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A controversial suspected spy ship has arrived in the Americas, open source intelligence indicates. According to position tracking data, the Russian Navy’s Yantar left her home port about a month ago, and has not been visible on open sources until suddenly appearing in the Caribbean on Friday. That she appeared on ship trackers so suddenly is unusual.
She has gained attention in the past for hovering in the vicinity of the undersea cables which connect the world. Called Submarine Communications Cables (SCC), these crisscross the world’s oceans carrying Internet traffic and military communications.
Yantar is a ship of particular interest among Western Navies. According to naval officers familiar with the situation, she is suspected of being involved in placing listening devices on undersea communications.
Yantar stands out because she is specially equipped for these types of mission, with at least three separate systems for conducting seabed warfare. She can deploy deep-diving submarines and has two different remote-operated vehicle (ROV) systems. And they can reach almost any undersea cable on the planet, even in deep water where conventional wisdom says that a cable should be safe.
Exactly what her mission is, is unclear in public sources. The Russian Navy describes her, euphemistically, as an oceanographic research vessel. She is operated by the Main Directorate of Deep Water Research, known by its Russian initials GUGI. She is based in Russia’s secretive submarine base in the Russian Arctic, Olenya Guba. That’s also the base of the ill-fated spy submarine Losharik on which 14 Russian ‘Hydronauts’ lost their lives in July.
Yantar arrived in Trinidad and Tobago on Friday and left this morning. Her next destination is unclear. Previously her deployments have been visible on the Automated Identification System (AIS). Because she is ostensibly a research ship, she broadcasts her position on AIS to avoid collisions. But this time she appears to have switched her AIS off for most of the voyage.
Open source analyst Steffan Watkins has pieced together her previous voyages in great detail using historic AIS data. I have also analysed this data. We can see that she has visited the wreck site of sunken Russian nuclear submarine Komsomolets off Norway. And the crash sites of Russian fighter jets off Syria. In 2017-18 she was involved in the hunt for the missing Argentinian submarine ARA San Juan. But more intriguingly, she has conducted searches near Internet cables in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, and likely elsewhere.
What exactly happens beneath the waves is unseen, but there is one piece of evidence which we can see via open sources. Through the historic AIS transmissions we can observe the search patterns. We can see the patterns she makes when she searches over a known object, like the wreck of a submarine. And when she searches for a crashed plane, or for the lost Argentinean submarine.
Those search patterns are different from when she is near Internet cables. So we can infer that she us doing something different, and using different systems.
So has she been searching for something on this trip? The journey from her base in the Arctic to the Caribbean is approximately 5,800 miles. With her cruising speed of 14.5 knots it should have taken her about two weeks. Instead it has taken her over a month. So it does appear likely.
Photo credit Yörük Işık, Bosphorus Observer