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

February’s Blackjacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8131

1216z 44732 calls KATOLIK

1217z 44732 calls KATOLIK [KATOLIK very faint]

1218z 44732 calls KATOLIK, BALANS replies

1220z BALANS passes message 130 525

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

1226z 44732 answers, BALANS passes message 130 525

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

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

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

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

1318z BALANS passes message 727 to 44732

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

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

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

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

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

1745z 44731 called by BALANS

1750z BALANS calls 44731 with message 861 408 850

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

160217map

Approximate routing of the Tu-160 Blackjacks

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

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

Roland Proesch Radio Monitoring books 2015

Roland Proesch has recently updated his books on Radio monitoring.

Published in the last month or so, the four books are great additions to your bookshelves and priced at 49Euros each plus postage. He does do bundle offers if you’re thinking of buying more than one of the titles.

The titles are:
Technical Handbook for Radio Monitoring HF
Technical Handbook for Radio Monitoring VHF/UHF
Signal Analysis for Radio Monitoring
Frequency Handbook for Radio Monitoring HF

CoverTechnicalHandbook2013_1EI reviewed the 2013 edition of Radio Monitoring HF in March 2014.

Roland provided me with a PDF of the changes and additions to the books which you can find here:
New in Technical Handbooks

For more information on prices and examples from the books head over to Roland’s website

I will hopefully be reviewing three other radio monitoring books by three different authors in the next month:
Professioneller Kurzwellenfunk by Nils Schiffhauer
Spezial-Frequenzliste 2015/16 by Michael Marten
International Call Sign Handbook by Larry Van Horn

Bear Hunting – part two

Well it appears I may have been wrong about the previous mission in January by the Russian Bears and their routing down the English Channel – though there is still no hard evidence this did happen. But, for now then I will accept that it did unless proven otherwise.

On February the 18th the Russians carried out another flight down the west coast of Ireland, outside any sovereign airspace and this time causing less disruption than in January. That isn’t to say there wasn’t some traffic information given by Shanwick and Shannon about unknown traffic.

Kyle, aged 15, a member of a closed forum I’m in, was able to pick up some good comms from the Typhoons, including confirmation of the tail numbers of the two Bears:
Lead aircraft = RF-94130 (24 Red)
Second aircraft = RF-94116 (28 [Red])

Personally I didn’t get much but what I do have is available here:

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 – 1744z 51131 calls BALANS with message
531 027 103 572 874 960 825 069 068 549 290

1747z KATOLIK calls 51131 for the message too

8131kHz – 1805z 51131 calls BALANS with message
531 640 103 931 345 097 830 872

Note that the first and third groups are the same in both messages. I’m still working on a possible decode for these messages

UPDATE

A couple of things.

Firstly, I noticed that if you collate the first six numbers of the above messages they could well be Lat/Long positions.

5310.27N (0)1032.02W
5316.40N (0)1039.31W

Putting that into Bing Maps you get:
http://binged.it/1CRBktS

It is known that the Bears flew approximately 10 to 15 miles off the coast of Ireland and this does tie in quite nicely with that. However, this doesn’t run with other messages received unfortunately. But, I’ll keep plugging away any further messages to see if there is a crack for some of them.

On to the second update.

I must have put my Excalibur on to record when I got back from work on the 19th but then forgot about it. Whilst deleting the backlog of recordings I noticed there was one I hadn’t listened to and quickly discovered I’d captured some further messages on this day too. Here’s the recording, with a transcription below (thanks to Ron for checking (and correcting) my Russian translation):

8131 – Bear Net

1502z BALANS calls 69341 and 69342

1503z [aircraft passes message, not heard]

1504z BALANS reads back
636 804 856 444 517 803

1505z BALANS reads back
809 698 525 048 517 326

1506z BALANS reads back
207 201 617 371 151 667 613

1510z BALANS reads back
891 804 707 677 517 211
[lots of error change messages with grp1 becoming 575, grp3 606]

1514z BALANS reads back
293 301 604 252 503 933 630
[lots of error change messages with grp2 becoming 201, grp4 952]

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

Monitoring NATO “Joint Warrior” Exercises

***This blog now contains some information regarding the current Joint Warrior 151 exercise***

Most of November I was away on holiday to the USA which is why there was a lack of a blog last month. This month I’m going to release one of my articles that was published in the July edition of The Spectrum Monitor. tsmcover

As I’ve previously mentioned the magazine is available in digital format, and can be read on all electronic readers. A yearly subscription is $24, which is a bargain bearing in the mind the monthly content produced, totalling over 1200 pages a year.

This version is slightly different to the one published in the magazine as it contains some extra content.

Monitoring NATO “Joint Warrior” Exercises

Twice a year the UK hosts Exercise Joint Warrior(JW), planned by the Joint Tactical Exercise Planning Staff (JTEPS) based at Headquarters Northwood, about 5 miles north of Heathrow Airport. JTEPS is a joint organisation parented by both HQ Air Command & Navy Command (NC HQ).

The Official Mission of the Exercise is to:
Provide a joint, multi-threat environment in which UK, NATO and Allied units and their staffs may undertake collective training and pre-deployment training in tactical formations in preparation for employment in a Combined Joint Task Force

The number of participants is normally quite large, with up to 30 naval vessels, both surface and sub-surface, taking part. The number of aircraft taking part is substantially larger with sometimes up to 100 being involved. These include Maritime Patrol Aircraft(MPA), Fast Jets, Command and Control (C2), Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), Transport, Air to Air Refuellers and Helicopters

As well as Air and Sea assets, there are Land based Air Defence units along with Paratroops, Army and Marines. The number of personnel involved is in the thousands.

JW normally involves forces from major European countries as well as the USA and Canada. Other countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Brazil have taken part in recent years.

This French Navy Aquitaine Class Destroyer "FS Aquitaine" (D650) is seen arriving at Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, also known as Faslane. The French are huge users of HF, in particular they use STANAG4258, RTTY and HF-ALE. The STANAG and RTTY is normally encrypted but you can sometimes get callsign information from the messages. They also use USB, especially the Transports, AWACS and Maritime Patrol Aircraft

This French Navy Aquitaine Class Destroyer “FS Aquitaine” (D650) is seen arriving at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, also known as Faslane. The French are huge users of HF, in particular they use STANAG4258, RTTY and HF-ALE. The STANAG and RTTY is normally encrypted but you can sometimes get callsign information from the messages. They also use USB, especially the Transports, AWACS and Maritime Patrol Aircraft

The exercises can cover the whole of the UK, but most of it takes place in Scotland and its surrounding waters. There are certain areas in other parts of the UK that are used, for example the Spadeadam Electronic Warfare Training Range (West of Newcastle, England) and Fast Jet Areas over the North Sea (for Air to Air combat). But it is the limited population of the North West of Scotland, along with quiet air and sea traffic, plus access to both deep and shallow waters, which allows almost total freedom for the participants. There are also numerous weapons ranges some of which include areas designed specifically for Naval Gun Support (NGS) and Close Air Support (CAS) – Cape Wrath on the North Western tip being the main one.

Joint Warrior 141 (JW141) took place between the 31st of March and the 11th of April, 2014. The week prior to the main start of the exercise there was a general build-up of forces as the scenario heads to conflict between fictional countries, starting with Amphibious Forces congregating at West Freugh and Luce Bay off South West Scotland.

"SSN Missouri", a USN Virginia Class SSN, leaving Faslane in 2013.

“SSN Missouri”, a USN Virginia Class SSN, leaving Faslane in 2013.

Meanwhile, the main naval forces from the different participating countries generally arrive at Naval Base Clyde, more commonly known as Faslane. The base is close to Glasgow, and is the home of to the majority of the UK Submarine Fleet, including Vanguard Class SSBNs and Astute Class SSN hunter-killer submarines. It is also the home of the mine countermeasures fleet. Faslane gets regular visitors from various Naval forces throughout the year, a not too uncommon site being USN Virginia Class SSNs that pass through for supplies and crew rest.

JW141 hosted the following countries sea and air elements:

The Netherlands and Belgium also provided Marine forces, as well as the Netherlands and USA providing Forward Air Controllers (FAC).

The UK of course provided the largest amount of participants with numerous ground, Paratroop and Marine regiments, Air Defence and FACs taking part, along with sea and air elements consisting of:

I’m pretty sure there would have been at least one UK Submarine involved though I do not know the details of this. The Astute Class are still in their infancy and so would have been ideally chosen to take part.

Despite my previous statement that it is quiet in Scotland when it comes to sea and air traffic, it isn’t desolate. There is still a large amount of flights into the major cities of Scotland, it is just it is quieter than in Southern England . There are numerous daily warnings sent out to civil aircrews about possible military activity and this works in the other direction too, with the military crews getting briefings on airways and areas to avoid.

Sea warnings aren’t left out either, in particular for the large fishing industry that exists off the West coast of Scotland. For this, JTEPS produces a document that is published on the Government website that provides information on Submarine, Minewarfare, live firing and denial of GPS training for the exercise. This can be a useful document should you be interested in following what is happening during the exercise as it tends to have a program of events and maps.

***I have updated the page to show the document for the current JW151 exercise and it can be found here. There are also daily SUBFACT and GUNFACTS broadcast as part of the NAVTEX warnings

Radio Communications

What JW does bring with all this action is radio communications. In fact, one of the main aims of the exercise is to establish common procedures between forces that are likely to work together for real in a combat area.

All types of communication methods are used, including the old fashioned “flag” and “flashlight Morse code” between ships. In the majority though, it is of course radio that is used to its fullest. And, it is the full spectrum that is used from VLF all the way up to SATCOM, most of which is easily received by monitors around the UK and further when it’s HF that is being used.

As well as voice comms, data takes a large part, especially RTTY, Link 11, Link 16 and STANAG4285. All of this is normally encrypted but if there is a non NATO country taking part then sometimes data is sent in the clear, especially RTTY.

Because of the large expanse of operating areas, HF is used extensively. Over the last few years I’ve built up a record of frequencies used that have been monitored by myself and others also interested in the JW exercises.

A Lockheed Orion CP-140 of the Royal Canadian Air Force, 140116, lines up to depart Lossiemouth during an intense sandstorm in 2013. Just visible in the background is the parking area for the Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPAs) that take part in Joint Warrior. The usual mix includes USN P-3 and RCAF CP-140 Orions, but has included French, German, Norwegian and Brazilian Navy MPAs in recent years

A Lockheed Orion CP-140 of the Royal Canadian Air Force, 140116, lines up to depart Lossiemouth during an intense sandstorm in 2013. Just visible in the background is the parking area for the Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPAs) that take part in Joint Warrior. The usual mix includes USN P-3 and RCAF CP-140 Orions, but has included French, German, Norwegian and Brazilian Navy MPAs in recent years

The Maritime Patrol Aircraft normally operate out of RAF Lossiemouth and arrive a few days before the exercise begins. Once StartEx has been announced there is at least one MPA airborne at any one time until the exercise ends, quite often though there are two airborne. Mission lengths are around 6 hours including transits and they consist of Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). The aircraft are designated a trigraph callsign such as A8X as allocated to the USN P8A of VP-5 on the 2nd of April, and these are changed daily. One thing of note with the NATO MPA element of the exercise is that the aircraft are not allocated their callsigns by the exercise staff but from NATO itself, as they are on call to deal with any real-world scenario that may take place. Should there be any non-NATO MPAs in the exercise then these are allocated their callsigns as normal by JTEPS.

When the aircraft get airborne they normally call Northwood, callsign MKL, on HF with a departure message. This is followed by an on-station message and then hourly sitreps until off-station and then landing. They would also call for any information or if they themselves have something to pass such as enemy sightings. The primary frequency used on HF is 6697kHz. As well as using HF the MPAs will communicate on UHF with any vessels in their operating area, though this well out of range of my location so I don’t normally hear this.

RTTY (or RATT) is the primary method of passing the information, though this quite often seems to fail. It is quite amusing sometimes listening to an MPA set up a RTTY message by voice with MKL, which then fails repeatedly, sometimes taking 15 to 20 minutes of attempts. They then give up and send by voice a 30 second message – I sometimes wonder why they bother, especially when it’s something as basic as a departure message.

I normally set up my Icom IC-R8500 and Winradio Excalibur right at the beginning of the exercise to monitor the HF frequencies, in particular the MKL primary 6697 kHz. Along with this I ensure my Bearcat UBC800XLT is up to date with all the correct VHF/UHF frequencies, and that my Bearcat UBC3500XLT mirrors it for when I’m mobile

Talking of going mobile, my usual routine is to head to the Faslane area to catch the arriving and departing ships. Normally, the ships will arrive on the Thursday and Friday before the start of the full exercise. Due to the large amount of ships involved they are given arrival slot times, much the same as aircraft do at airports. This is so that the local Harbour masters, Police escorts, Tugs and Pilots are not stretched to the limit with everything arriving at once. The ships use the standard Marine VHF Channels to communicate with the Pilots etc (Channels 12, 14, 16 and 73). This is usually quite interesting to listen to, in particular this year with USN participation – for instance USS Cole was very twitchy about pleasure craft in the area, even asking the Police escort to intercept a suspicious vessel heading straight for them. The calm response of “Errrr, that’s your Tug and Pilot” was quite funny. On the Sunday, the reverse takes place with all the ships leaving, this time slightly more grouped in small flotillas.

Arleigh Burke class Destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) about to pass RFA Lyme Bay (L3007) of the UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary

Arleigh Burke class Destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) about to pass RFA Lyme Bay (L3007) of the UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary

Over the weekend, RFA Lyme Bay and RFA Orangeleaf had anchored a few miles short of Faslane at an area near to Cloch Lighthouse (where I based myself). I was able to receive both these ships on UHF frequencies though I was unable to clearly tie-up the callsigns used by the ships. Just before 0700z, numerous coded messages were sent between the callsigns 8DE and 7GO. These continued until 0800z when 8DE calls “Anchors away”. There was the sound of horns across the bay and RFA Lyme Bay moves off, turning a tight 180 degrees to head south. RFA Orangeleaf follows behind. From this I concluded that 8DE was probably Lyme Bay.

When I’m waiting for things to happen, and scanning with the UBC3500XLT, I’m also using the Close-Call facility of the radio for the UHF band to see if I catch anything else. This time it didn’t work, but another monitor in Northern Ireland was a lot luckier and was able to add a few frequencies to the growing list:

There were plenty of calls on these frequencies, but the usual line of sight problem arises with UHF and the ships would quickly disappear out of my range. But it didn’t matter as HF is used extensively because of this very problem for the ships themselves.

Monitoring from the Shack

With the Icom on 6697 kHz and the UBC800XLT scanning the hundreds of VHF/UHF frequencies, I’d use the Excalibur to search through for the ships HF communications. Like the VHF/UHF ones, there are frequencies that are used every year and one’s that aren’t. But once you’ve found the regular ones you can pretty well catch most of the action. Along with a small group of others that also monitor JW we were able to build up a good picture of what was going on.

It became clear quite quickly that 4706 kHz was being used for Ship Air Defence calls. Over the two weeks this task would be carried out by various units, and by all military methods – Land, Sea and Air. The Land element would be carried out by the RAF Air Defence Unit, based at RAF Boulmer (usual callsign HOTSPUR). The Air element would be from a E3 AWACS (though not that often) and the Sea element would be carried out by a ship. By the callsigns used it sounds like the task is split into three during a 24 hour period, with maybe Boulmer doing 2 slots and a ship the other; or whatever the aim of that days scenarios that have been planned by JTEPS.

The calls would look something like this taken from my logs:
(1132z)
J0T this is G1T
New friendly ML500
Position MKQN0105
Hdg 287
New friendly ML500

(1133z)
Update friendly ML500
Pos MKPN5606
Hdg 287
Spd 166kts
Strength1
C height 19
Update friendly ML500

This is decoded as:
ML500 = allocated track ident by radar operator
MKQN0105 = grid reference
Hdg 287 = Heading 287 degrees
Spd 166kts = speed of track
Strength 1 = number of aircraft in formation
C height 19 = Mode-C radar height

These calls are made very quickly, every 30 seconds to a minute, and actually get quite hard to write down. The training carried out from these calls is very important and not only assist the radar operators but also things like the defence systems on board the ships.

Cobham Aviation Falcon 20 G-FRAW taxies for take-off from RAF Lossiemouth during Joint Warrior 12-2 in 2012. The photo clearly shows all the additional pods these aircraft carry for replicating different aircraft, radars and weaponry

Cobham Aviation Falcon 20 G-FRAW taxies for take-off from RAF Lossiemouth during Joint Warrior 12-2 in 2012. The photo clearly shows all the additional pods these aircraft carry for replicating different aircraft, radars and weaponry

The exercise uses the Civil fleet of Falcon 20 aircraft of Cobham Aviation Services to replicate different aircraft. To do this they use towed targets that can be programmed to have the Radar Cross Section of aircraft such as Sukhoi Su-27or Su-35 Flankers to give the radar operators a true feel of what they would possibly see for real. The pods also replicate missiles as fired by the “enemy” aircraft and can be programmed as such, a “favourite” being Exocet as these have been used in anger against Royal Navy ships, sinking a few in the Falklands Conflict in the early 80’s. The Falcon 20’s can fly very low over the sea up to 300KIAS, and believe me they fly low, I flew in one year’s ago. Other equipment carried can give immediate information of simulated hits or misses by the ships Air Defence weapons, much like ACMI pods (Aircraft Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation) carried by aircraft.

Sometimes the Falcons also fly with Royal Navy Hawk fast jets, operated by 736 Naval Air Squadron. 736NAS used to be known as FRADU (Fleet Requirements and Aircraft Direction Unit) and the task of these Hawks is to simulate low flying missiles against ships. As the Hawks can fly faster than the Falcons this gives a better simulation to the ship’s crew to help them learn how to combat the threat, or at least reduce the possible damage caused should the missile get through. The Hawks can also carry out the same task as the Falcon 20s replicating enemy aircraft.

The Falcon 20s can also carry out other tasks such as Electronic Warfare by jamming the radars and radios and using chaff and flares. They are very capable aircraft and used continually by the UK, not just in exercises such as Joint Warrior.

By far, the best Maritime Air Defence platform currently at sea is the Daring Class Type 45 Destroyer of the Royal Navy. In JW141 it was HMS Dragon of this class that took part. The Daring class destroyers are fitted with a Marconi Type 1046 Air/Surface search radar which functions in the D-band; and a Surveillance/Fire Control E/F-band Type 1045 (Sampson) Multifunction radar made by BAe Systems. These radars combined can give a 400km,/360° coverage, linking in to the Principle Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS) which provides target cueing, anti-jamming, radar de-clutter and other functions necessary to protect itself and any other ships in the fleet. For protection the primary weapon is a Vertical Launch System (VLS) capable of holding 48 missiles in single missile cells. These hold either Aster15 or Aster30 S/A missiles with ranges of 15nm and 30nm respectively, with Aster30 reported to have a range of up 65nm. The VLS is capable of having a mix mode, where any combination of the two missiles can be held, the usual mix being 32 Aster 30s and 16 Aster15s. Future developments of the Aster30 include an anti-Ballistic Missile version with a range far exceeding that currently available, with reports of it having a range of 540nm, with a further version exceeding 1200nm.

© 2014 Tony Roper.No usage permitted without authors permission

Göteborg Class Corvette Sundsvall (K24) of the Swedish Navy in a Joint Warrior exercise from April 2013. Every exercise has different participants from different countries, which allows for greater training and learning of techniques used by the differing Navies of the World

It would take pages to go through everything you can hear on HF during JW. It’s a 24/7 activity as the exercise runs day and night, 7 days a week including weekends. You can normally hear the Gunnery ranges at Cape Wrath as ships take it in turns to simulate attacking shoreline targets, normally given instructions by FACs. There’s general radio chat with resupplies, tasking of ship helicopters, and as previously mentioned, the setting up of RTTY and STANAG4285. Most of the general calls were on 4915.5 kHz which seemed to be the Primary Ship HF frequency. Plenty of callsigns were heard every day, though in the majority they couldn’t be tied up as intended.

HF frequencies used over the years that have been logged by myself and others:

Air to Air

© 2014 Tony Roper.No usage permitted without authors permission

Royal Air Force Tornado ZA404/013 in full afterburner as it departs RAF Lossiemouth in April 2013 on a Joint Warrior mission. Being this close to the runway is very noisy and very hot. Within 6 months, this Tornado had been transferred to RAF Leeming and scrapped, being used for spare parts for the remaining fleet of Tornados

The Air element of the exercise takes place for most of the two weeks with a multitude of tasks being carried out by the Fighters, Transports, Tankers and electronic warfare aircraft. Again, to go through the full amount would take pages of information but I’m sure you can imagine how busy the airwaves can be with such a large amount of aircraft taking part.

In the majority, the Fighters use Tactical Air Direction (TAD) frequencies (most people incorrectly call them Tactical Air Designator frequencies). These are “real time” frequencies used by the Air Defence Network in the UK and there are hundreds of them. The actual frequency is never said on the air with the TAD number (channel number) passed instead – TAD156 for instance. To confuse things even more, in JW the TADS are given other codenames, normally colours (as are the HF frequencies in fact) and these are said over the air too. Of course, if you have the TAD frequencies this isn’t a problem as you can tie the colour up. As it is, there isn’t a definitive list of frequencies officially available, though some are known.

As you can imagine, the chat on the frequencies is busy as fighters intercept others fighters, or transports and such like. It’s interesting listening and hasn’t changed much from when I was in the RAF. Though, I’ve got to say it isn’t as busy as it used to be, mainly down to target datalinking between aircraft. The datalinking means that less information is passed over the radios either between aircraft in a formation, or from E3 AWACS for instance. Data is also transmitted from the ground from the Air Defence networks or mobile forces.

The Hercules transports were kept busy most of the exercise with plenty of paradrops, both human and freight. And there were plenty of Helicopters around from ships, as well as RAF and Army elements. Most of this is carried out on common inter-squadron frequencies, and those of the main RAF Area Control based at Swanwick in Hampshire (Southern England, and also home to the Civil London Area Control Centre).

This year the exercise ended with an “Apocalypse Now” scenario with a mass Helicopter and Hercules assault on a disused airfield, RAF Kinloss. This is far out of my range being about 240 miles away so I wasn’t able to monitor it, but I did catch the Helicopters travelling back and forth from there to West Freugh where a mobile base had been established, West Freugh being about 40 miles to the south of my QTH.

Overall, the exercise normally brings a good build up in radio communications for UK listeners, especially HF. But unfortunately, HF isn’t that popular within the Military listeners of the UK where the majority listen to VHF/UHF frequencies. The funny thing is, they’re probably missing the vast part of the exercise.

Three Tornados of the RAF carry out final checks lined up on the runway during Joint Warrior 12-2 in October 2012. Tornados operate with two crew, Pilot and Navigator/Weapons Officer, and have been in full service in the RAF since 1982 but are now in their final years. They have served the RAF well over this time, taking part in all combat Operations since their initial introduction into service, including Operation Desert Storm where they flew as low as 50 feet at over 500mph (something they do every day over Scotland). Their crews are probably the best Low-Level combat pilots in the World

Three Tornados of the RAF carry out final checks lined up on the runway during Joint Warrior 12-2 in October 2012. Tornados operate with two crew, Pilot and Navigator/Weapons Officer, and have been in full service in the RAF since 1982 but are now in their final years. They have served the RAF well over this time, taking part in all combat Operations since their initial introduction into service, including Operation Desert Storm where they flew as low as 50 feet at over 500mph (something they do every day over Scotland). Their crews are probably the best Low-Level combat pilots in the World