June 17, 2018

Sorry Australians, there was no Chinese "Spy Ship" following HMAS Adelaide around.

Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) News - original here
The Australian news media ran a story the other day that caught my eye. The collection of articles published by different outlets can be summed up like this;
An Australian warship arrives in Fiji, shadowed by a Chinese Spy vessel, and while the Australians were told there would be a Chinese fishing vessel beside them, they were surprised to find this Chinese "fishing vessel" was actually a SIGINT vessel, with all its attention focused on the Australian ship.

I can't tell if I'm disapointed or pleased with this, since it gives some validity to the belief that the Australian news media push a "red scare" narrative, just like the American news media; but they have different "Reds"! In America, it's the Russians who are coming. For Australia, it's the Chinese. On a certain level there's some truth to both, but nothing like what's being portrayed by these misleading articles. While it's true that the Chinese are exerting their influence in the Pacific, this story isn't about that, it's about a Chinese Spy Ship tailing the Australian Navy, and that just didn't happen.

HMAS Adelaide (IMO:9608972|MMSI:503000021) was the ship the Chinese were supposedly focused on, and one of the largest warships the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has; she's a Canberra-class landing helicopter dock (aka LHD). She's their crown jewel. That may be why the 2nd ship, the HMAS Melbourne, an Adelaide-class guided missile frigate (FFG), garnered no attention at all.

Here are the facts. HMAS Adelaide departed Townville, Australia on 2018-06-01, arrived in Suva Fiji 2018-06-08, and left again 2018-06-11 heading to Togo, per the information broadcast by their publicly available AIS transponder data.  There is no reason the Australian press needed to ignore any of this data, and unfortunate the Australian MoD didn't put out a press release specifically debunking the misinformation that was running rampant.

Size Comparison
Royal Australian Navy
Yuan Wang 7, the "Spy Ship", which is actually a Chinese PLA(N) satellite telemetry ship, arrived and moored in the port of Suva Fiji right before the HMAS Adelaide docked, but the Chinese vessel didn't dock as was reported, they stayed moored in the harbour for days. Yuan Wang had been operating to the North, and came from that direction, while the Australian Ships came from the West, or as they call it, Australia. At no time was the Yuan Wang 7 "chasing" or "tailing" the Australian ships. That detail is simply impossible, they were not in proximity of each other until they both arrived in Fiji. The Australians left Fiji 2018-06-11, and the PLA(N) Yuan Wang 7 left 2018-06-15, both in different directions even. None of these facts line up with the overall Australian news media's depiction of the events, and that's a little disappointing.

There is hope for the Australian news media, so they don't get punked by unreliable sources in the future, and I'm here to serve it up for them as easily as I can possibly make it. Point and click. Here are all the Yuan Wang vessels, with their corresponding links to MarineTraffic.com, where you can see them (for free) if they're near a shore based AIS-T receiver feeding into to their service. With a paid account you look up more history, and can purchase satellite-based AIS coverage, so you can see the vessels when they're farther out at sea.

If you're thinking to yourself that it would be ridiculous for a cloak and dagger "spy ship" to have their transponder on all the time, there might just be hope for you yet. SIGINT collection vessels, AGIs, don't usually have their transponders on at all. What hasn't been mentioned either is every ship is a "spy ship"; it's every Navy's responsibility to gather intelligence when the opportunity arises, and I'm quite sure Yuan Wang 7 was collecting some intelligence from both of the Australian warships it found itself in proximity to, but it's far more nuanced than the Australian news media portrayed it.

Chinese PLA(N) Yuan Wang Satellite Tracking (and support) Vessels:

ship namemmsiMarineTraffic.com link:
Yuan Wang 21412380260https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/mmsi:412380260
Yuan Wang 22412380270https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/mmsi:412380270
Yuan Wang 2412958000https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/mmsi:412958000
Yuan Wang 3412962000https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/mmsi:412962000
Yuan Wang 5413289000https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/mmsi:413289000
Yuan Wang 6413326000https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/mmsi:413326000
Yuan Wang 7413379290https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/mmsi:413379290

There is only one loose end. The Yuan Wang 7 started to sail toward Fiji, at relatively high speed, on 2018-06-05 ~14:00Z. It seems the Royal Australian Navy "for OPSEC reasons" doesn't transmit their location using AIS-S, so I don't know if on, or around, 2018-06-05 they also started heading towards Fiji, or gave the Chinese some other tell that made the Chinese make a sprint for Fiji at almost 20kn (pretty fast for such a big ship). Some sarcastically suggest it's "quite a coincidence" that they all arrived around the same time, but the PLA(N) Yuan Wang 7 restocks in Fiji regularly, so it isn't as wild a coincidence as it may seem to someone unfamiliar with the vessel's previous movements.

To reiterate, I'm not suggesting any Chinese Navy vessel wouldn't collect intelligence on the Australian ships, of course they would, but the reverse is true too. Both countries are regional powers with significant naval presence. Unfortunately, the stories about this encounter got almost all of the facts wrong, and they really didn't need to. All of the location information I've referenced above would have been at their fingertips if they'd known where to look on June 9th before the story was published.


Yuan Wang 7 moored in the harbour 2018-06-08 ~20:00Z,
and didn't dock until days later.

HMAS Adelaide (IMO:9608972|MMSI:503000021)
Arrival 2018-06-08 ~22:00Z

HMAS Adelaide (IMO:9608972|MMSI:503000021)
Departure 2018-06-11 ~04:00Z

Yuan Wang 7 departed 2018-06-15 ~04:00Z

June 12, 2018

Planet Labs satellite imagery shows Yantar at RuAF Su-30 crash site in May.

After departing the Mediterranean, and making a hairpin turn within hours after the crash of the RuAF Su-30 in the waters off Syria, Russian Navy Oceanographic Research Vessel Yantar finally got back to Syrian waters, to the exact spot shown on the aforementioned image from Planet Labs where the oil sheen was seen on the water, less than 3 km from the shore of Jableh, Syria, where the RuAF Su-30 crashed.

We can see Yantar in the area on May 11th, 16th, and 17th.
AIS data shows they were in the vicinity the whole time, out of frame.

They may have been looking for the remains of the pilots, and/or retrieving initialized crypto hardware aboard the plane, which would be hugely valuable for Western intelligence agencies to collect.

Thank you Planet Labs for providing the 3m imagery!

May 04, 2018

2018-05-03: Russian Air Force (RuAF) Su-30 crash off the coast of Jablah, Syria

by: ria.ru

Image available within an hour of the accident.
On May 3rd 2018 a Russian Air Force Su-30 jet crashed shortly after take-off for unknown reasons. Initial rumours suggested a bird strike on take-off, and with a full load, a loss of an engine would have been catastrophic. So where did it crash, exactly?

Let me introduce you to satellite imagery that isn't quite as crystal clear as the 30 cm resolution imagery you're used to on Google Maps. 3 meter resolution imagery is updated much more frequently, allowing the kind of coverage you simply couldn't find commercially in the past. Enter Planet Labs, and here is their image from 2018-05-03 at 10:47am local time. The crash is reported to have happened within a half hour previous to the picture. In the image we see what looks to be small boats, a small oil sheen, and possibly debris ~3 km from shore.

I'm not getting into the geopolitical aspects of the Syrian war, if the Russian air force should be there, or commenting on the loss of the two Russian pilots (which is a tragedy regardless of who's side you're on); I'm just using this as an example of how readily available satellite imagery can spot a crash site and give you information about something very quickly after such an event, before the news media has caught up on the story, or even officials are aware of what's going on. Never before have the public been able to short-circuit the dissemination of information to this extent, and bypass traditional media. I don't mean that journalism is dead, I think journalists are able to take a step back and do the deeper dive, and get more information to publish the "whole" story, while people get their fix for immediate news from primary sources like never before.

April 23, 2018

Keeping up with the Royal Canadian Navy Halifax-class frigates (Live)

"Canadian Navy HMCS St John's FFH-340 passing Greenock outbound from Glasgow for Joint Warrior"
Photo and caption by Iain Cameron - 2018-04-22
The Royal Canadian Navy deploy their fleet of Halifax-class frigates globally, but only some of their deployments are noticed and picked up on on the press. This isn't from the military's lack of trying; there are multiple cases where a story has been floated by DND's official social media accounts, but gets no press coverage. Thanks to the magic of AIS transponders, installed on the whole fleet, but only activated with the consent of the ship's command, we can skip all the middle management at DND and get the ships' coordinates directly from the the ship itself, over marine VHF (~162MHz), and the Automatic Identification System (AIS).

To many people it seems concerning that we would be able to follow a military deployment with live location data, as it beacons every few minutes. Thankfully, Canada and NATO's adversaries don't rely on AIS to target or find Canadian ships worldwide. They know NATO procedures and understand in a time of conflict or operations the AIS transponder is set to receive only, turned off for our purposes, and does not transmit, so as to not give away their location either through ELINT, or reading the AIS data for free from MarineTraffic.com. Here are the twelve Halifax-class frigates of the Royal Canadian Navy, and the locations they last beaconed from using terrestrial based AIS (AIS-T) .

ship namemmsi
HMCS HalifaxFFH330316138000
HMCS VancouverFFH331316160000
HMCS Ville de QuebecFFH332316127000
HMCS TorontoFFH333316135000
HMCS ReginaFFH334316148000
HMCS CalgaryFFH335316158000
HMCS MontrealFFH336316129000
HMCS FredrictonFFH337316143000
HMCS WinnipegFFH338316147000
HMCS CharlottetownFFH339316130000
HMCS St JohnsFFH340316196000
HMCS OttawaFFH341316195000
(click on any of the hot MMSIs above for ship & location details)

(Click the "minus" to zoom out if you don't see the whole map)

(Illustration of locations recently identified by AIS transponder; data collected and displayed by MarineTraffic.com)

October 22, 2017

Using AIS to track the United States Navy Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier Fleet

First off, tracking US Navy aircraft carriers using AIS is a terrible idea, because of the seemingly-random and inconsistant US Navy AIS transponder policy. The policy made it's public debut recently as a result of two fatal collisions; that of the USS John McCain, and the USS Fitzgerald. The US Navy provided guidance to commanders to use AIS when travelling in proximity to civilian vessels. However, the safety of the Carrier Strike Group, and the carrier itself, is of paramount concern; so it seems the US Navy is a little reluctant to expose their location consistently across the fleet.

Some ships in the US Navy pop up on public unclassified AIS tracking sites like MarineTraffic.com routinely, while others haven't beaconed once for the past 5+ years. The aircraft carriers are a mixed bag; they aren't just using their AIS transponder to send a "message" to adversaries that they can operate anywhere they want in International waters, they're also broadcasting their location to foreign port facilities who send out pilot vessels and tugs to help their approach into harbour.

Another point about OPSEC; if a US Navy vessel activates their AIS transponder, the commanding officer made a judgement to do so, and expose their position to anyone with an internet connection who can pull up the MarineTraffic.com web page. These are not accidents, they are deliberate beacons for strategic messaging as well as local inter-operation with allied port facilities. Their position is neither secret, or dangerous.  But don't take my word for it; it was the commanding officer who indicated as much when they turned on their transponder. If the ship's commander is perfectly alright with broadcasting their position to the world, you are allowed to know as well, guilt-free, without being a "spy"!

This is not a "loose lips sink ships" situation.

USS Nimitz#CVN68MMSI:303981000NMTZNaval Base Kitsap, Bremerton, Washington
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower#CVN69MMSI:368962000NIKENaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS Carl Vinson#CVN70MMSI:369970409NCVVNaval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California
USS Theodore Roosevelt#CVN71MMSI:366984000NNTRNaval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California
USS Abraham Lincoln#CVN72?NABENaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS George Washington#CVN73MMSI:368913000NNGWNaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS John C. Stennis#CVN74MMSI:368912000NJCSNaval Base Kitsap, Bremerton, Washington
USS Harry S. Truman#CVN75MMSI:368800000NHSTNaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS Ronald Reagan#CVN76MMSI:369970410NRGNYokosuka Naval Base, Yokosuka, Japan
USS George H.W. Bush#CVN77MMSI:369970663NGHWNaval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia
USS Gerald R. Ford#CVN78??Naval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia