Full analysis of the sinking of Liman

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

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

Liman, taken in November 2015 by Yörük Işık

A brief account of what happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened next….

There quickly followed a media frenzy of accusations and denials.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social media and its self-professed experts

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

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

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

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

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

Epron taken by Yörük Işık

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick LNA4ALL test

Despite the best efforts of the Royal Mail service, I have been able to get my hands on a Low Noise Amplifier created by Adam at LNA4ALL. The Royal Mail showed just how useless it is, when the parcel arrived here in the UK in just 11 hours from Croatia on February the 14th, but then not getting delivered to me until March the 14th – yes, one month! There is no surprise that courier companies such as DPD and Hermes are getting more business than the Royal Mail – they are bloody useless.

Anyway, the reason for the purchase is for a later review on an AIS dongle that I will be testing, but which has unfortunately been possibly damaged before getting to me.

So, as I had some time to spare I thought I’d run a quick test on how the LNA performs against the claims that is shown on the LNA4ALL website. For the test I used a quickly built 12v to 5v PSU that was connected to a Maplin bench PSU and also a Rigol DP711 Linear DC PSU where I could ensure a precise power input. As it was, it was good that I used the DP711 because my quick PSU was only chucking out 1.2v at connection to the LNA4ALL, despite an unconnected output of 5v – some work needed there I think.

Despite this lower power the LNA4ALL still worked with just the 1.2v input, though the results where not as good.

Other equipment used were a Rigol DSG815 Signal Generator and a Rigol DSA1030 Spectrum Analyser (no longer available), along with various Mini-Circuits shielded test cables. The Rigol equipment I purchased from Telonic Instruments Ltd last year.

Below then is a table that contains all the relevant data. As you’ll see the Gain claim is pretty much spot on with some being over. Just a couple of frequencies are below that which is claimed, especially at 28 MHz.

LNA4ALL Frequency data

A couple of things to note.

Firstly, somehow I managed to miss testing 1296 MHz. I obviously didn’t put it in the table in Excel before I started 🙂 Also, the DSG815 only goes up to 1.5 GHz so I couldn’t test above that.

Secondly I ran a test for the AIS centre frequency of 162 MHz, for which there was no comparison to the LNA4ALL data. A gain of over 24dB though shows that the LNA would be perfect for those of you with AIS receivers that may want to get better reception. To prove the theory I compared the LNA reception against data without it connected to the NASA Engine AIS receiver that I currently use. In ShipPlotter I average a max range of around 15nm without the LNA, but with it connected this increased to around 22nm. The number of messages received also tripled as it was able to dig out the weaker signals.

The NASA Engine isn’t a bad receiver, but it is a frequency hopper rather than a dual monitor, and so it changes between the two AIS frequencies every 30 seconds (161.975 MHz and 162.025 MHz). I suspect a dual monitor would give better message numbers and range.

Below is a graph made using the excellent software by Neal Arundale – NMEA AIS Router. As you can see the message numbers (or sentences) for over an hour are pretty good – well, it is a vast improvement on what I used to get with my current “temporary” set-up, with 419 messages received in an hour. The software is available at his website, for free, along with various other programs that you can use with AIS. If you’d rather not use ShipPlotter he has created his own AIS Decoder which can be linked into Google Earth and such like. Visit his website for more information.

My antenna isn’t exactly top-notch. It is at a height of just 4 metres AGL in the extension loft, and it is made from galvanised steel angle bead used by plasterers to strengthen corners prior to skimming – this I cut down as a dipole for a target of 162 MHz. As usual with my trimming of antennas, I cut just too much off and ended up with it cut to 161.167 MHz. It gives a VSWR of 1.018 and Return loss of 40.82dB, with 162 MHz being approx. 30dB Return loss which equates to 1.075 VSWR – that will do.

Also, as I live right on the coast, about 50 metres from the sea, I’m practically at sea level, which doesn’t help much with range and signal reception either. Despite this the antenna produces great results, though it is just temporary until I can get a new homebuild up on the roof.

VSWR reading for the homebrew loft AIS Antenna

The LNA4ALL retails at various prices depending on what option you go for. I went for the aluminium box version so it was around £54 including the delivery. I had looked at a Mini-circuits equivalent, and when it looked like the LNA4ALL was lost I did actually order one. But this was nearly twice the price, and seeing as the LNA4ALL contains many components from Mini-Circuit I doubt it is any different really.

All in all the LNA4ALL is all you need to boost your weak signals – couldn’t get any more all’s in 🙂

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