed to the four digit call in CW. In a way this is understandable as some of the callsigns are long and would be hard to do quickly in CW. Again though, the ground callsigns are fixed and never change, they’re not even seasonally split as far we can tell. Callsigns heard include:
BALANS
NABOR
KATOLIK
ADRIS – new callsign for the recent flight
SHPORA – believed to be Rostov-na-Donu though not proven
MEDYANKA
OCHITSKA

The location of the other callsigns is unknown, but BALANS and NABOR are called the most and it seems likely one of them is Moscow or Long Range HQ.

Now here’s the strange thing. The actual message format is the same as I’ve already said, and yet when CW and USB have been sent at the same time, no doubt from the same aircraft formation, the actual message is different. As an example here’s two messages sent at exactly the same time, 0212z on the 20th August 2013:
CW: TV6P = 161 179 985 027 614 591 089 C = (this is a read back from the ground station TV6P)
USB: 30977 calls Medyanka – 527 268 987 627 805 893 206 591 093

Except for the penultimate group (591), no other number is the same, but there are similarities. At the end of the day though, these messages are being sent by Strategic Nuclear bombers, they are probably exactly what would be sent should the unthinkable happen and the aircraft are dispatched for real. The messages are not supposed to be decoded, and if I was able to I’d be a very rich man thanks to NATO. Liken them to the equally unbreakable EAM messages sent by the HF-GCS network if you like.

Of note in USB mode is that there are a lot of relay messages from one aircraft to another, something that I haven’t found in CW mode. This is probably down to CW having a better chance of getting through noise and propagation than voice transmissions. Sometimes, though, CW messages are sent blind.

More often than not the aircraft actually head east these days, especially those from Ukrainka. In the Cold War this wasn’t the case and the Bears made regular trips to Europe skirting around the northern parts, not entering any sovereign airspace, and even heading into the North Atlantic region. If they did this, it would cause all sorts of trouble as they don’t declare themselves to Shanwick Oceanic and normally just cut south across all the Oceanic tracks. The only method of knowing where they are here is via long range radar (which as you can imagine aren’t pointing out over the Atlantic as there’s not much threat to the UK from that direction) or via an “escort” of RAF fighter aircraft. These flights to the Atlantic are increasing again, sometimes going as far south as Portugal and beyond.

Most nations have a QRA (Quick Reaction/Alert) capability and in Northern Europe they used to get launched regularly but this died down when the Soviet Union fell. Russia had a lack of funds for a very long time and its military fell by the wayside; until Putin’s recent reprisal of it all. In the last few years, Bear missions have increased from practically none a year to two a month, especially recently. Sometimes it’s two a week to Europe or Pacific regions, or maybe one to Europe and one to the Pacific at the same time. Either way, they are getting more and more frequent again.

QRA aircraft will launch from the various countries along the route and intercept the Bears in “free” airspace, take some pictures, note down the aircraft identities (reporting this back directly to the Air Defence Controllers), wave and generally ensure the aircraft do not enter sovereign airspace. If the Bears continue skirting the edges of various other countries, then the current escorting QRA will hand over to the next country along the way. It takes a lot of resources to carry out the QRA task, with fighter crews being on immediate standby at their bases, 24/7, along with at least one air-refuelling tanker required to sustain the flights here in the UK. Should it be a long task, another flight of fighters will get airborne to take over whilst the first pair get a refuel. There is no messing around here though, the fighters that go up to meet the Bears are fully armed and make sure the Russian crews are aware of this fact by showing them.

Obviously, the intercepts are also monitored here in the UK and Europe but I’m not at liberty to say frequencies used due to the very nature of the missions. One thing this monitoring does provide though is the identity of the Russian aircraft, because as I mentioned earlier, the intercept aircraft report back the type and tail numbers of the Bears.

Of note from a recent intercept by RAF fighters, at the time the lead Typhoon reported flying in formation with the lead Bear, a message was sent on CW. Was this a message being sent back home that they had met up with the UK Air Defence?

Finally, it is also worth noting that CW isn’t always received even though there’s plenty of traffic on USB. The markers will still be being sent every 20 minutes, but there’ll be no actual traffic. I’ve not known it to be the other way round with CW only and no USB.

Two approximate routes routinely taken by “Bear” flights towards the UK. The route to the west of the country causes no end of trouble as the route cuts south, and then north again, straight through the Atlantic Oceanic tracks which is a non-radar environment. They also cut south between the UK and Norway, down towards Dutch airspace Map features courtesy of SkyVector.com

Two approximate routes routinely taken by “Bear” flights towards the UK. The route to the west of the country causes no end of trouble as the route cuts south, and then north again, straight through the Atlantic Oceanic tracks which is a non-radar environment. They also cut south between the UK and Norway, down towards Dutch airspace
Map features courtesy of SkyVector.com

Recordings from the flights on the 28th January 2015

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

8131kHz 1058z – Callsigns believed to be 72181 and 72182 calling BALANS, ADRIS, KATOLIK and GEOLOG. Aircraft types are still unknown at this time but possibly the IL-78 refuellers. They call each other and chat about not getting through to any station.

8131kHz 1130z – Callsign 72186 makes calls initially with no luck, then calls 72182 and asks them to try the ground stations, which they do, also with no joy

8131kHz 1224z – Callsign 72181 calls initially followed by 72182 calling 72181. After a brief conversation 72182 tries BALANS getting through (very faint on this recording).72181 then tries BALANS again and gets through with following coded message 949 867 069 473 250 197 518. BALANS doesn’t get the message and 72181 tries two more times but BALANS doesn’t get the message clearly. Note – to cut down the length of the recording the faint BALANS transmissions are cut out

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats team created a 2014 annual report for my blog. It’s amazing just how many views I had, around 11,000 in total

Here's an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Thanks to everyone that has read my blog in 2014