I’ve been meaning to write about the Russian tug Nikolay Chiker (and, reportedly, the intelligence collection ship (AGI) Viktor Leonov (SSV-175)) hanging out off the east coast of Florida and Georgia. Real life has a way of preempting these laudable goals. But real life has been beaten back for the moment, so here goes.
Based on high-frequency (HF) Morse code tracking, which radio aficionados can do from the comfort of their homes, Russian navy tug Nikolay Chiker was detected reporting her own position off of Cape Canaveral on 14 March. (Some Russian military platforms, like the navy’s service auxiliaries, make routine HF Morse reports using a simple encoding format. Those who are wise to the format, like RAF veteran “Tom Hill” (@te2ej), can pick up positional information on ships and aircraft. The track of Nikolay Chiker used here comes from Tom Hill’s series of position updates on the tug. You can listen to one of the reports in Morse code here.)
Between the 14th and the 22nd of March, Nikolay Chiker operated north of Cape Canaveral, just off the coast from Kings Bay, Georgia, which alert readers will recognize as the location of the U.S. Navy’s East coast base for our Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). The map below was developed by blogger Steffan Watkins (Camping Canadian).
On 21 March, Nikolay Chiker was sighted in company with Vishnya AGI Viktor Leonov off of Kings Bay, according to Dillon Thoms, a Twitter correspondent of Tom Hill and RussianNavyBlog (which has also been reporting on Nikolay Chiker, principally using Tom Hill’s updates). That’s the basis for the widely repeated report that Viktor Leonov and Nikolay Chiker are operating together.
The odds are certainly good that they were, during that 8-day period, and quite possibly that they will again. Viktor Leonov has been in the Americas for over two months now, whereas Nikolay Chiker didn’t start heading across the Atlantic until mid-February, after deploying from the Russian Northern Fleet (in the Barents Sea) in December, with the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier task group. Nikolay Chiker turned into the Mediterranean first, and was anchored off Morocco on 18 January. Camping Canadian’s presentation picks up her track on 16 February, west of the Canary Islands. She probably departed the Med 12-13 February.
Nikolay Chiker was located just off Curacao on 1 March, and arrived in port there on 3 March, according to a report at Shipspotting.com. After leaving the Kings Bay area on the 22nd, she headed back down through the Caribbean to Curacao, which she entered again on 28 March. Presumably she will be off to more skullduggery again shortly.
A tug?? Geopolitics and history
What’s the deal with Nikolay Chiker? First, her 8-day stint off Kings Bay occurred during the point of highest tensions over the Ukraine crisis. The Crimean referendum was held on 16 March, and in the run-up to it, the U.S. and Russian aircraft carriers were circling each other suspiciously (metaphorically speaking) in the Eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. announced on 14 March that our most recently deployed carrier, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), would remain in the Med longer than originally planned, rather than heading directly for the CENTCOM theater.
That announcement sounded portentous at the time. But Bush transited south through the Suez Canal five days later – three days after the referendum in Crimea. So she didn’t actually remain in the Med that much longer. Just a few more days of Bush’s presence were apparently enough, as Stars and Stripes put it (link below), to “reassure the allies.”
The carrier air wing coming back from CENTCOM, Carrier Air Wing 3 (CVW-3) on USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), flew its last combat mission over Afghanistan on 22 March, and Truman entered the Med for her homebound transit on Saturday 29 March. Based on the unextended nature of Bush’s “extended” presence in the Med, we can expect that Truman will at most conduct one or two port visits in the Med and then head home to Norfolk.
I assume Nikolay Chiker and Viktor Leonov were patrolling off of Kings Bay for that critical week to monitor the reaction – if any – of the U.S. ballistic-missile submarine force. Without going into specifics, we can assume that Russian strategic forces were on alert, and that all Russian intelligence resources were operating at full throttle.
Nikolay Chiker has an interesting history: she is one of the world’s most-capable ocean-going rescue tugs, with a tremendous (40,000 horsepower) towing capacity and a number of special capabilities. In her recent photos in Curacao she looks like the typical Russian rust-bucket, but don’t be fooled by that.
Nikolay Chiker has multiple tow-cable assemblies, a deep-water camera, an ice-hardened hull, and the equipment to support submersibles and divers in deep water. She was the first ship on-scene after the sinking of the Oscar-class submarine Kursk in August 2000, and has performed other heroics such as towing the ex-Varyag aircraft carrier from the Black Sea to China, and towing an oil-laden tanker with a cracked deck around the Med, in bad weather, for six awful weeks in January and February 2001. (This latter escapade developed because no littoral nation would give the tanker safe haven. The concern about a possible oil spill was too great. In good weather, maritime rescue services could have arranged to transfer the oil cargo safely at sea – but the weather was too bad for that, so the ship had to be towed around in international waters until it improved. The beachgoers of Europe and North Africa owe this tug’s crew a big one.)
Nikolay Chiker was under contract to an international maritime rescue company, Tsavrilis, from the early 1990s to 2005, when she was transferred back to the Russian navy. Since then, she has been a fixture of Russian deployments to the Mediterranean.
Blogger “Galrahn” notes at Information Dissemination that the Russians keep tugs (and sometimes salvage vessels as well) stationed forward where their deployed ships and submarines are operating. This has been the case for decades, as I can attest. And it may be, as Galrahn suggests, that Nikolay Chiker’s operations are indicative of the presence in the Western Atlantic of a Russian submarine or two. I don’t doubt the potential submarine presence, at any rate: I assume, since the Russian navy resumed attack-sub deployments to the Atlantic in 2009, that the Northern Fleet has managed to sustain a handful of deployments each year since. At any given time, there could be a Russian attack sub off our East coast.
But I very much doubt that such visible operations by the tug are in support of a submarine off Kings Bay. Even if the Russians want American decision-makers to understand that they are watching our SSBN base from under the sea, they know they don’t need to draw us a picture that way. If there’s a submarine there, we were undoubtedly already aware of it.
It’s quite possible that Nikolay Chiker was there from 14 to 22 March as an observation platform in her own right. She has enough capabilities to make the potential for such operations interesting, at least. Besides deploying her deep-water camera, she could tow sonar with a cable assembly (she’s not known to be a sonar-towing platform, but there’s nothing to stop her from becoming one), and has the ability to support grappling operations on the ocean floor (which is not very deep where she was patrolling).
The U.S. Navy undoubtedly performed surveillance of Nikolay Chiker and Viktor Leonov during their mid-March stint off our coast. U.S. intelligence analysts probably have a good idea what Nikolay Chiker was doing; they know exactly what Viktor Leonov was doing, as the role of AGIs in Russian maritime operations hasn’t changed. U.S. analysts wouldn’t ordinarily disclose their conclusions to the public, however – certainly not in detail, or quickly.
Prior “patrols” around the British Isles
There’s another piece of the puzzle, before we leave Nikolay Chiker. The tug has had a habit in the last few years of showing up unexpectedly with other ships in Russian task groups off the coast of the UK. In both 2011 and late 2013, Nikolay Chiker wandered in with Russian task groups very close to the British and Scottish coasts (apparently remaining just outside the 12-nautical mile territorial-waters limit), and lingered for days. The expeditions into the Moray Firth, both in the month of December (see here and here), were reportedly to take shelter from bad weather. (Scots were annoyed at having no Royal Navy assets to hand for a quick response. The UK Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, reportedly told Parliament that MOD had relied on Twitter updates to know the Russians were coming.)
But after the 2011 excursion into the Moray Firth, Nikolay Chiker hung out on her own around the British Isles for several weeks in early 2012, as shown in the series of position updates captured at the PPrune forum. During a separate deployment in September of 2013, Nikolay Chiker spent several weeks operating between Great Britain and Ireland – a period which notably coincided with the NATO naval force build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean off Syria (such as it was, at least).
Although the description of Nikolay Chiker’s movements at the time placed her too far south to indicate a special interest in Faslane, the naval base on Scotland’s west coast where the Royal Navy’s Vanguard-class SSBNs have their homeport, the area is closer to the Devonport base near Plymouth, where the Trafalgar-class attack submarines are currently homeported. The Trafalgar attack subs are equipped, like their American counterparts, with Tomahawk missiles. This delightful article from December 2013, about a surprise encounter between Irish fishermen and a UK submarine, is a reminder that Royal Navy subs still spend considerable time in the area where Nikolay Chiker was operating. Military training operations are common in the area, although I couldn’t find any that seemed to be of major significance in the period in question.
(Although it’s unlikely this is related to Nikolay Chiker’s mission in September 2013, HMS Ocean (L12), the Royal Navy’s helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship – which took part in the joint operation off Libya in 2011 – is also homeported at Devonport. A connection is unlikely because Ocean was in the middle of a lengthy refit at the time. She had just been refloated in early August 2013, a publicly announced event which the Russians would have been aware of, and which meant that she was nowhere near being in a deployable state for a late-2013 contingency in Syria.)
The deployment pattern of Russian service auxiliaries, especially tugs, salvage vessels, and floating repair platforms, has historically entailed months of sitting inactive at anchor (or, if the crew is a little luckier, at a pier) in far-flung ports. Nikolay Chiker’s busy profile – underway for days or weeks hovering near high-interest areas – indicates something more than a standard, on-call support role. There is some reason why the tug needs to be located close to foreign navy bases and fleet operating areas. That reason is more likely to be that Nikolay Chiker is herself acting as a surveillance platform than that the Russians suddenly think they need to have a tug trailing other ships or submarines around on a short tether on the high seas. Nikolay Chiker’s recent, independent activities in the British Isles have been decidedly un-tuglike; it’s a good bet that she wasn’t sitting off Kings Bay a couple of weeks ago just waiting for someone to need a tow.
The Russian carrier had the Med to herself for 10 days, from 19-29 March, but doesn’t seem to have made much news. She and Harry S Truman have been sharing general sea and air space since late on the 29th. In fact, Kuznetsov reportedly got underway from anchorage on 28 March, the day before Truman entered the Med, to resume conducting flight ops.
This Greek report, sourced to the widely-read defencenet.gr website, is being copied all over Greek-language blogs, lauding the presence of 12 Russian warships in EASTMED at the end of March. There’s no specific evidence that Kuznetsov’s air wing has reinforced the political signal sent in early March with flight profiles involving extremely close approaches to Turkey. But the Greek article at the link repeats the theme that Russian operations extended to the Greek island of Kastellorizo, a bare mile off of Turkey. It also credits Russia with responding instantaneously to “escalation from the Turkish side.”
Turkish navy on historic deployment to Africa
An internally riven Turkey is by no means ignoring maritime problems close to home. But March 2014 saw the departure of a four-ship flotilla for the first circumnavigation of Africa undertaken by a Turkish naval group since 1866. (See here for more detail and commentary.) The Turks will visit 29 nations on this trip, and will conduct underway operations, including live firing exercises, with some of them (such as South Africa).
It was less than four years ago that Turkey deployed a general-purpose naval task force to patrol the Mediterranean for the first time since the Ottoman era. The whole context of Turkish outreach has changed, however, with the Arab Spring and Putin’s move on Ukraine. Erdogan’s potential for destabilizing the region no longer stands out above that of other actors.
It is unfortunate that the twin security problems of Russia and Syria will discourage a resurgence of the more liberalized “secularism” that made Turkey such a good ally for the last 60 years. The regional problems are very real for Turkey’s situation – but with Erdogan fighting to impose state Islamism, and dismantling the checks and balances of Ataturk’s carefully constructed secular state, they are extremely ill-timed.
That said, the region needs a counterweight to Putin’s looming adventurism, and Turkey is the obvious nation to fill that role. The signal sent by the naval expedition to Africa is that Turkey is a player: she can’t be isolated behind maritime barriers, or sandwiched in between Russian client states; she can project power and be networked across a larger region. Her international role isn’t delimited by her participation in NATO or her alliance with the United States. The signal of the naval expedition is meant for Russia as much as for Arab and African audiences. Rather than confronting Russia directly, I see the Turks countering Putin’s drumbeat over here by starting up a distant but accelerating drumbeat over there. It’s not a bad move.
We’ll have more about this region in the coming weeks. Just a couple of quick updates from the Indian Ocean rim and the Far East.
First, an ominous sign from the Strait of Hormuz (SOH). There have two been separate reports in the last couple of days, of merchant ships being shot at by unidentified marauders in small boats. One event, on the Gulf of Oman side of the strait (outside the Gulf) was described in these terms:
“Two green colored skiffs with three-four persons on board in military clothing and armed with gun machines got to 150 meters of a merchant vessel,” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s merchant shipping alert service said in a statement.
“After a while the skiffs turned away to Iranian coast.”
It is extremely unlikely that these “attackers” are actual pirates. Pirates would be unable to operate in the restricted waters of the SOH. It is well within the capabilities of the SOH’s littoral nations – Iran, Oman, and by proximity and interest, the UAE – to suppress piratical endeavors there, which would in any case have to launch from their shores.
It’s frankly more likely that Iran is dispatching teams of unmarked special forces to create a condition of insecurity for merchant shipping, so that Iran will have a pretext for a naval clampdown on the SOH. Don’t bet against it. Iran doesn’t want to disruptively prevent shipping – not for the moment, anyway, and not for commercial shipping. She wants to establish a tacitly recognized managerial role and a veto over it, to be used on the occasions of her choice. (See here and here for previous rumblings from Iran on this theme.)
Right now, in 2014, with the Obama administration sunk in near-complete inertia, is the time for a gambit like this. Remember, Iran has as much reason as Putin has to view America with cynicism and contempt. The absurd non-deal on her nuclear-weapons program is now bringing reward to Iran, without her having to give up any part of the program. The time for the unthinkable is upon us.
Second, meanwhile, we still have no updates on where the Iranian task group is that was announced as deploying to the Atlantic. No substantiated locating information has been available to the public since 21 January. If the deployment goes as announced, the two ships will be due back in Bandar Abbas in about three weeks. It’s not clear whether we will know at that point where they have actually been. We can hope that Western intelligence services have been tracking them. But, again, it is actually possible that they haven’t been tracked throughout this period. Whatever they’ve been doing, we can assume that it’s not random, but is related to Iran’s highest national priorities.
Finally, readers will be gratified to know that the United States and Japan are creating a new “consultative body,” under the framework of our existing defense agreement, to address specifically the problem of Chinese encroachments in the disputed Senkaku Islands:
During [U.S.-Japan] talks to review the current guidelines, foreign and defense officials from both sides stated that there is a need to create a permanent coordination body when they went over desktop military exercises and exchanged opinions on how quasi-military attacks on Japan should be handled.
Experts predict that an attempt by China to seize the Senkakus would very likely begin with the landing of armed personnel disguised as fishermen. The prediction has prompted the Japanese side to demand enhancement of the Japan-U.S. partnership to deal with such ambiguous situations. Meanwhile, the U.S. side also expects the permanent consultative body’s establishment to aid in the coordination of operations with Japan in the event of a major disaster or if tensions begin to escalate on the Korean Peninsula.
So we’ve got that to look forward to.