A summer of sabre-rattling: snapshot of strategic bomber flights

1st part of some information gathering on USAF strategic flights regularly promoted as " routine training" and "reassurance missions" for NATO allies and also to deter 'adversaries' or 'competitors'.

UPDATED INFOGRAPHICS 24 Sept.

Here's my first stab at trying to visualise the various B-52, B-1 and B-2 flights since May with a timeline of reported flights, with the addition of noteworthy naval exercises in the "High North", in particular in the Barents Sea, not far to the Russian Northern Fleet HQ on the Kola peninsula. 

It was a lengthy task to compile the details so there is certainly some omissions, so consider this as WORK IN PROGRESS. It is meant to give an indication of the unprecedented tempo and type of flights, along Russian borders, (Baltic Sea, Barents Sea, Arctic region, Laptev and Okhotsk Sea. 

September has been particular busy, in stark contrast to the total numbers of flights for previous years (since 2015).  The USAF did not deploy as often as it has been lately.   

In my last article, I only highlighted information from intelligence-gathering air missions, as reported by the Russian MoD.  On September 11th, the Commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, Sergei Surovikin, gave a briefing to defence attachés, in which he noted that:

"we recorded mainly the actions of reconnaissance aircraft, but recently the number of combat aircraft flights has increased."
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Air missions & intercepts on Russian borders Jan-Aug 2020

In light of the frequent air missions carried out by the USAF and USN recently, an update is provided connected to my previous article back in May on statistics for 2019 and open source coverage of air reconnaissance & intel gathering air missions for April and May 2020.   Emotions run high on social media on both sides, but it is nevertheless interesting to take a cold look at the official figures given by the Russian MoD in their weekly infographics. 

It is almost impossible to compare the figures below with the scarce information sources made publicly available by the USAF, USN and NATO.  I can only obtain some tidbits of data from open source aviation monitoring sites on Twitter, which is comprehensive but still doesn't quite tell the whole story. 

Air reconnaissance mission statistics as reported by Russian MoD
Air reconnaissance mission statistics as reported by Russian MoD

More on this later on but please note the above graph only refers to air reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions from U.S., NATO and non-NATO states. Significant by its omission are statistics on strategic bomber missions carried in proximity to Russian borders. 

Combined figures for 2019 and 2020 (January to August)  * 2 missing monthly reporting information , ** one missing reporting information in a given year = incomplete data for the month.
Combined figures for 2019 and 2020 (January to August) * 2 missing monthly reporting information , ** one missing reporting information in a given year = incomplete data for the month.


To be updated... TBC

Deep-sea exploits - part 2

The Marianas Trench has become a hive of activity recently. Here is an update (mostly) on the activities of the Russian expedition with Vityaz-D last month and also the recent expedition with the first woman to go down into the deepest abyss.  A quick peek is also provided on China's turn in sending an UUV expedition to the Mariana Trench.

A. Update on Vityaz-D

The deep-diving feat of Vityaz-D and the first manned dives were outlined in a previous blog article "Subsea exploits and delving into the deepest trench".

The announcements made relating to Vityaz-D weren't accompanied by images or video taken from the expedition itself because that bit was saved for a 2-part special feature programme on Zvezda News.

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Lebanese Block 4 natural gas sector and the Russian Navy

Depth profile of Lebanon EEZ and map of offshore blocks
Depth profile of Lebanon EEZ and map of offshore blocks

I have read this farce of an article in the Jerusalem Post, titled “What does Russia want with Lebanon gas fields”, which provides comments on the involvement of a Russian LNG company, Novatek and also hints at the activities of a Russian ship in the region.  

I unpicked parts of some of more baffling elements of the article and gathered some broader context to get an insight into this garbled article, replete with suppositions and assertions devoid of facts. Although, it is considered as predictable fare coming from the JP, I want to note that this kind of rumour story “has legs” [1] very quickly, and as such I would like to comment on it.

Russian interest in gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean date back to 2018, when Lebanon issued exploration licences to a group that includes Eni (Italy), Total (France) and Russia’s Novatek. The licences were for 2 Blocks (4 and 9), one of which is partly in contested waters with Israel. Yet, the authors singularly focus on the one Russian company with just 20% of the overall share and who happens NOT to be the lead operator for either block: Total. Yet, the whole article focuses on Novatek. 

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Air missions and interceptions - an overview

This week, in an interview with TASS, the head of the Russian Border Guard Service spoke about the increase in intelligence activities along the Russian sea borders. 

 "Seaward parts of Pacific and Arctic oceans, Baltic and Black Seas are increasingly becoming areas of intelligence[-gathering], naval exercises, in which foreign ships and aviation of several states are involved" Vladimir Kulishov, First Deputy Director of the FSB

In a 27 March 2020 Russian MoD briefing, it was stated that aerial reconnaissance missions had increased 20% since the start of 2020 and 80 flights were reported along Russian borders. Since 2014, there has been progressively more and more NATO reconnaissance near Russia's borders. The Russian Ministry of Defence releases on a regular basis basic statistics on air intel-gathering missions and intercepts carried out. This data makes for an interest mini-research and data analysis project, along with an OSINT information gathering to get a richer picture of what is happening in the skies near to the borders of Russia.  Let's start with the data provided by the Russian MoD, which I collated and put together as a graph for 2019. 

Figure 1. 2019 Numbers of air reconnaissance / intelligence-gathering missions along / near to Russian borders
Figure 1. 2019 Numbers of air reconnaissance / intelligence-gathering missions along / near to Russian borders

What's noticeable is the sustained frequency of air missions along Russian border that are tracked by Russian radars, (carried out by either NATO, United States, Sweden and quite possibly also Japan and others on the Arctic and Pacific side of Russia). 

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Subsea exploits and delving into the deepest trench

On 8 May 2020, a Russian autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), 'Vityaz' went down to a depth of 10,028 meters, while carrying out a 3-hour survey of the world's deepest seabed. Additionally, Russian media reported  (TASS) that the AUV "Vityaz placed a pennant at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in honor of the 75th victory anniversary of the Great Patriotic War".(1)

'Vityaz' is the first fully AI-driven AUV vehicle in the world to reach part of the deepest point of the world ocean,  the cresent-shaped Mariana Trench near to Guam, where it carried out mapping, took photos and videos.  Information on this success was provided in a press release from the Foundation for Advanced Studies (FPI),(Фонда перспективных исследований) .

It is not a mean feat to send down equipment at such extreme depth due to the  enormous pressure encountered,1,000 times greater than at sea level. To get a perspective on just how deep it is, here is a fascinating infographic. Hence, the equipment has been tested in the most challenging undersea conditions. According to the FPI General Director Andrey Grigoriev "The Vityaz project is a further development of domestic achievements in the field of creation of deep sea AUVs, including those with unrestricted depth limts." 

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A tale of a testing long voyage and a long naval deployment related to Nord Stream 2

The 150-meter-long  'Akademik Cherskiy' arrived off Kaliningrad on 2 May 2020  after a 12-week voyage, largely unnoticed by the media .   Why do I say this? It seems to be in total contrast to how events unfolded back in December 2019.  Back then the 'Akademik Cherskiy' was mentioned in the press but the quiet arrival is at odds with the flurry of articles on U.S. moves to impose a set of sectorial sanctions aimed at pipe laying vessels involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 project, back in December 2019.   

The signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by President Donald Trump triggered further turmoil for Gazprom's multibillion key project. Nord Stream 2, with a potential annual capacity of 55 billion cubic meters. It is the latest export gas pipeline project from Russia to Europe via the Baltic Sea and it will complement the existing Nord Stream gas pipeline infrastructure. 

Russia had brought in foreign contractors both for the Nord Stream 2 project and previously the Turkish Stream.  Swiss-Dutch based Allseas was spearheading the Nord Stream 2 subsea pipe laying project, with the mega vessel 'Pioneering Spirit', until the U.S. sanctions announcement was made in December 2019.  With this threat looming, all work was stopped and ships pulled out from the project at a critical and late phase of the project. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak had hopes for exports to start end of 2020. 

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Pushing the boat out (a bit) on Russian "spy ships"

Introduction

Definition: "To put forth the maximum amount of effort and/or resources toward some product or event."

There has always been an appetite for sensationalising events and tasks, none more so with the Russian spy ship hyperbole of recent years, the type of ships keep on multiplying, from just the real intelligence-gathering SIGINT ships, to ocean-going tugs and now the latest being the newest fleet replenishment ship, the 'Akademik Pashin'.  Assigning this type of nomenclature to what is known informally as an 'oiler' is really pushing the boat out.

Article headline Naval News, 6 May 2020
Article headline Naval News, 6 May 2020

Different types of auxiliaries ships are being literally conflated into the one category and the absurdity of this is that is seemingly reserved uniquely for the Russian Navy and to a lesser extent the Chinese Navy, (PLAN), but never for a NATO vessel.  Could you imagine the situation where naval experts label the UK's Wave-class tankers of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) as a spy ship, you'd probably get laughed at and rightly so.  To claim that the 'Akademik Pashin' has a "potential second role, as an intelligence gathering ship", is intriguing to say the least.  Yet, the author follows it up by writing that " All naval vessels have a potential to gather intelligence if they are in the right place at the right time". It would be very rudimentary intelligence gathering, monitoring radio frequencies and visual monitoring mostly.   However, to call such ships "spy ships" is worthy of a Hollywood film script. 

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Something on the RCGS Resolute incident

The circus has left but the clowns remain.

Updated with additional information on 18 April 2020

Nothing quite like browsing through social media and end up reading a load of inane comments on the recent incident between the RCGS Resolute and the Venezuelan offshore patrol vessel (OPV) Coast Guard «Naiguatá» (GC-23) on 30th March 2020.

Details: Venezuelan Navy / Coastguard ANBV Naiguata, (GCG-23), displacement 1453, length 80 meters, built 2009 Spain, commissioned 2011.

RCGS Resolute: operated by One Ocean Expedition, displacement 8,445 GT, length 122 meters, built 1991 & has the highest ice class (Lloyds 1AS), 

So I'll put on my ex coastguard hat and present some clarifications and comments of my own.  The most salient details leading up to & including the incident are outlined in the following blog: Halifax Shipping News. It provides full statements from both parties.  This means I will not go into all of the details myself but kindly ask the reader to look at the articles posted instead.  

There are two points that I would like to clarify:

  1. Circumstances leading up to the interception are reasons for triggering suspicion by the Venezuelan coastguard.
  2. Types of coastguard intercepts and UNCLOS

1. Circumstances

The sinking of the «Naiguatá» has resulted in further notoriety regarding the RCGS Resolute, already embroiled in a series of financial scandals, unpaid crew members, contractors, vendors and passengers left without Antarctic cruises and without being refunded due to financial situation of the charter company One Ocean Expeditions.  All of which is detailed at length by Halifax Shipping News and in various articles (here, here and here).  

This aspect needs to be considered when reviewing the circumstances leading up to the interception, but it is not significant, since at the time of the coastguard intercept, the RCGS Resolute was managed by Columbia Cruise Services (CCS) and the Bahamas based shipowner was Bunny’s Adventure and cruise shipping Co.Ltd. 

For some reason the RCGS Resolute was the only polar expedition ship to head to the Dutch Antilles, while others headed back to Europe after the COVID-19 outbreak dramatically curtailed the 2020 cruise season.

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