Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Trick-or-Treat: Russian Sub Crew Casts Early Vote in U.S. Presidential Election

Sierra II nuclear-powered submarine (source: oosif.ru)
Bill Gertz, who isn't shy about his pro-Republican tendencies, decided to publish a news piece about a Russian nuclear-powered submarine operating near the U.S. east coast -- on the eve of the U.S. presidential election.  While the U.S. Navy's Chief of Naval Operations refuted Gertz's earlier claims of an Akula-class submarine operating in the Gulf of Mexico, no named military official has yet weighed in on the latest claim of a Sierra II-class nuclear-powered submarine operating along U.S. shores.

Had Gertz done just a little research, he could have found a Russian Navy intelligence collection ship (AGI) moored in Havana, Cuba, on September 23 -- possibly the same ship mentioned in his recent piece.  He could have found chatter suggesting a Russian Navy rescue tug recently visited Jacksonville, Florida -- not far from where Gertz claims the Russian submarine was operating.  And he could have cited official Russian military reporting that indicated a Russian Navy ship (or ships) had visited Jacksonville as early as October, thus providing some level of corroboration of the aforementioned chatter.  Perhaps Gertz did not notice that a Royal Navy SSBN recently launched a Trident II D5 ballistic missile from somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, not far from the United States, and very close to Kings Bay.  Wouldn't a British boomer be of some import to a prowling Russian submarine given that a British SSBN likely would be patrolling in waters closer to Russia than a U.S. SSBN?  These juicy tidbits could have added some real substance to his story, regardless of its veracity. But instead of doing any heavy lifting, he decided to cite anonymous sources and forgo any level of research, thus attesting to his true intent -- to generate a scandal in hopes of swaying voters. 

Washington Free Beacon looking for someone with spell-checking (and research) skills

Now that the article is growing legs, the details of the story are beginning to mutate.  Gertz's misspelling of Sierra as Seirra was replicated twice by the British tabloid Daily Mail, which also demonstrated its inability to copy-paste details from Gertz's article into its own story.  Instead of the Russian ship visiting Jacksonville, Daily Mail actually reported the U.S. granted the Russian submarine permission to enter Jacksonville during Hurricane Sandy.

Daily Mail looking for someone who can spell-check and translate from English into English
Let's see if the story gets its due respect and is buried under today's sunrise-to-sunset election coverage.  Perhaps a certain Republican ex-governor can look out her window and see if there are any other Russian submarines lurking near the United States.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

UPDATE 2: The Curious Case of Alaed

A couple days after my previous update, the Alaed story grew new wings.  First, the Russian MOD informed the world that Northern Fleet Udaloy II-class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, three landing ships and two auxiliary vessels had departed port bound for the Atlantic Ocean, where they will be met by Baltic Fleet Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudryy and a tanker... Sound familiar?

While Rosoboroneksport has officially denied any of the MI-25 helicopters are being transported to Syria by the landing ships, it did not deny reporting that other cargo (munitions, missiles, and the like) is, in fact, being transported to Syria by means of the Northern Fleet landing ships.

And, so, Alaed continues its southerly transit of the Norwegian Sea en route to the Baltic Sea.  The vessel, which was last located near 69-39N 014-24E (heading 228 degrees, speed 13.3 knots) at 1017 GMT on July 12, is reportedly heading for Baltiysk.  It remains to be seen whether the helicopters will be offloaded there or in St. Petersburg.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

UPDATE 1: The Curious Case of Alaed

Not much news has been forthcoming regarding the status of Alaed since it arrived in Murmansk last month. Over the past week, however, internet chatter seemed to indicate that Moscow has found a work-around for shipping the weapons and military hardware to Syria using Russian Navy ships.

Laying out all of the internet chatter, it appears that three Northern Fleet landing ships, accompanied by Udaloy II-class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and a few auxiliary vessels, will depart Severomorsk soon for the Mediterranean Sea and then the Black Sea for participation in the operational-strategic command-staff exercise Kavkaz-2012, which will be held in September.  The Baltic Fleet's Neustrashimyy-class frigates Neustrashimyy and Yaroslav Mudryy, as well as Uda-class oiler Lena, will rendezvous with the Northern Fleet task group  in the Atlantic Ocean as it heads for the Mediterranean Sea (and possibly to the Black Sea).

But the most interesting part of the story is how this relates to Alaed.  According to one source, one or more of the Northern Fleet landing ships will be carrying at least a portion of Alaed's "contraband" to Syria, presumably along the way to the Black Sea.  Indeed, a crewmember of one of the Northern Fleet's landing ships recently confirmed his ship would be heading to Syria soon.  If this scenario plays out as it appears, then there is very little the EU or NATO will be able to do to stop the shipment from reaching Syria.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Curious Case of Alaed

Russia is now playing "hide the weapons" with the rest of the world.  Moscow hired FEMCO, which leased the Netherlands/Antilles-flagged merchant vessel Alaed, to transport weapons (to include MI-25 helicopters and munitions) to Syria:

  • June 5: Alaed arrives in St. Petersburg
  • June 8:  Alaed departs St. Petersburg
  • June 10: Alaed arrives in Baltiysk (near Kaliningrad, where the MI-25 helicopters are believed to have undergone repairs)
  • June 12: Alaed departs Baltiysk, heading west towards the Atlantic Ocean; U.S. Secretary of State Clinton announces that Russia is shipping attack helicopters to Syria
  • June 15: London-based insurer Standard P&I Club is informed that Alaed, which the company has insured, may be carrying attack helicopters and munitions to Syria
  • June 18: At 0137 GMT, Alaed was at 59-17N 006-18W, steaming at 12.5 knots on a course of 229 degrees; FEMCO announces on its website that Copenhagen-based United Nordic Shipping (UNS) has canceled a contract with FEMCO for commercial management of Alaed after UNS learns of Alaed's military cargo

So, what's next for Alaed? Continue its transit to Syria without insurance (making it difficult to make port calls) or a commercial manager? Attempt a name/flag change at sea? Return to Russia, and let Moscow try another route?

UPDATE -- June 23: Moscow has decided to send Alaed to Murmansk to be reflagged (and renamed?) before continuing to Syria. ALAED was last near 71-46N 028-18E at 1621 GMT on June 22, steaming on course 125 degrees at a speed of 13.9 knots.

UPDATE -- June 24: FEMCO announces on its website that Alaed arrived in Murmansk at 0400 GMT (0800 local) on June 24.  In its release, FEMCO confirms that the vessel will be reflagged as Russian before continuing its journey.  The company also indirectly blames foreign intelligence services for the predicament without denying the fact that it was carrying weapons (missiles, helicopters, or whatever) to Syria.

Monday, April 16, 2012

UPDATE: Smetlivyy - Russia's "Clever" Destroyer

Update to

As I suggested in my previous post, the Russian Navy may have decided to implement a "constant presence" near the Syrian coastline.  In an April 13 news article, RIA Novosti cited a "highly-placed MOD representative," who stated:
"A decision has been made regarding the constant presence of Russian Navy ships near the Syrian coast. Another Black Sea Fleet ship will arrive in May to replace Smetlivyy... This could be the escort ship Pytlivyy or a large landing ship. A group of Black Sea Fleet ships and vessels could also be sent to this area."
A couple linguistic items to note. First, the term "constant" (постоянный) does not denote a continuous, back-to-back deployment of forces, but rather a near-continuous presence. "Constant" is one step above "periodic," but one step below "continuous." Thus, there could be days or weeks when there are no naval combatants operating near the Syrian coast. And secondly, if the unnamed defense official used the term "ship" (корабль) correctly, he meant naval combatant vice the term reserved for non-combatant auxiliary vessels (судно). Thus, the presence of an auxiliary vessel in Tartus does not qualify as a "constant presence" of "ships" near the Syria coast. Western reporters will inevitably get this wrong.

According to earlier internet chatter, the Black Sea Fleet's Krivak I-class frigate Pytlivyy was supposed to relieve Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyy off the coast of Syria next month. Fleet officials, however, apparently have decided the frigate requires dock repairs after it experienced some technical issues while chasing the high-speed, wave-piercing catamaran HSV-2 Swift (chartered by the U.S. Military Sealift Command) across the Black Sea during its recent operations there.

Thus, in order to maintain a "constant" presence off the Syrian Coast, the deployment of Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyy could be extended until a suitable Black Sea Fleet replacement is identified. Internet chatter in February suggested Ropucha I-class landing ship Azov was preparing to deploy to the Mediterranean Sea. Alternatively, Northern Fleet Udaloy I-class destroyer Vitse-Admiral Kulakov, which departed Severomorsk on April 6 en route to a Horn of Africa counter-piracy patrol, could be redirected to replace (temporarily) Smetlivyy. If the latter option is chosen, it would result in an ever larger gap in the Russian Navy's counter-piracy operations. Pacific Fleet Udaloy I-class destroyer Admiral Tributs concluded Russia's last counter-piracy patrol in late-March.

On a related note, Chilikin-class replenishment oiler Ivan Bubnov (and possibly a tug) departed Sevastopol on April 14 en route to the Mediterranean Sea to rendezvous with Vitse-Admiral Kulakov.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Smetlivyy - Russia's "Clever" Destroyer

When the Russian Navy’s last remaining Kashin-class destroyer, Smetlivyy, departs Sevastopol on April 1, how will military officials characterize the purpose of the ship’s 45-day deployment?  Combat training, of course.  But what will the true purpose be?

- Early-January:  Russian Northern Fleet combatant ships conduct two-day port call in Tartus, Syria, in early-January.  Ships conduct a typical working port call:  moor, take on supplies, leave.  Nothing more, nothing less.  But neither the Russian nor Syrian press machines could forgo mentioning the tour given to high-level Syrian officials aboard the Russian Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza N.G. Kuznetsov.  Moscow downplayed the visit, while Damascus proclaimed the visit was a sign of deep military cooperation between the two nations and support for the al-Assad regime.

- Early-February:  Internet chatter indicates the Russian Black Sea Fleet is preparing to send Ropucha II-class landing ship Azov to Syria, possibly to evacuate non-combatants from the crisis-plagued nation.  The ship never departed the Black Sea and, instead, has been involved in annual certifications, to include taking part in a command-post exercise this past week.

- Mid-February:  Internet chatter indicates Smetlivyy is preparing to deploy to the Mediterranean.

- Early-March:  Internet chatter indicates some Black Sea Fleet naval infantry personnel will depart in mid-March to participate in two month-long counter-terrorism training in Italy.  The personnel will return to Russia aboard Smetlivyy.  Later, the training in Italy later is postponed or canceled.

- Mid-March:  Internet chatter indicates Smetlivyy begins weapons and stores onloads on/about March 16 in preparation for subsequent at-sea certifications and deployment.  Smetlivyy departs Sevastopol on March 19 en route to Novorossiysk to complete its annual combat certifications.

- Late-March:  Internet chatter indicates Smetlivyy will depart Sevastopol on April 1 for its nearly two-month deployment.

So, What’s Up?
Were Moscow truly concerned about openly supporting the Syrian regime, one would expect much more military cooperation, to include a continuous or near-continuous naval combatant presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.  And perhaps that is exactly what Moscow is doing.  Earlier this month, Moscow defense officials had to negate media reports that Russian naval combatant ships were operating near Syria’s shores.  And the statement appears to have been true on that date.  Officials did add, however, that two Black Sea Fleet auxiliary vessels – Olekma-class oiler Iman and Moma-class intelligence collection vessel Ekvator – were either in-port Tartus or operating near Syria’s coastline.  Two days after the first statement, an unnamed naval official told Interfax that Moma-class Kildin would soon replace Ekvator, which has only been deployed for about three weeks.  And now internet chatter suggests Amur-class repair ship PM-138 may soon get underway, presumably to replace Iman (deployed since February 26) in Tartus.

So, what will Smetlivyy’s mission be?  Continued Russian Navy presence in or near Syria?  Internet chatter indicates the ship will visit Tartus twice during this deployment – at the beginning and end of April. What it will do in between remains a mystery, but it could simply conduct “training” operations in the eastern and central Mediterranean.  Perhaps a nice port call in Malta, Italy, and/or Turkey is on the schedule.  In any case, Smetlivyy’s presence in the Mediterranean Sea coupled with the continued presence of intelligence collection ships near Syria certainly will be an interesting issue for the U.S. 6th Fleet, U.S. European Command, and NATO over the coming weeks.

Just wait until Russian Northern Fleet Udaloy I-class destroyer Vitse-Admiral Kulakov shows up in the Mediterranean Sea in a few weeks on its way to conduct a counter-piracy patrol near Somalia.  And when Black Sea Fleet Slava-class cruiser Moskva deploys to the Mediterranean (and beyond) in June...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Russia Sending Subs to Black Sea?

In early-February, Rear Admiral Aleksandr Fedotenkov, Commander of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, told a RIA Novosti reporter that the fleet expects to receive six Kilo-class diesel submarines by 2017.  His statement requires a little dissection in order to understand the likelihood of this happening and reasoning behind such plans.

1.  Wording.  Given the propensity of Russian news outlets to paraphrase what an interviewee actually says, let’s look at what Fedotenkov was quoted as saying:
“Подводные лодки проекта 636 в серии из шести кораблей, которые уже заложены на судостроительном заводе "Адмиралтейские верфи" в Санкт-Петербурге, придут на флот до 2017 года. Первые три корпуса мы получим в 2014 году, одну - в 2015 году и две - в 2016 году . Эти лодки станут основой для формирования полноценной бригады подводных лодок Черноморского флота. К тому времени в боевом составе флота останется фактически единственная подлодка "Алроса" проекта 877. На основе опыта подводной службы моряков-подводников Черноморского флота будет сформирована бригада подплава флота из кораблей 636 проекта.”
“A series of six Project 636 [Kilo] submarines, which have already been laid down at Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg, will arrive in the fleet before 2017.  We will receive the first three hulls in 2014, one in 2015, and two in 2016.  These submarines will be the basis for establishing a complete brigade of Black Sea Fleet submarines.  At that time, the sole Project 877 [Kilo] submarine Alrosa will still be in the fleet’s combat inventory.  Based on the experience of submarine service by Black Sea Fleet submariners, a brigade of Project 636 [Kilo] submarines will be established.”
The phrase “already laid down” is an overstatement, at best.  What Fedotenkov could have said - or meant to say - was the metal bending may have started for six new Kilo (Project 06363 (636.3)) units, but not that the keels had been laid down.  Not having the luxury of hearing an audio recording of his statement, it’s hard to know if Fedotenkov misspoke or if the RIA Novosti reporter (Sergey Safronov) paraphrased what the admiral said.  The first two units of the new Kilo design to be laid down are named after Russian cities in the Black Sea area (Novorossiysk and Rostov-na-Donu), which strongly suggests these two likely will end up in the Black Sea.

2.  Basing.  Can the Black Sea Fleet provide support for six additional submarines?  Let’s remember that the Russian Black Sea Fleet was left with seven submarines in 1997:

  • Beluga [Project 01710] SS-533
  • Bravo [Project 690] SS-226, SS-256, SS-310
  • Foxtrot [Project 641] B-9
  • Kilo [Project 877] Alrosa
  • Tango [Project 641B] B-380

The Beluga, Bravo, and Foxtrot units have been stricken.  This only allows for five (not six) new units to be based in Sevastopol.  Note that the Mod-Romeo [Project 633RV] floating recharging station PZS-50, based in Sevastopol’s Yuzhnaya Bukhta, is not listed in the 1997 agreement that divided the forces between Ukraine and Russia.  The submarine still flies the Russian Navy flag and supports Russian Navy operations in Sevastopol.  It is unclear to me what status this unit has.  But if rumors are true, PZS-50 will be scrapped soon, and B-380 will become the new floating charging station.  And if PZS-50 was not counted against Russia’s inventory of seven submarines, then B-380 would not.  Thus, if B-380 is scrapped or converted, then the final number of six “new” units can be reached.  Fedotenkov’s statement that the submarines would be based both in Novorossiysk and Sevastopol suggests the Russians eventually will get serious about upgrading the port of Novorossiysk to support at least a few submarines.

3.  Construction.  It is feasible that six new Kilos could be built by 2017.  Two are currently under construction at Admiralty Shipyards.  It is rumored that SevMash will begin construction of a third unit next month.  And there are more rumors that Krasnoye Sormovo in Nizhniy Novgorod soon could get back in the submarine construction business.

4.  Why the Black Sea?  According to a September 2009 document uncovered by the WikiLeaks project, Admiral Mark Fitzgerald (Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe) informed the Spanish Ministry of Defense of its European Phased, Adaptive Approach (PAA) to Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD).  Admiral Fitzgerald “noted the extensive plans and requirements for ship-based ballistic missile defense in the Black Sea region.”  Fitzgerald told reporters in April 2010 the BMD ships probably would need to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea.

The Russians can read WikiLeaks and Navy Times, too.  And so it is no surprise that Russia now views any Aegis-capable ship (equipped with either AN/SPY-1A or AN/SPY-1B) operating in the Black Sea as something worthy of taking a closer look.  In 2011, Ticonderoga-class cruisers USS ANZIO (CG 68), USS MONTEREY (CG 61) and USS PHILIPPINE SEA (CG 58) conducted operations in the Black Sea.  In January 2012, Ticonderoga USS VELLA GULF (CG 72) also operated in the Black Sea region.  Obviously, the U.S. Navy has both an interest and the will to operate in the Black Sea despite Russia’s negative perceptions of the United States’ plans to deploy BMD assets in its backyard.

Having seven Kilo submarines in its arsenal would allow Russia to counter U.S./NATO forces operating in the Black Sea should tensions worsen in the region.  Given that the new Project 06363-type Kilo will be armed with the Kalibr missile system, capable of launching the 3M54/SS-N-27 antiship cruise missile and the 3M14/SS-N-30 long-range (in excess of 1,000 kilometers) land-attack cruise missile, U.S./NATO forces will have fun trying to keep track of how many LACMs actually are deployed at sea and at which facilities those missiles are targeted.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Liar, Liar… Pants on Fire

As if Russia didn’t have enough end-of-year excitement, two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines were involved in separate mishaps during the last week of December.  On December 28, a floating drydock was pushed by very high winds into the stern section of Aleksandr Nevskiy, the second hull of the new Dolgorukiy class of SSBNs.  The submarine, launched in 2011, is still undergoing pre-acceptance testing.  The incident occurred at the Northern Machine-building Enterprise (shortened in Russian to Sevmash), located in the White Sea port of Severodvinsk.   It is unclear how serious the damage is, but one report indicates the submarine now has a hole measuring 0.7 by 0.2 meters in its outer hull.  This incident has not been officially acknowledged yet.

The very next day, a fire broke out aboard Yekaterinburg, the second hull of the Delta IV class of SSBNs – the backbone of the Russian naval strategic nuclear forces.  The fire began at about 4PM local time as the submarine was undergoing dock repairs in a floating drydock at the 82nd Ship Repair Facility in the port of Roslyakovo (near Murmansk).  Sparks from ongoing hull-cutting operations apparently ignited either oily residue or trash lubricants floating in the free-flood space between the outer and inner (pressure) hulls.  This space, which contains the submarine's cylindrical sonar array, is flooded when the submarine is afloat, but it is supposed to be drained when placed in drydock.  In this instance, openings located under the sonar dome were welded shut, thus preventing the space from being fully drained.  The presence of water in the space should have been obvious to shipyard workers, especially given that the submarine was placed in the drydock three weeks earlier on December 8.  Contributing to the incident was a series of safety violations, to include the absence of a safety observer during the hull-cutting operation and the failure to draft a written order for the operation in the first place (apparently only a verbal order was given).

About thirty minutes after the fire ignited, the rubber material within the free-flood space began to burn.  The flames then spread outside the space and onto the outer hull.  Subsequently the submarine’s anechoic tiles, which are made of rubber and used to reduce the amount of noise emanating from inside the submarine, began to burn, as did the adjacent wooden scaffolding.  The Russian media erroneously reported – and continue to report – the fire was initiated when sparks created during welding work ignited the scaffolding.  While investigators now know the truth, officials apparently have decided the original false reporting serves their purposes for the time being.

Adding to the seriousness of the accident is the fact that at least ten SS-N-23 Skiff ballistic missiles and four combat torpedoes were loaded aboard the submarine.  As this repair period was “unscheduled,” naval officials decided not to fully offload the submarine’s weapons.  For “scheduled” repairs, all weapons are offloaded before repair work begins.  The immediate danger of the fire was to the four torpedoes, which were amazingly still loaded into torpedo tubes that are located in a separate, confined space above the free-flood space containing the cylindrical sonar array.  Crewmembers were able to pull three torpedoes from their tubes, but the fourth torpedo was wedged inside the torpedo tube.  News video from December 30 clearly shows water being sprayed directly into at least one of the starboard torpedo tubes.

By 3PM local on December 30, shipyard workers had flooded the drydock in order to lower the submarine into the water.  This allowed seawater to flood the free-flood space between the outer and inner hulls, thereby dousing all flames and rapidly lowering the temperature within the space.  Shortly afterwards, the fire was reported to be completely extinguished.

Another indication of the gravity of the situation was the number of high-level government and military officials who flew from Moscow to Roslyakovo:  General Nikolay Makarov (Chief of the General Staff), Admirals Vladimir Vysotskiy and Aleksandr Tatarinov (Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief and Chief of Staff, respectively), Denis Manturov (acting Minister of Industry and Trade), and Roman Trotsenko (head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation, the parent company of the 82nd Ship Repair Facility).

Now that most of Russia is enjoying a week-long New Year’s holiday break, investigators and military officials will be able to better craft a story for the public while simultaneously trying to figure out who’s to blame.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.