On Research Vessels and AIS-tracking

The appearance of Russian research vessel Akademik Nikolaj Strakhov (named for the 19th century philosopher with the same name) just outside of the Swedish island of Gotland last week caused some discussions on social media. In this blog post I will address two topics that caused discussion, controversy, and sometimes, misunderstandings: The vessel itself, and the AIS-system used for tracking its whereabouts.

Akademik Nikolaj Strakhov

To start with the vessel is built in Finland in the mid-80’s as one of four sisterships of the Akademik Boris Petrov-class. It is government owned, and apparently operated in a geological research role. Interestingly enough, the vessel seems to have spent over a year broken down in the Indian Ocean, due to bureaucracy and a lack of funds. It is however now back in business, and homeported in Kaliningrad.

The towing of the vessel following it breaking down outside of the Maldives in 2013

To be clear, the vessel behaves exactly as a geological research vessel would. It reported restricted maneuverability, and slowly coasted along on a general North-South course just outside of Swedish waters. “Restricted maneuverability” is a defined term that refers to a vessel “which from the nature of her work is restricted in her ability to manoeuvre as required by these Rules [COLREG] and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel”. This can be due to e.g. the vessel conducting dredging, cable-laying, towing, mine-clearing, or launching aircrafts. What it doesn’t include is vessels that have broken down, which instead use the signals associated with “not under command”. However, general research work often do fall under the restricted maneuverability, and e.g. survey work would certainly require the vessel operating at slow speed while unable to deviate from the planned course.

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Akademik Strakhov’s sistership Akademik M. A. Lavrentyev being intercepted by Japanese Chikugo class frigate JS Tokachi (DE-218) and the US Navy while operating in the Sea of Japan in 1987. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy/PH2 (NAC) Paul Self

The problem obviously is that the Soviet Union and Russia has a long tradition of using civilian vessels such as trawlers and research vessels for more or less clandestine intelligence gathering. It is telling that the only picture of an Akademik Boris Petrov-class ship on Wikimedia is of Strakhov’s sister Lavrentyev being intercepted by Japanese and US forces. And with the Russians regularly employing all parts of the state apparatus in their full-spectrum conflict approach, it would be naive to believe that this scheme hasn’t continued. Is the Akademik a spy ship? That is impossible to say. FVÖ16, this year’s largest exercise conducted by the Swedish Air Force, saw Gotland having being host to a number of units. Also, the Nynäshman-Ventspils and Stockholm-Fårö-Ventspils subsea cables are found in the area, as well as the brand new Markgrafenheide-Helsinki cable, meaning that even if the vessel would only be conducting bottom mapping, the research would indirectly produce data which would be of some value for the Russian Armed Forces.

AIS

The AIS system is best thought of as the maritime equivalent to the frequently discussed transponders carried (or not) by aircraft. For the technical part, it sends packets of data over the normal VHF-band, which usually include the vessel’s name, position, heading/course, speed, and potentially a number of other pieces of information (turn rate, heel, destination, ETA, current mode of operation, …). The system provides a simple and inexpensive way of keeping track of traffic in an area, as well as quickly recognising important features of other ships operating in your area (such as restricted maneuverability). It is also employed in distress transmitters, with AIS-SART transmitters being small self-contained AIS-transmitters  that can either be brought along in a survival craft or, in the worst case, be left floating when a vessel sinks.

However, it is important to be aware of the limitations of AIS.

To begin with, as noted the AIS signal is basically just a pre-programmed and automatic VHF-radio. It has limited range, which can be limited further by bad weather or atmospheric conditions. It is also possibly to turn it off by the flick off a switch, in case you are heading somewhere you don’t want to be seen. There are legitimate scenarios where this is the case, with e.g. merchant ships turning off their transmitters if they fear they are at risk for a pirate attack.

The system has also started to show its age, and while this contributes in making it affordable, it also means that it is designed with openness prioritised over security. As such, it can relatively easily be compromised by hackers, which can feed false data into the system. This can include drawing fake tracks, creating non-existent vessels, or making existing ones disappear. While this caused quite a stir when a publicised case took place a few years back, there has so far not been any major incidents caused by hacking the system. One issue working against any malicious use being successful is that there are a number of happy amateurs, commercial, and state actors following up the marine traffic around the globe, so any attempt would be discovered in a relatively short span. Part of the reason behind this is that there regularly appear faulty information on the AIS system due to broken sensors or operator error. However, in the same way that transponders shouldn’t be seen as telling the whole truth on airliner traffic, AIS shouldn’t be trusted to convey the whole picture of maritime traffic.

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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.