June 27, 2016

Russian Open Skies observation flights are doing nothing unexpected over Canada

Canadian crew members performing a flight under the Open Skies Treaty over Russia,
pose next to their C-130H aircraft (29 May 2003)

Credit: OSCE/Unknown Photographer
On the heels of American military leaders and American congressional representatives accusing Russia of conducting espionage under the guise of treaty defined observation flights over the United States, in the most anti-climatic way possible, there are no indications that Russian observation flights over Canada are doing anything outside of what they should be.  The Russians  are observing Canadian military posture, and dual-purpose civilian infrastructure coast to coast, and confirming we're not readying an invasion force, or helping anyone else amass one either.  In fact, all indications suggest the Russians are doing exactly what the Canadians say they do over Russia; observing and reporting on activity that could be suspicious, and base-lining behaviours that aren't suspicious in locations that could be military or have military value.  I strongly suspect the American military leadership and Republicans who are against the Open Skies Treaty are doing so for disingenuous reasons (and my previous blog post about that is here)

Over six months ago I requested all flight plans, mission plans, reports and certifications regarding the Russian flights, and equipment used, over Canada.  The Canadian Department of National Defence will send you a copy of what I received on a CD, if you request it.  Once the file is closed (I'm still arguing a couple of points).  You will be able to search for it here; look for document # A-2015-01490.  The request is currently 392 pages (and 264.1Mb) of reports, mostly text, with some pictures and diagrams.

You're a weirdo; why would you want all that?

Well, Canada is a signatory to the Open Skies Treaty; as are the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Belarus, Russia, etc... Every year the Royal Canadian Air Force flies observation missions, using wet film photography, and a CC-130 Hercules, over Russia, and potentially other signatory states.  Really tho, it's mostly Russia.  Russia reciprocates by flying their Tu-154M Lk-1 Open Skies aircraft over to Canada, and conducting observation flights of their own with RCAF representation on the flight.

I wondered, since I'm Canadian, and feel our air-photographable military activity is rather boring, what could they possibly be taking pictures of? So, I filed an Access to information and Privacy request with DND requesting the documents that are are mandated by the treaty.  Until now, no details have been available about Russia's overflights Canada conducted under the treaty; the information was labelled "TREATY SENSITIVE INFORMATION", and some of the documentation was classified "NATO RESTRICTED" (NR).

From this ATIP request, we know there have been ten Open Skies overflights performed by the Russian Federation over Canada between 2002 and 2014 (inclusive). There was an 11th overflight in December 2015, but that was outside of the scope of my request, since I made my request in November.

When and where were these overflights, and what were they looking at?

The following are the arrival dates, departure dates, official Open Skies flight reference numbers, and relative order of flights  While the treaty was implemented in 2002, the Russians were unable to fly over Canada until they had a certified plane that could fly the extended distances over Canada (and the US) in 2004.

Arrival Departure     Reference ##
2004.09.07 2004.09.11 OS-04-022 01
2006.10.26 2006.10.31? OS-06-035 02
2007.03.08 2007.03.13? OS-07-004 03
2008.05.24 2008.05.29 OS-08-016 04
2009.10.28 2009.11.03 OS-09-041 05
2010.05.16 2010.05.21 OS-10-012 06
2011.06.05 2011.06.09 OS-11-012 07
2012.06.25 2012.06.30 OS-12-018 08
2013.06.15 2013.06.20 OS-13-020 09
2014.10.13 2014.10.18 OS-14-032 10

This confirms that Russia is over flying Canada almost yearly, but where are they going, and what are they taking pictures of? This is where things get very difficult for me to convey, because the data sent to me from my Access to Information and Privacy request is full of coordinates and locations, but none of them are in text; each page has been reproduced as an image, probably due to paranoia about disclosing metadata. I would like to map out the route digitally on Google Maps and SHOW you where they went, but for now I'll just tell you some of the locations which were highlighted in the formerly NATO Restricted after-mission reports.  At about 5000Km per flight, the Russian Open Skies flights cover a lot of ground.  The overflights clearly targeted many sites, such as...

(Former) Pinetree Line Long Range Radar Stations

I'm thrilled to see the Russians are photographing old Cold War Pinetree Line sites; we have some common interests!  If you think aerial photography of a decommissioned Cold War site is a pretty ridiculous idea, think of it this way; from a Russian military point of view, why wouldn't we re-use those places for new bases?  They are already levelled, most still have access to rail and highways, they have power nearby,  telecom, etc.. From my Russian research I can tell you many of their old Soviet-era military bases have been re-purposed and are still military bases - I speculate they figure we'd do the same.

Canadian Chemical and Biological Weapons Research Facilities

The Russians also overflew Suffield, Alberta, where the Defence Research and Development Canada Suffield Research Centre is located and the Canadian National Single Small-Scale Facility (SSSF) is located; where Canada keeps it's small amount of Schedule 1 Chemical weapons, that are allowed under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), for research purposes.  Examples of Schedule 1 Chemical weapons are: VX, Sarin, Ricin, Mustard gas...  I can't find record of having Bio-safety Level 4 (BSL 4) pathogens stored there, but Bio-safety Level 3 (BSL 3) pathogens are.

CFAD Dundurn, CFAD Angus, CFAD Rocky Point, and CFAD Bedford

They checked up on all of our Canadian Forces Ammunition Depots, coast to coast.  I would think that was fairly predictable, since activity at those sites would indicate we were getting ready to move weapons somewhere.  Also, good pictures of those facilities might provide clues as to what kinds of ammunition we are storing at some of those sites.

Signals Intelligence Stations?

Between Masset, Leitrim, Gander, and Alert I only see overflights and pictures of Leitrim; maybe with additional analysis of their flight plans I can determine if Masset and/or Gander were also photographed.  They did not fly all the way to Alert, nor do I expect they will, since it would take a long time to get there, and they might overshoot their treaty defined maximum distance. Plus, like Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, the Russians can "see" Alert from their side of the Arctic.

Some Republicans in the United States Congress, factions within the US State Department, and some senior members of the US Military want the American people, and NATO allies, to believe that the Russian Open Skies Treaty overflights are being abused by the Russians, used as an intelligence gathering apparatus, spying on civilian infrastructure without any military merit.  These forces in the government and military ultimately want the program shut down.  To those who would believe them, I say - Well of course they're gathering intelligence; that's the whole purpose. Intelligence on whether industrial areas are being militarized would signal an uptick in military hardware production.  Intelligence on rail and road networks to see if they are being used to transport large amounts of military gear.  Intelligence on uranium mining and processing facilities, to see if production might signal the fabrication elsewhere of nuclear weapons.  Intelligence on Canadian military ammunition depots, bases, and all sorts of military facilities would show a direct correlation to preparations for deployments.  These are the things that are shown to be getting photographed; we should expect it, and welcome it, because we do the same thing over Russia.


Let's take the railway as an example of civilian Infrastructure they are likely observing and taking pictures of.  Canadian rail is privately (civilian) owned, and stretches coast to coast.  It is used for everything; wheat from the prairies, bulk chemicals, oil from Alberta, cars from Southern Ontario, Aluminium from Quebec, freight from everywhere.... oh, and heavy military equipment.  While the Canadian rail system could be called civilian infrastructure, it certainly isn't something they'd want to skip when photographing Canada - that's how he armies of the world usually ship their gear!

Is this an example of the "infrastructure" the Americans promoting the new Red Scare want you to be afraid of the Russians photographing?  If you study history at all you'll notice almost anything civilian becomes a military asset during a war, or during the preparations for war.  Monitoring "infrastructure" is very much in-line with the spirit of the treaty, if you consider what preparing for war would look like.  Civilian factories can start pumping out green trucks and weapons.  Vehicles being moved around by rail could be getting deployed to harbours for trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific deployments.  Green trucks parked in parking lots could be waiting for supplies.  Air bases could be preparing planes for operations... anything goes.  Furthermore; how would you know if something was or wasn't out of the ordinary? You'd need a baseline; pictures "before" suspected preparations started, to compare with.  Nowhere in almost 400 pages of reports and flight plans did I see any mention by the Canadian Forces Arms Control Verification team that any of these flights by the Russians were out of character for an Open Skies overflight.  Maybe they missed that detail?  I think that would be unlikely.  The mission reports are extremely detailed; including the mention of walking tours in Ottawa on the Russians' day off, a tour of Kingston on a rain-day at Trenton, and how they very much appreciated the accommodations and food they were provided during their stay.  While the American military would like us to believe these are the Boogeymen, and increase defence spending for this grave threat, I see no indication of any suspicion or apprehension in any of these reports, written by the Canadian Forces, and distributed to our NATO partners, which would back that narrative up.

Use commercial satellite imagery, they said.  It's good enough, they said.

The American military would like the people of the world to believe that commercial satellite imagery would be good enough for the signatory nations who are part of the Open Skies Treaty to rely upon, and use it for national security verification purposes. Doing so would raise a major problem that strangely hasn't come up in the Congressional meetings so frequently quoted in the American media; tampering.  The Open Skies Treaty defines a framework of tamper-proof cameras and procedures for handling wet film that ensure no tampering by any nation can take place; a representative of the overflown country is even present while the wet film is processed.  The same cannot be done with commercial satellite imagery.  Considering the budget of world's intelligence agencies, not just the American ones, it is inconceivable that they would be unable to tamper with the digital imagery before, or after, they are downloaded to a satellite ground terminal.  You can also be assured that the American National Reconnaissance Office, who have spent untold Billions on spy satellites, will not be using that commercial imagery for anything at all.


What isn't spoken of very much is we do the exact same thing back at them; The United States, Canada, and other Western-aligned nations routinely fly over Russia and take pictures of the same types of facilities as they do to us.  Don't we all have the same objectives, and aren't we looking for the same things?  The Open Skies Treaty is as relevant today as when Ike proposed it originally, and former Republican President George HW Bush revived in 1989.  I propose that factions of the US Government and US Military are deliberately trying to mislead the American people, and those of the world, into believing the treaty is no longer of any use.  I don't believe their arguments hold up under scrutiny, but I have yet to see anyone ask questions which are critical of the positions of the Admirals and Generals who are trying to destroy the treaty.  Why is that?

June 25, 2016

How to get 20 tanks from Russian to Nicaragua when FedEx won't help.

T-72B1 at the Russian Arms Expo 2013
Photo Credit: Noam Eshel, Defense-Update
In May 2016 documents were released, or leaked, on Russia's State procurement agency's web site showing a deal with Nicaragua to sell 50 T-72B1 tanks to their military (ref).  More recently, Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon published the deal included provision for a SIGINT station to be co-located with a GLONASS satellite ground terminal (ref).  Shortly after, those claims were rebuffed by the Russian media (ref).  So who are you going to believe?

Also, where are the tanks now, and how do you get 20 tanks to Nicaragua from Russia anyway?

You could load them on a transport plane, but that's by far the most expensive way; just float them over on a boat!

Remember back in 2008, there was an arms embargo on South Sudan, and Ukraine was smuggling them tanks via Kenya on board the MV Faina, a 500ft cargo vessel, but the shipment was intercepted by those pesky Somali pirates and delayed for 5 months?  No?  Let me jog your memory.

The following video, according to the Kenyan Defense Department, has nothing to do with the smuggled tanks that were offloaded, and are not being transported to South Sudan.  This is just an ordinary military exercise, that happens to involve a lot of tanks, being shipped toward South Sudan... Seriously?

From this we know a 500ft Roll On Roll Off (RoRo) civilian cargo vessel can carry 33 tanks that weigh about 41 Tons each. As you see in the AP video, a RoRo allows vehicles to roll on, then roll off; no crane needed.  Otherwise, you'd need a 45 Ton crane in order to lift a 41 Ton tank off a cargo ship, and depending where you're offloading, the port may not have one.

In 2015 Iraq ordered some modernized T-72s as well, to replace their American M1A1 Abrams tanks.  To an American this might be viewed as a downgrade, but the Abrams is the Cadillac of battle tanks, and costs 1000% more than the T-72, which has been greatly improve over the years, and is arguably only marginally less capable than than Abrams.

Here are pictures of the Iraqi T-72s on board, and being lifted out of an unnamed general cargo vessel (ref) in the Umm Qasr Port, Iraq's only deep water port,  and I believe the only port capable of off-loading these tanks - in 2015.

Using the information about those two previous tank shipments, I went looking for a civilian cargo ship, either a container ship or a RoRo, that was in transit, or had arrived in Nicaragua, from Russia, and had likely departed in late April or early May.

But what port in Nicaragua would it be going to?

As it turns out, the port of Corinto, which I was familiar with from last years visit by the Fotiy Krylov and the  Marshal Gelovani, is the largest and busiest port in Nicaragua, and the only one in Nicaragua with a 45 Ton crane capable of dead-lifting T-72 tanks (ref and ref), unless the ship used is a RoRo.

So we know how big a ship we need, what sort of a ship could do the job, and where it's likely to go.

How do you find the ship?  AIS, my friend.  Looking on MarineTraffic.com for arrivals and departures from Corinto, I found mention of a general cargo ship called the AMGU, a freshly (red) painted Belize flagged general cargo vessel reportedly owned in 2015 by INDERTON LIMITED S.A., and managed by ACREX CORP., Ltd; both listed with the same address in Vladivostok.  Sounds legit right?  Not just a shell company created to operate ships at arms length from the military or government, Air America-style?

m/v AMGU
m/v AMGU in Vladivostok, 2015
Sergei Skriabin / MarineTraffic.com

Vessel Identification
Flag : Belize
IMO: 9113226
MMSI: 312779000
Callsign: V3NS9

Technical Data
Vessel type: General Cargo
Gross tonnage: 4,015 tons
Summer DWT: 5,910 tons
Engine type: MAN B&W
Power: 3310 kw (6620.0000 hp)

Source: http://maritimetelegraph.com/amgu-imo-9113226.html

The m/v AMGU left Vladivostok on May 5th 2016 at 17:04UTC, and arrived at Corinto Nicaragua on June 5th.  She left again on June 9th at 04:39LT, reportedly heading for Vladivostok, after being in port for just over three days.

One more thing that makes me suspect these facts all line up; the Russians established a training base (Mariscal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhúkov) at the Nicaraguan mechanized Infantry Brigade (BIM) in Managua in 2013, which is only a few hours from the Port of Corinto; where the tanks are expected to be initially deployed to.  I think it all lines up, so my money is on the tanks being transported by the m/v AMGU.

(I'm unclear if there are multiple ships named "AMGU"; here is another)

Here is more video; including the modernized T-72 in action at the Russian Arms Expo in 2013.

June 18, 2016

Cutting through misinformation about the Open Skies Treaty

There's a little-known ( in my circles anyway ) international treaty called The Treaty on Open Skies that the United States, Canada, Russia and 31 other countries are signatory to, which allows any of the member states to give a short notice that they will fly an approved plane with approved cameras of limited resolution over another signatory country, and take pictures of areas where they are suspicious might be hiding something of military value; or to establish a baseline that can be monitored in future flights. To ensure no funny business occurs, qualified members of the observed nation are on board the plane too, to verify the pre-approved cameras and sensors are aimed at what they should be, they are flying at the right height, and generally nothing fishy is going on. When the air crew of the observer plane arrives in the country which will be observed, they bring with them a "flight plan" and "mission plan" (these are the proper terms defined in the treaty). They outline what they plan to be taking pictures of and what route they are proposing. There are some basic logistical constraints; like where airports are where they can refuel, and the maximum distance allowed, but generally the requesting nation can ask to fly anywhere in the country. Once the route is tabled, members of both countries negotiate. When both parties come to an agreement on the route, the flight takes place.  Open Skies Treaty missions happen routinely over all signatory countries, but many do not publicly talk about them.  It is actually in the US Air Force Open Skies operations manual (Section to not actively disclose information to the public about Open Skies flights, not perform any public outreach, and only answer questions when asked.

The Open Skies idea was originally floated by the US President Dwight Eisenhower as a way to defuse tensions with the Soviet Union by levelling the playing field, to ensure everyone had similar imagery to base their strategic decisions on, and make sure calm heads prevailed.  All countries would fly joint missions over each other's air space to reassure themselves that the other isn't doing anything that would threaten their national security and safety.  This is ultimately the spirit of the agreement; stop by with short notice, check that everything is in order, we're not preparing to bomb or invade you, and we'll do the same.

The Open Skies Treaty was revived by George HW Bush in 1989 and signed by the initial signatory nations in 1992.  In 2002 the treaty came into force, and nations began overflights.

In the past few years the narrative being projected out of enclaves of the DoD and State Department has changed.

During the February 24th 2016 meeting of the  U.S. House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Strategic Forces Posture testimony was provided by Admiral Cecil Haney, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command.  The rhetoric from some factions in Washington is no longer favourable to the Open Skies Treaty, and I am quite certain it isn't for the reasons they claim.

At 22:00 the term "Electro Optical Sensor" is spoken of by the Chairman seemingly like it is a super-weapon.  It's a fancy word for digital camera.  Nothing more.  Admiral Haney mentions that they will be reviewing the pros and cons of the new electro-optical sensor the Russians want to use in the Open Skies overflights of the United States... but neglects to mention the same camera is being used over Europe currently.
At 55:08  Admiral Haney Suggests that Russia has no overhead capability to photograph the United States without the Open Skies Treaty flights... really?

(U) February 24th 2016 meeting of the  U.S. House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Strategic Forces Posture

On March 2nd 2016 the House Armed Services Committee hearing on World Wide Threats was interviewing Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) where he said

"I've got to keep this really simple for me. This Open Skies discussion is think Polaroids in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s versus 1080 high definition capability as we go to a digital environment. The things you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things that you can do with post-processing using digital techniques, allows Russia in my opinion to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities. So my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage. And yes, we both can use the same techniques but I have a great concern about the quality of the imagery, the quantity of the imagery, the ability to do post-processing of digital imagery, and what that allows them to see as foundational intelligence that I would love to have personally and I would love to deny the Russians having that capability."

At 48:00 Congressman Turner, Ohio (R) essentially states that the US doesn't need the treaty because their space assets have extraordinary resolution.  That's the most truth I've heard yet.

The objections of the Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart are disingenuous, at best, considering the capabilities of the United States' space-borne assets and their own Open Skies flights over Russia.  The US Military can see anything, anywhere, in Russia, in relatively short order, overhead, or at an angle, without warning, and without the Open Skies Treaty, using satellites.

(U) March 2nd 2016  House Armed Services Committee hearing on World Wide Threats

In a beautiful bit of committee theatre, Mr. Brian P. Mckeon, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, DoD is grilled by a Republican congressman suggesting that the Americans are being taken advantage of by the Russians who are overflying the Unites States with impunity and taking pictures that will tip the scales of power. What isn't evident is both Mr. Mckeon and the congressman's previous statements rabidly oppose the Open Skies Treaty. This is hardly a bipartisan or objective discussion.

From the April 14 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Missile Defeat Posture and Strategy of the United States (relating to budget) at 40:44 Mr. Brian P. Mckeon, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Department of Defense starts to be questioned regarding Open Skies, and at ~42:00 he states clearly that the Open Skies will be adhered to but nothing further provided; seemingly regardless of the spirit of the agreement.

(U) April 14th 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Missile Defeat Posture and Strategy of the United States 

Let me state this more succinctly:
  • The American military can see every inch of Russia (and the world) with its space-borne electro-optical sensors, multi-spectral, and synthetic aperture radar, mounted on secret spy satellites, which can and do monitor anywhere, all the time, without any notification to Russia or warning to "cover up" deployed assets.
  • The American military does not want the Russian military to be able to overfly the United States with a treaty-limited-resolution electro-optical sensor, at predefined heights, on a predefined route, with prior notification, with a camera that is already being used to fly over the European Union (without objection from any EU government, BTW).
  • The American military clearly feels it has out-grown the Open Skies Treaty; it states openly it doesn't get as much intel from its own flights over Russia, as Russia gets from overflying the United States.
  • Imagery collected from Open Skies Treaty cameras must be, and is, shared across all 32 nations who are signatory to the treaty.  Imagery collected by US Spy Satellites is not shared with anyone, unless it is redacted and absolutely necessary.  If Russia spots something odd during an Open Skies flight it can share it with 32 countries; the picture cannot be refuted due to the protocols involved in taking the picture and developing the wet film; it's bulletproof.
  • The American National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has spent untold BILLIONS of dollars deploying spy satellites with bleeding edge sensors.  For the Russians to fly over in an old converted cosmonaut trainer plane, and collect good-enough imagery that they want under the treaty's defined framework, has got to sting.
It's unfortunate the American people are largely being briefed by half-cocked, partisan, ill informed, poorly researched, media organisations who don't take the time to think about what they are broadcasting or writing.  There's a lot more to the story than what is being covered by the mainstream media, and I think part of that is because the United States Government has ensured that since 2002 the public has been kept in the dark about this treaty, so nobody understands its nuances.

Here are some recent articles covering the same topic, do you think they're well researched?



I'm not critical of all articles published about Open Skies;  Leore Ben-Chorin and Steven Pifer of The Brookings Institute wrote a very well thought out piece on Open Skies earlier this year.


Here is an interview with Diana Marvin, of the State Department, on the 20th Anniversary of the Open Skies Treaty  (Published on Mar 23, 2012)

Here's Hillary Clinton in 2010 stating clearly that the way forward is to switch from using wet film to digital electro-optical sensors.  The Russians have gotten there first, and have been using digital sensors over film in Europe overflights for years.

June 12, 2016

Revisiting the 2014 Nikolay Chiker (Николай Чикер) Trans-Atlantic Tour

Nikolay Chiker - ShipSpotting.com - Cees Bustraan
Photo Taken 2014.03.03
Remember back in the spring of 2014 there was a Russian "Spy Ship", a Russian Navy AGI, the Viktor Leonov (Виктор Леонов), floating off the East coast of the USA for weeks, and a Russian Navy SAR/Salvage/Tug, Nikolay Chiker (Николай Чикер), in the same area, at the same time, zig-zagging around?

If you don't, here is Bill Gertz's article about the Russian Spy Ship and Tug.  Here are my previous posts on the topic too.

I wanted to fill in the blanks on the map I had made previously with the *complete* trip the Nikolay Chiker made using historical data from a commercial AIS provider... but it would cost hundreds of Euros to get what I was looking for, so I decided against it.  Without a corporate financier, it seemed a little extravagant.  So, the map remained cobbled together with whatever free copy & pasted coordinates I could find at the time, and Tom's coordinates that he was tweeting from the moorse code they were sending back home over HF.  It did the job, at the time.

Open Source Map of the Nikolay Chiker's Movements in 2014

Seven months ago I realised the Terrestrial Automatic Identification System (AIS-T) receivers along the US Coast are operated by the US Coast Guard, so I asked the Coast Guard for a copy of their historical AIS data of the Nikolay Chiker's positions (IMO: 8613334 / MMSI: 273531629) from March 01, 2014 to May 13, 2014; when I knew it should have been near American waters in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and more importantly, within range of US Coast Guard AIS-T receivers.  I submitted my FOIA request in November of 2015, and received the information in June of 2016.  I guess I can't complain regarding how long it took; I didn't pay anything for the information, and I'm even a foreign national!  I'd like to give a big thank you to the folks at the US Coast Guard for providing the information, it was very much appreciated.

New Map of Nikolay Chiker locations, as logged by the US Coast Guard via AIS-T

AIS Data Courtesy of the United States Coast Guard

What are we looking at here?

The AIS transponder on the Nikolay Chiker beacons to anyone who's listening.  When she is close enough to shore, US Coast Guard (AIS-T) shore-based receivers pick up her location, speed, heading, etc... Click on the red dots to get the information relayed via AIS at that location.  Some dotted lines fade out as the ship edges out of range of the shore-based receivers.  The ship can also turn off it's transponder at any time, but I'm unclear if regulations or conventions restrict when they can do so.  Please note, there are no timestamps on the locations; I didn't figure out how to preserve the timestamps from the US Coast Guard FOIA I filed.

What don't we see?

We don't see any satellite, aerial, sub-surface, Coast Guard ship-based, gypsy-with-a-crystal-ball, sonar, or radar data.  I mention this because there are a lot of gaps in the data, and I don't want to give the impression the ship was hiding at all - this is not a comprehensive view of what the US Coast Guard and US Navy can "see" and are situationally aware of.  This is just one unclassified public solution used in maritime shipping globally, where unclassified data meets classified operational information.  Also worth mentioning is that all of this information is served up by an AIS beacon, which the Captain of the Nikolay Chiker knows is broadcasting for all to see.  Keep in mind we don't see the position of the Viktor Leonov AGI, but we know from eyewitness accounts that the Viktor Leonov and Nikolay Chiker were very near each other on March 21st 2014, just outside US waters, right near Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay is home to two Ohio-Class SSGNs, six Ohio-Class SSBN submarines, has a stockpile of 107 Nuclear SLBMs, and I suspect even more warheads.  These submarines were initially commissioned between 1979 and 1994, and are living reminders of the Cold War.  They are still in use, have been extensively refitted, and their mission often consists of lurking in the depths of the ocean, trying to stay undetected by the Russian Navy.

Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay


Clicking through the data, you'll see the Nikolay Chiker laid anchor at least a couple of times off the coast near King's Bay, then Daytona Beach seemed to attract her attention, and eventually Cape Canaveral where there was a SpaceX launch taking place.  If any ship was just "passing through" it would be unusual for it to lay anchor at those locations, I'd think.  No commercial shipping would normally stop in those locations, none of them are particularly attractive to stop and stay for the night (or day).  We are, unfortunately, only seeing half of the scenario - the Viktor Leonov AGI was also off the coast, and if it was leading the way, the Nikolay Chiker could have just been killing time.  A Naval AGI asset's whole purpose is to collect ELINT / COMINT (SIGINT) on a target.  What targets were they listening to?  Civilian comms infrastructure or military comms?  Were they just getting samples of data from each location along the coast, or listening for one thing the whole way?


Please notice what speed the Nikolay Chiker was travelling while examining her positions on the map.  I speculate when she is travelling alone she travels at full speed; 12-14Kts.  When she is with the Viktor Leonov, I believe she limits her speed to the same as the Leonov; a slower ~8-9Kts.  Further, I can't explain why she would trawl at 3-6Kts, unless she was towing a sensor array, or something similar.  Unfortunately I have a limited data set, but hopefully over time I can compile more examples of Russian Navy Auxiliary ships doing strange loitering off the East Coast of North America, and draw further conclusions.


I can't draw any conclusions from this data, but I can throw out more speculation.
  • It's likely the Nikolay Chiker's mission was multi-faceted.  I would be surprised if they crossed the Atlantic from the Mediterranean solely in case the Viktor Leonov had engine trouble and needed a tow.  While that is part of Russian Navy doctrine (always travel with a tug), I wouldn't think having a tug deployed and travelling in circles while they waited for an emergency wouldn be an efficient use of resources.
  • The Nikolay Chiker has a moon pool (to allow diving from the inside/bottom of the ship) and decompression chambers that allow for deep water operations.  This is a "special set of skills" that not many ships have, and would lend itself to covert underwater operations.
  • I suspect the Nikolay Chiker was surveying the ocean's bottom for ASW sensors and undocumented military underwater cables, but I have no way to prove that without knowing where the sensors and cables are - and their locations are... you guessed it.. Secret.
  • The Nikolay Chiker has several extremely strong winches and cranes, to facilitate both towing and Search and Rescue operations.  Those same features could be used to move/lift/drag objects on the ocean's floor, or lift them to the surface. 
  • On the old map you'll notice that several long straight lines were sailed, back and forth, in the Caribbean.  These are similar to the back and forth that was done off the coast of Georgia.  But what were they doing?  I remember someone called it "loitering", but it seems very purposeful to me, not just random paths.
  • While I try to discern what military purpose these paths on the map might allude to, I also realize that there may be human factors, that are less military or professional, that could be at play.  Maybe the Captain of the Nikolay Chiker was following some wales, so he could take pictures of them?  Maybe the Nikolay Chiker and Viktor Leonov met at sea not for replenishment operations, but to have a long promised poker game?  Maybe the Nikolay Chiker made a bee line from the Caribbean to King's Bay at a high rate of speed to get out of the way of an approaching storm?  By only seeing the AIS data from the Nikolay Chiker, without context, and without the path of the Viktor Leonov, I do admit any conclusions I draw will be wild speculation.
So, if you have any ideas what they were up to, and have any additional information, please let me know.

Parade Standard of the U.S. Coast Guard


  • I'd like to thank the United States Coast Guard, who don't get sufficient credit in this age of international military interventions.  They do great work, at home.
  • I'd like to thank Andre van den Berg for his help; Andre is an expert in the field of AIS, a consultant, and the CEO of Maritec.

CNN, February ~27th, 2014