As the world careens through January 2022 waiting to see what will happen with Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, a side drama unfolding off the coast of Ireland may yield clues to the scope of operation Russia has in mind in the coming days.
The initial indication of it came in a form that, in different circumstances, is usually prosaic: a hazard notice to airmen (NOTAM) lodged by Russia for an area about 170 nautical miles (NM) southwest of Ireland’s southwest coast.
The NOTAM indicates that the Russian navy will undertake live weapons firing in that area between 3 and 8 February 2022. The hazard area is in international waters (although it falls within Ireland’s EEZ), and there is nothing unlawful about the Russian plan to conduct live firing there.
But, of course, it’s not something that happens off Ireland every day – if ever – and it has garnered a lot of attention since the NOTAM was published on 21 January.
Ships departing the Russian Northern Fleet are considered candidates for the firing area. They include the Slava-class cruiser Marshal Ustinov, Udaloy destroyer VADM Kulakov, and ADM Gorshkov-class frigate Fleet Admiral Kasatanov, as well as support vessels. The armed warships, whose weapon systems include anti-air and anti-surface missiles as well as guns (and torpedoes, though they are less likely to be expended), are the candidates for weapons firing. The three warships were seen with a fleet oiler and a tug heading south along the Norwegian coast on Tuesday 25 January 2021.
Given the size of the Russian buildup versus Ukraine, and the Russian announcement of the major all-fleets exercise to be held simultaneously with a previewed joint exercise with Belarus, it’s clear that the exercise area off Ireland is related to those events.
Incensed Irish fishermen are in fact planning to swarm the hazard area in protest, which we must pause to note is perfectly and characteristically Irish. We wish the fishing fleet success and good sport (as well as safety) in its endeavor.
As with all such dramas, there is backstory. And that’s what interests us, and may hold a key to where all this is going.
There are two threads of prominent possibility as regards what the Russian exercise area may be about, other than the obvious indication that there will be a naval exercise there.
One is much the better known and more widely discussed. We’ll look at it first.
Twitter user Rob Gilbey, whose tweet depicting the Russian exercise area appears above, got the party started with his tweet thread on the backstory that relates to apparent surveillance done recently by a Russian special-purpose research vessel, the Yantar. Yantar is something of a rock star in the special-interest area of undersea operations, attracting a dedicated group of aficionados who follow her activities based on sightings, imagery, and the ship’s occasional communications via AIS and radio reports.
Active in the Russian fleet since 2015 (Yantar’s homeport is Severomorsk, in the Northern Fleet), the ship has worked in multiple hemispheres, including off the coasts of the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and off Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Yantar participated in the location and rescue effort for Argentine submarine ARA San Juan after it went missing in November 2017. And the ship has operated in the Eastern Mediterranean between Cyprus and the coasts of Syria and Israel.
There is always much speculation that Yantar, able to support deep-operating submersibles, is attempting to locate, interfere with, and even sever undersea cables. Besides her capabilities, this is due to the ship’s subordination to the Russian navy’s Main Directorate of Underwater Research, or GUGI by the Russian abbreviation. As this analyst demonstrates, GUGI’s funding far outstrips that of its sister agencies in defense “research”:
Russia pours a great deal into maritime surveillance, analysis, and exploitation. The GUGI arm of this effort is where programs to hold the world’s undersea assets at risk, while protecting Russia’s, are undertaken.
The particular activity Yantar undertook recently was a brief operation off the northwest coast of Ireland in August 2021. The time period in question was 17-19 August, which, as we’ll see, is interesting in its own right. But the informational cue from that event was especially prompt because it got quite a lot of attention in Irish and British media.
According to Irish reports, “An Irish Defence Forces spokesperson said that the Irish Navy is aware of the ship.” It isn’t reported how Irish forces first became aware of Yantar, however. It may have been AIS tracking, which showed Yantar lingering and zigzagging in the area off the northwestern coast on 18 August, after stopping in the vicinity the previous day. Yantar terminated her operation and moved on shortly thereafter, departing to the southwest.
What those keeping track of her noted was that Yantar appeared to go back and forth over two undersea communication cables running from the northern coast of County Mayo. (Source of map graphic is cited here.)
The cables involved are commercial cables running to Scotland and Norway, in one case, and to North America in the other.
Just a few days before, on 15 August 2021, an article in the London Times (paywall), outlining a separate development, referred to an unnamed ship that had appeared to be engaged in similar operations in July 2021, in an area described vaguely as “170 nautical miles” off “the south coast.”
That’s what Rob Gilbey has depicted in his tweet thread graphic.
As is obvious, the 170NM range ring from the coast of Ireland – which as Gilbey points out intersects with the Feb 2022 firing area – is not where Yantar was operating in August 2021. The Times never gives a name for the ship operating in July, so we’re unable to judge much about it. The article says only that the ship was flagged in the Cape Verde Islands.
We therefore don’t know if it was a Russian ship, although we can eliminate several Russian candidates because they were elsewhere at the time. Yantar is one of those: according to a Russian source with a strong reputation for reliable reporting, Yantar was in Severomorsk in July, and didn’t leave for her rendezvous with the Irish coast until 8 August 2021.
It is actually an interesting feature of this saga that the defense authorities who were tracking the unnamed ship in July didn’t name her to the Times. We’ll look at that point, and some others, in the second thread.
Gilbey runs with the popular theme that the undersea surveillance activities are about commercial comms cables, presenting a map graphic that shows the host of cables running from the British Isles.
As the jumping-off spot from Northern Europe to the Atlantic, the island group is absolutely stuffed with cable heads and cable runs.
The Russian firing area scheduled for February sits atop several of them; the theory about it would be that declaring it to be a hazard zone for a period of 5-6 days would keep stray traffic out of it, allowing special-purpose assets to work unimpeded. (To be really covert, submersibles or mini-submarines would deploy from a “mother submarine,” of which Russia has a few specimens, rather than from a surface ship. There is no indication I can find that such assets are on the move, although that’s the kind of thing we would be likely to learn only some time after the fact.)
The significance of the commercial cables, meanwhile, certainly can’t be dismissed. In February 2020, another UK Times article, cited by Data Center Dynamics, reported that Russian agents had been operating in Ireland, seeking to gain intelligence on the cable heads and related facilities ashore.
At a time of tremendous strain in Russia’s relations with NATO, developing the ability to comprehensively interfere with the information assets of Europe and North America would obviously be a priority for Moscow.
Indeed, the timing was interesting in that regard with both Yantar’s expedition in August and that of the unnamed ship in July.
Yantar’s surveillance escapade occurred shortly before the live phase of Russia’s major exercise Zapad-2021 (“West 2021”; live phase 10-16 September), and in fact was timed as the Russian force buildup for Zapad in Belarus – similar to the buildup being observed now, in January 2022 – was reaching its final stages. (Good summaries of the buildup from the Institute for the Study of War are here, here, and here. There’s also a summary with a naval focus from USNI that provides useful context.)
The exercise buildup began earlier, however, with some Zapad-2021 movements starting as early as April 2021. So it is not unreasonable to assess that the July surveillance by the unnamed Russian ship may have been related to Zapad as well.
As for the connection with Zapad, the working theory would be that Russian planners would want to exercise the capability to degrade or cut off comms links between Europe and North America as tensions increased in a hostile scenario. The exact timing wouldn’t be as important in an exercise as simply performing tasks in sequence.
Providing top-cover for this exploit with a surface ship exercise is not unrealistic as a live-scenario option, for that matter. With actual tensions increasing, Russia would be likely to expand her forward naval presence, to do it in the form of a major exercise with localized drills and demonstrations, and to emphasize it with shows of live force.
So the concept of the scenario that appears to be playing out is not artificial. That said, it’s also not the only possibility, and there is a caveat on what we’ve observed so far that several commentators have lodged. It’s the point that if Russia wants to stealthily interfere with Atlantic communications at the outset of a hostile confrontation, she’s being pretty noisy about it.
Those tracking Yantar in August pointed out that it was uncharacteristic for the ship to turn her AIS on and start reporting while she was in the middle of an apparent surveillance episode – and they’re right about that. It’s unusual for any of the ships that perform these surveys to helpfully report out their positions so regularly via AIS updates.
A similar point can be made about the exercise previewed for February. The plan of the Irish fishermen to flood the zone, as it were, illustrates the point well: if you tell everyone what you’re going to do, they’ll show up to watch. You’ll have the opposite of stealth conditions.
Perhaps the location of the exercise area is misleading in terms of what Russia’s real-world plan would be. That’s one thought about why they’d seemingly show their hand unnecessarily.
But there’s a whole side of this we haven’t looked at yet; one Rob Gilbey hinted at but acknowledged he wasn’t quite sure what to do with.
That’s the subject of the second thread.
A very special niche in communications
The cue for this thread is the flight (noted by Gilbey) on 7 March 2020 of a pair of Russian Tu-142 Bear Fs, which operated for two hours in an area very near the declared hazard zone for February 2022.
The date of that flight was nearly two years ago. But as we’ll see, it had some features that for analytical purposes make it similar to the other events we’re dealing with. And if I had to bet, I’d come down on the side of this clue, rather than Yantar’s ops in August, being our tiebreaker.
We can establish that the Tu-142 mission and the Yantar ops are events with separate meanings, connected only in the sense that they both involve undersea operations, including surveillance. Russia would actually want to have both types of capability in her bag of tricks, and would use both to shape the battlespace as a precursor to live hostilities. But they are two separate things, indicative of distinct realms of undersea capabilities.
Gilbey identifies the second one – the one that’s not about commercial comms cables – with his reference to ASW, or antisubmarine warfare. The case to be made here is that that’s probably the droid we’re looking for.
To get us squared away, we need to look at the graphic presentations we have in a comparative, illuminating light.
Here, again, is where Gilbey has helpfully plotted out the February 2022 hazard area.
Observe where the “170NM” range ring is in this next presentation, posted in Gilbey’s thread. Remember that a 170NM range describes how far off the coast the February 2022 firing area is – and was also referenced verbally by defense authorities to indicate how far off the coast the unnamed Russian ship was working in July 2021.
Look again at where Yantar operated in August 2021 (my composite presentation). Not in or even near our area of interest.
What we’re going to build now is the picture that connects the February 2022 hazard area to the Tu-142 flight, and a set of earlier connections to submarine-related activities that overlay perfectly on these latest manifestations.
The case starts in the millennial mists of time, James Michener style, with the extremely precise overlay of the February exercise area on an undersea feature called the Goban Spur.
The feature right next to it – the Porcupine Seabight to the north – gets all the attention, because it’s dramatic and hydrographically fascinating, and has recently been surveyed to an unprecedented extent and so has been in the news in the last few years. There is much understandable (and not unrealistic) speculation that it could be a haven for submarines on patrol.
But trust me, it’s the Goban Spur you want to focus on. The reason is that it forms a unique slope from the Celtic Shelf to the abyssal plain to the west of it, making, in essence, the side of a gently descending, sound-shepherding wall along the ocean bottom. It’s a perfect site for acoustic sensors in the Eastern Atlantic.
The presentation above uses disjunctive color gradations to show the slope of the bottom topography.
As you can see, the same gentle but distinct slope is evident even on the Google Earth satellite rendering, for which only the shade of blue changes. The topographic characteristics and the depth range through which the western side of the Spur descends make it the ideal place to take advantage of the deep sound channel and obtain longer-range detection of acoustic events than you would get at any other place within hundreds of miles.
It can be no accident that the Russian hazard area is immediately on top of the Goban Spur. This is not because the surface ships holding an exercise need such conditions; it’s because if they were covering for (and perhaps protecting) special-purpose vehicles exploiting something undersea, the target wouldn’t be commercial comms cables.
A different game
It would be acoustic sensors.
That’s according to one theory of what’s going on here, and we’ll look at some other factors in that case in a moment.
An alternate theory might be that the Russians have a sensor suite of their own, one that requires occasional tending, and perhaps theatrics to sneak in under.
I don’t dismiss that possibility, but it wouldn’t be my top candidate. For one thing, obtaining the data from such a sensor on a regular basis would require some form of connection we’d be likely to know something about. There’s nothing I’m aware of – no operating profile, no suspect installations in weird places – that seems to point to such a scheme.
The profile of what we do know about better fits the first scenario implied above. And there are reasons to accept it as plausible and likely.
The Tu-142 flight in March 2020 is one reason. As an event, it was awful darn particular. The area where the Bear Fs lingered, doing doughnuts for two hours, is immediately to the northeast of the Goban Spur, and hence of the February 2022 exercise area. There are a couple of major purposes that the platform – the Bear F – could have for that two-hour interlude; one is using its own acoustic sensors to search for and track subsurface targets.
If Russian undersea assets were operating in the area, that’s not inconceivable (if only for alertment about foreign subs lurking in the area), but it probably wouldn’t be the primary purpose. As Rob Gilbey surmised, using the aircraft’s trailing wire antenna to communicate with Russian undersea assets is more likely. A pair of Bear Fs could actually execute both tasks – likely by one each – on station.
That would fit a scenario in which such undersea assets were in place, being deployed for a special mission for which Moscow needed real-time updates and might need to issue immediate, non-delayed commands.
What would be the actual task of the undersea assets in such a scenario? It could be cutting a cable. The inference is that the cable would connect an acoustic sensor suite to a NATO processing site.
Another possibility is that the Russian units might insert or activate a tap in order to take advantage of the data themselves. There would be a host of preparations necessary for such exploitation, and it’s not useful to enumerate them here. But it’s a non-dismissible possibility.
That said, we have in hand, as a portentous circumstance, the recent instance of a Norwegian undersea surveillance system probably being sabotaged, probably by the Russians. Elements of the system, which became fully operational in late 2020, began losing function in April 2021, and in November, a Norwegian official announced that a cable had been cut and the system was non-operational. Though little has been disclosed about what the Norwegians may have observed in terms of a source of sabotage, it’s reasonable to speculate, as Thomas Newdick does at The Drive, that Russian special-purpose submersibles are involved, possibly deployed from a “mother submarine.”
Let’s suppose, at any rate, that the task is simply to cut the cable and make a key portion of the undersea picture go dark for NATO nations’ surveillance architecture.
Now we’re ready to continue building, with the odd allusion in the Times to that unnamed ship that the Brits said was performing surveillance in July 2021. Gilbey’s depiction of its possible location used the intersection of a 170NM range ring with the February 2022 firing area as its reference point. That would put it about 170NM off the southwest coast of Ireland.
That’s too far off the coast to intersect with the Tu-142 mission from March 2020. The overlay shown here clarifies that. The Bear Fs flew closer to land than the February 2022 firing area is situated.
That’s not a showstopper, of course. But the operating area of the Tu-142s may not be our best guide to where the unnamed ship probably was. I think they’re related, but the ship was probably in or very close to the exercise area scheduled for February.
The reason relates to the prior existence of a facility located in Cornwall, UK for the exploitation of undersea surveillance data: a UK-US command called Joint Maritime Facility (JMF) St. Mawgan. (Map below.)
St. Mawgan, which opened in 1995, was decommissioned in April 2009. But its data collection assets didn’t cease operation. Rather, per Stars and Stripes, the data stream was to be forwarded for remote exploitation to a U.S. facility in Virginia.
JMF St. Mawgan wasn’t the only undersea surveillance command in southwestern Britain, for that matter. An earlier facility operated out of Brawdy, Wales. That one ceased operation at the time the JMF initiated operations at St. Mawgan.
Going by the public information about the two installations, we can approximate where their cables likely ran to the prime acoustic spot on the Goban Spur. (That may or may not be the only location of possible sensors associated with the facilities, but it’s the location the Russians are going to perch on top of next month.)
The yellow dashed lines represent notional cable runs to the Goban Spur. And as it happens, we have good reason to believe the Russians have taken an interest in exactly these cables.
In September 2013, a Russian special-purpose vessel, the fleet tug Nikolay Chiker, operated in the Celtic Sea for about a week, baffling her own legion of dedicated fans by driving counterclockwise to Lands End, the western tip of Cornwall, and up to St. George’s Channel, at the entrance to the Irish Sea, between bouts of sitting hove-to in a central spot. The period of active movement ran from 11 to 15 September; on 18 September 2013 Nikolay Chiker headed into the Irish Sea and kept going to the north. (For more background on Chiker, the search results at this blog are a good place to start.)
Along with a few others, I wrote about that very unusual operation at the time. In the years since, it has become significantly less unusual to see Russian submarine and submarine-related activity around the British Isles. A pair of Russian Akula attack subs operated in the Irish Sea in October 2016, for example (an extraordinary move). The year before, in April 2015, an Irish trawler was reportedly dragged by an unidentified submarine, also in the Irish Sea. It was probably a Russian sub, as the UK would have been obliged to cop to it if a Royal Navy submarine had been involved.
Before moving on, ponder for a moment the oddly vague, tight-lipped disclosure about the unnamed ship from July 2021. If the ship was performing reconnaissance of the sea-bottom on or near the Goban Spur, and there is an acoustic sensor suite there, that tight-lipped way is just how military authorities would speak about it. They would not be anxious to invite questions or speculation about the type of ship or the ship’s purpose, which would be inevitable if her identity or precise operating area were disclosed.
It appears, however, that defense authorities did initiate the report on the unnamed ship. (Remember, it was published four days before the story broke on Yantar.) The wording of the unnamed-ship report suggests it was Irish authorities, although that isn’t clarified. (The report is really quite vague on the official sources.) The experts cited, aside from the official source(s), were all Irish, although it’s of passing interest that the article isn’t tagged by the Times with the term “Ireland,” as such reports routinely are
If the Irish were working with the Royal Navy on the problem of the unnamed ship, I doubt the Defence Force would publicize something of this kind without consulting first. But both defense establishments could have seen value in using a media opportunity to inform the Russians that they knew what the unnamed ship had been doing in July. That message they could convey merely by mentioning the incident, without adding details.
Another recent – relevant – incident involving the Russian special-purpose ships occurred shortly after the Tu-142 flight in March 2020. Three weeks later, Yantar and Nikolay Chiker rendezvoused briefly in the Bay of Seine, off the coast of France and facing the English Channel. In this report of the meet-up, the oiler supporting them got top billing. But the ships of interest were the undersea operations platforms.
Yantar didn’t stick around. She was headed back out in short order, being on the way home from suspect operations off Brazil in February 2020.
Nikolay Chiker was seen again in the bay, however. She was there with the oiler on 16 April 2020, apparently waiting for sea trials to be conducted by the new French attack submarine Suffren. The sea trials had been delayed from March due to COVID-19, and Chiker returned at least that once during the period of delay. Author H.I. Sutton notes that Suffren ultimately emerged for her trials on 27 April, a day after the fleet oiler, Akademik Pashin, finally left the Bay of Seine.
The point here is that Russia has been developing the most aggressive ASW and undersea operations profile we’ve seen since the USSR broke up 30 years ago. This summary is not comprehensive; Nikolay Chiker has shown up in quite a few more little encounters, as has Yantar, along with other undersea research and surveillance platforms. A number of them are in other parts of the world. Undersea ops and the support infrastructure for them are a niche “information” realm, no doubt. But it’s one Russia is heavily invested in.
It should be clear at this point that the Russian leadership sees undersea activities not as academic but as operational. Thus it is informative to note that the Tu-142 flight on 7 March 2020 was conducted with a high profile, like Yantar’s cable reconnaissance in August 2021, and that it punctuated the end of a major NATO exercise in Norway involving 16,000 allied troops, the largest such event Norway has ever hosted. Exercise Cold Response 2020 kicked off a Defender 2020 exercise series, announced with fanfare by Jens Stoltenberg (on 21 February 2020), that was otherwise considerably scaled back due to COVID-19.
The Russians wanted the Bear Fs to be seen in March 2020. And by parking their upcoming firing area on top of the Goban Spur, as tensions heat up over Ukraine, they are demanding to be seen again. The likely message would be simple: we know where your cables are – and we can hold them at risk.
Elephants’ dance under the sea
It doesn’t hurt to briefly revisit the nature of the stakes here. In March 2016, a report from France revealed that French assets had detected a Russian ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in the Bay of Biscay (link below). This was something that had not happened for at least 40 years, and in terms of operating profile need not have happened for any operational purpose. There’s been no such necessity for the Russian strategic submarine force since the early 1970s at the latest. They can target foes today from just outside their home ports, or from the open ocean; they need not approach land so closely (and in fact they can be too close for their long-range ballistic missiles’ minimum ranges).
I posted an extended treatment of the SSBN detection at the time, and won’t rehash the particulars here. There’s a wealth of links at the older article.
What is worth reviewing again is the point that Russia’s newest SSBN, the Borei class, can deploy with both Bulava long-range ballistic missiles (sub-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, have the range of ICBMs) and Kalibr intermediate-range cruise missiles, the type used in recent years against targets in Syria.
This has a meaning even more significant than the Kalibr’s potential use for targeting Europe – significant at that is.
The following maps survived at the Wayback archive site from my 2016 article, but were deleted at the Liberty Unyielding blog by a vigilant website maintainer a few years ago. I hope it won’t be too onerous to consult the maps here while using the text at the LU link.
Depicted in the first map is the Kaliber’s original range into Europe from a Bay of Biscay launch position.
Rob Gilbey’s January 2022 thread also has an updated, longer-range view of the Kalibr’s reach from a launch position relative to the declared February exercise area.
The Bulava SLBM, launched from the Bay of Biscay or a similarly situated area, wouldn’t be effective against most of Europe.
But it would have a straight shot to North America – on an attack path against which we have no defense on constant alert.
The U.S. and Canada have no strategic ballistic missile defense assets guarding our flank directly to the east. The intent of such a BMD capability is what Obama dispensed with when he terminated the plan to put ground-based interceptors in Eastern Europe, back in 2009.
The geometry of over-the-Arctic shots from the waters off Russia is such that our interceptors in Alaska would be in position for attempts to take some of them out (though not all). Twenty years ago, as relations with Russia thawed, it was seen as likely that the Russian strategic fleet would continue to patrol from protected bastions close to Russian waters. Russia’s SLBMs can reach whatever targets they need to from those areas. Iran’s future capabilities with ICBMs, moreover, were still in the undeveloped-potential stage. The USA’s national missile defense infrastructure against eastern approaches to North America, which was to be operational in the period 2013-2015, was the last to be scheduled for installation, well after the sites in Alaska and California.
(That is, until Obama cancelled it in 2009. See links at my 2016 article for discussion of subsequent congressional efforts to program an eastern-facing component for national missile defense against long-range ballistic missiles. See here for accessible summaries on U.S. missile defense, clarifying that the constant-ready capability against ICBMs is only present at the ground-based interceptor sites in California and Alaska. Sea-based Aegis BMD missiles might be used against Russian SLBMs coming from the eastern North Atlantic, but Aegis BMD ships are not dedicated to that mission. U.S. ground-based missile defense elements in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, defend European territory.)
All things have not remained equal in the years since. Now Russia is making demonstrations with SSBNs deployed for visibility and messaging: not just the SSBN in the Bay of Biscay, but the Typhoon that trekked to the Baltic in 2017, for example, and the three SSBNs that surfaced simultaneously through the Arctic ice pack in 2021.
In this context, we need have no doubt that, while Russia isn’t always sending signals about holding North America and Europe at risk with her submarine force, she doesn’t miss a chance to do so.
When Yantar announced her presence as she skated over the commercial cables running from the northern coast of the Irish Republic, that would have been a signal about the global information sphere and telecoms.
When Russia proposes to perform a live naval firing exercise right over top of the Goban Spur, that’s going to be a straightforward signal, of course, about the surface forces and their capabilities. But it would also be a signal about Russia’s relative capabilities to target America from her submarines, and to blind us to the archers undersea, if not to the arrows, at the outset of a major confrontation. The message in this case: “Lights out.”
Feature image: A timely view of the North Atlantic Ocean. Imperial College London.