Spy Ships and Naval Intelligence

During the height of the Cold War, the ’Soviet Trawler’ was an expression in naval circles. Solitary Soviet flagged trawlers had a tendency of appearing on the scene of almost every major NATO naval exercise, and then idly throttling around in the general area until the end of the exercise.

Soviet trawler Gidrofon and the USS Abnaki ‘ATF 96’ in 1967. Picture apparently taken from the carrier USS Ranger ‘CVA-61’. Source: USN/Wikimedia Commons.

The reality was that these were thinly veiled intelligence gathering vessels, or spy ships as they are generally known. While the Soviet Union could, and did, use regular naval vessels, such as destroyers, to perform the intelligence gathering mission, the converted deep-sea trawler offered several notable benefits. The basic designs were created for extended stays at sea, offering the small crews at least a minimum level of comfort for their sometimes long missions. The vessels also featured large enough hulls to be fitted with the necessary intelligence gathering equipment. Chasing away ‘civilian’ vessels always held a risk of creating bad publicity if something went wrong, and being unarmed they had a far greater choice of ports when it came to bunkering. They were also far cheaper to operate compared to major surface combatants.

Considering all factors, it is no surprise that the trawlers became the instrument of choice for various kinds of operations. Their methods of intelligence gathering included both visual, i.e. guys with cameras and binoculars documenting what the NATO ships were doing, as well as electronic and signal intelligence, i.e. antennas recording radio communications and signals sent out by radars and other systems onboard the ships.

Now, with the highly political joint Finnish-Swedish-US air exercise to be conducted outside of the Finnish coast, suddenly a Panama-flagged, Russian-owned, seismic research ship has arrived in the exercise area.

What then, you might ask, is a seismic research ship?

Seismic research is conducted when ships try to figure out what is under the seabed. Normally, they do this to look for oil and gas deposits, which is the reason why there are quite a number of these highly specialized ships operating around the world. In practice, the ships tow a number of streamers in an orderly pattern behind the boat. These can be up to 10-20 km long, and are equipped with either emitters or receivers. The emitters send out a signal, the echo of which is received by the receivers. Based on the received signal, a computer then processes the data and draws a picture of what is underneath the bottom of the ocean, a bit like the use of sonography by medical professionals.

The principle of seismic mapping by ship. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Why on the earth the vessel suddenly has appeared in these decidedly oil-less waters is a matter of speculation, but noteworthy is the fact that mapping of the seafloor in Finnish waters requires a permit. It is also unclear if the seismic measuring equipment is onboard, or if something else occupies the area normally reserved for 100+ km of seismic streamers.

Let’s just say, coincidences does happen, but I wouldn’t count on this being one of them.

2 thoughts on “Spy Ships and Naval Intelligence

  1. 8499whitewolf@unseen.is

    Good afternoon Corporal Frisk,

    Many thanks for these postings. I sure recall these vessels trawling (NO pun intended!!!) around the coastal waters of UK and Germany during the 60s and 70s. I am very interested in nautical matters, despite having been a soldier. I guess all us Brits are, must come from being born on an island!!! Plus, my Dad was a sonar man on naval convoy escorts during WW 2 or as we Brits called it then, ASDIC. All the very best to you and keep these great posts coming. I not with some concern the threats made to Denmark by the Russians last week. Nothing new there then!!! Very Best Regards, Gary

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