June 09, 2017

Tracking US Navy nuclear submarines using publicly available information

US Navy official photo (exact credit unknown)
US Navy official web page (Screenshot 2017-06-09)
The purpose of the secrecy around the locations of US Navy SSNs, SSGNs, and SSBNs is operational security; OPSEC.  You don't want to tell an adversary where the submarines are, so you don't jeopardize their mission.  The safety of those submarines, and their submariners, is of paramount importance to everyone. My objective in highlighting the following is to raise awareness that the supposed secrecy surrounding those deployments does not to hide their area of deployment from the Chinese Navy, North Korean Navy, or the Russian Navy; it hides or obfuscates their deployments from the collective knowledge of the American people, who happen to pay for the US Navy though their taxes. The technique I'm going to show you suggests that they are not hiding, and know it. I speculate they are not spoken openly about for political, rather than OPSEC, reasons.

The US Navy themselves post to official US Navy web pages and social media about US Navy submarine deployments; the screenshots embedded are proof of that, if you hadn't noticed these posts before or are not following the US Navy on social media.  Unlike the leaks to Fox from Pentagon sources and other news organisations around the positions of the Russian Navy AGI Viktor Leonov, which were derived from US Navy intelligence sources and clearly Secret, if not Top Secret, these are public displays of the US Navy's ability to project power to the other side of the globe. The transponders being on, and the press releases, are all shows of force.

US Navy official Twitter account (posted 2017-06-07)
I do not want anyone to think the transponders on these subs are being used naively or in any incompetent fashion by the US Navy, or they're "forgetting" that they turn them on and off; all of this is extremely well known by the commanding officer of the submarine and the rest of the crew. The decisions related to who to tell or not tell in the public sphere are solely made at the Pentagon.  Submarines are stealthy by nature, and have the capability to remain hidden for an extended trip into hostile waters; that these submarines are turning up on AIS indicates the US Navy feels it doesn't have to hide these particular submarines at these specific times.  You'll notice very few SSBN "Boomers" on the list, since they do not show up very often at all; their areas of operation are more secret than the attack submarines. I presume this difference is directly related to their vital role in the nuclear triad; they must stay hidden.  This difference again demonstrates it isn't that the US Navy can't keep a secret, SSN deployments just aren't universally as secret as they may seem to be.

locations where US Navy submarines have last beaconed using AIS-T
(screenshot 2017-06-09 MarineTraffic.com)
Much like the NORAD interceptions of Russian Long Range Aviation flights, or Russian Open Skies Treaty overflights of the United States, the military is under no obligation to share information about these operations with the public, and by policy doesn't.  NORAD does not announce when they intercept Russian Long Range Aviation flights; the only time you hear them on the news is when information is leaked by someone (read: officials at the Pentagon). The USAF doesn't announce when Russian Open Skies Treaty overflights are going on.  Those flights are not secret, as evidenced by their transponders being on, and as they are announced in advance in the Russian news media.  Again, the silence is political.

The following spreadsheet should help you match the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI), which the submarine transponder identifies itself as, with the true name of the submarine. They usually identify themselves with a generic name like "submarine" or "us submarine"; with a little data aggregation we can fix that.  Special thanks to @lala_zet (どうもありがとうございました) who posted their MMSI / name correlations as well. The MMSI-name correlations I didn't have, I copied, and the ones I had previously, I was able to confirm.

Some of the below, but not all, can be tracked on MarineTraffic.com, if this interests you.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent read. Shows the utility of OSINT for gathering information. So much is out there. The CIA once frowned upon the use of OSINT. No more.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you sir! Indeed, it's mind boggling what's out there from unofficial sources :)

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