May 04, 2018

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


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 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

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 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 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

October 03, 2017

Open Skies Treaty overflight of the United States by the RuAF Sept 25-29 2017

From September 25th to 29th the USAF played host to an Open Skies Treaty overflight of the United States by the Russian Federation.  Here is the flight plan as captured by FlightRadar24, as best as it was able to track the flight using Mode-S MLAT, triangulating transponder information received by private receivers across the country. You'll notice the green dots are likely sites which pictures were being taken, as they were within the allowable envelope. Provided they were at ~11,000ft, and not banking, they would be allowed take pictures, per the treaty and arranged flight plan.

Flying at 11,000ft indicates the digital electro-optical sensor (that when spoken of before the Senate Armed Services Committee was made to sound like the Death Star by DIA 3-Star General Stewart) was in "medium" altitude mode, and the swath was 7.7km (4.8mi) total width.  Please remember that USAF members are aboard the plane for the entire overflight, the camera being used has been certified by a 22 nation committee, and the resolution of the imagery is worse than commercially available satellite imagery.

As usual, the USAF did not inform the American people of this overflight because their media posture is "passive", by policy. Only the Russian news media, usually maligned as "fake news" or propagandists, inform us of these flights. Why would the US Government be more controlling with the message than the Russians? Wouldn't they want to show a working treaty in action and dispel any fear about the Red Scare narrative? 🤔

(There is another Open Skies overflight going on this week, FYI)

September 10, 2017

Is the US Navy, or NATO Maritime Command, watching the same ships I am?

US Navy P-8A #168440
(2016) Photo Credit to Michael Debock
This evening two plane spotters posted almost identical Tweets, drawing my attention to something I should be, but frequently forget to, keep an eye on. ADS-B transponders, from planes over the Mediterranean.

From this we know from ~1700Z to ~2200Z on September 10th 2017, US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon  registration #168440 was circling something off the coast of Malta, or working over an area looking for something.

Well, strangely I've been speculating there may be a Russians arms shipment going to India on (at least) two civilian ships in the area; the Ocean Fortune (MMSI 636013841) and Ocean Dream (MMSI 636016448).  Where were they between 1700Z and 2200Z?  I'm fairly certain the US Navy P-8A is outfitted with night vision capability, possibly using SAR. They may have been waiting for dark in order to inspect the ship at long range, ie without raising suspicion. However, they left their ADS-B transponder on, so they would have been very visible to anyone who was looking for them. Was this an accident? Not usually. The US Navy is usually very aware of their transponders.

I used "large" icons for the time period of the P-8A flight, but without the exact coordinates they flew, you just have to eyeball the screenshots and my map above. What do you think? It sure looks to me like the US Navy wanted a closer look at the RoRo and container ship that may be carrying S400s to India.

A bona fide "Vessel Of Interest"!