December 21, 2019

An open letter to NORAD and USNORTHCOM - Let's talk about Russian Navy operations

Russian Navy Frigate Admiral Gorshkov (credit:USNORTHCOM)
Dear North American Aerospace Defense Command & U.S. Northern Command

Do you have a few minutes?  I hope so.

I'm a long time fan of your work, defending North America and all, but it looks like information operations from unknown parties are taking place in NORAD's area of responsibility, and seem for the most part unchallenged. I don't want you to take that the wrong way, and maybe tell the public less, in an effort to reduce the attack surface, and reduce any public discussion about Russian Navy operations; I'd like you to lean into it, and I think you're already half way there.

Let me try to explain what I mean with context.

Back in the summer a few of Russian Navy ships stopped in Cuba, including the new Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov, on their way around the world, and U.S. Northern Command told the public of that event; I was thrilled. No really, I was! Being so open and transparent with the public is not something I see militaries do frequently. Russian ships do still stop in Cuba occasionally, and it reminds me (and others) of old Soviet times when they had a significant military force there. While the Russians still do have a presence, somewhat, it's a shadow of those times. Their submarine base, as well as others, lie mostly as reinforced-concrete ruins.


Unfortunately, there was no follow-up saying the Russian ship left, which left an opportunity that was exploited by detractors who published rumours to social media that they were still there, days / months after they left. Being aware of a Russian warship stopping in for supplies in Havana is in the public interest, it is news, and it should be mentioned; thank you for that. However, the follow-up that they left, especially because they left within a couple of days, is equally important. I believe it is important to give the correct impression that they were passing through, not repositioning there. Not mentioning the departure gives the public the impression Russia forward deployed a frigate to be stationed in Havana, which isn't true. The Russian Navy was just passing through. In the future, I hope NORAD will be more clear about that. The initial transparency, telling the public, was fantastic, but it needed follow-through. I did notice the US Navy was tailing them as they departed the Americas; NORAD was aware of exactly where they were every moment of the day.

Just last week someone leaked to The Washington Times and CNN that the Russians were visiting in international waters off the US East Coast for their almost-yearly visit to conduct signals intelligence; NORAD could have broke that news publicly when they arrived to the region, without the leak and without help from the press. The Russian Navy AGI Viktor Leonov is well known to sail over from Murmansk every year or two. Their mission mostly out of public view because they do not use an AIS transponder, which would show where they are to ship tracking enthusiasts like myself. Without a transponder, I rely on other more creative means, including watching for others who might stumble across their location - but that's hard to come by, since they're over 12 NM away from shore, and likely only noticed by a few planes or other ships.

The earliest reference I've ever found for the Viktor Leonov coming near the US East Coast was 1998, but of course I can't find that reference anymore; I thought it was off one of the wire services published years ago. I can still find a very slim reference to their visit in 2012 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/02/27/russia-cuba-warship/5876249/), as well as more detail in 2014 (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russian-spy-ship-docks-havana-n40041), 2015 (https://abcnews.go.com/International/russian-spy-ships-arrival-cuba-raises-eyebrows/story?id=28377558), 2017 (https://abcnews.go.com/International/russian-spy-ship-now-off-virginia-coast/story?id=45547194), and 2018 (https://freebeacon.com/national-security/pentagon-shadowing-russian-spy-ship/). These are facts, matters of history, that are being written by the press, that future generations will refer to. Telling the public what's going on is probably listed somewhere lower on the list of NORAD's daily activities than protecting the public. In today's age of information warfare, telling the public the truth, up front, denies NORAD's adversaries the capability of exploiting a lack of information to propagate disinformation. Publishing information from an official source has the effect of acting as an area of denial weapon in an information war; it denies the adversary the capability of waging a whisper campaign, spreading disinformation, since public information allows anyone to fact-check, and refute their statements, if the information is from a trusted source. I can't think of a more trustworthy source for Canadians and Americans than a NORAD press release. NORAD has the power to suffocate any information operations trying to misinform the public about Russian Navy operations in international waters, if they take the initiative to do so. Information is an area of denial weapon, and while NORAD knows that at some level, it is not taking advantage of the high ground it holds. By not being forthright with information, NORAD is ceding the information battlespace to adversaries who are exploiting the lack of information for agitprop.

I've seen (false!) reports alleging that Russian Navy ships (plural!) have been off the coast since Trump was elected, that they dock at Mar-a-Lago, that they drop anchor outside Mar-a-Lago, that they were snooping on Wifi (of course) at Mar-a-Lago, that they were planting nuclear mines along the seaboard, that they communicate with President Trump on his phone, that they tap his phone from offshore, and of course that they're there to pick up President Trump as he flees from his life of crime. Does anyone take these rumours seriously? Well, the problem is, there's so much disinformation it's hard for the American and Canadian public to keep it all straight. Snopes articles about each of these varieties of lies are not what we need; the public needs authoritative information from one of their most trusted guardian, NORAD.



I have three humble requests.
  • Please continue to tell the public when Russian Navy operations are taking place in NORAD's area of interest.
  • Please break the news yourself, so the public can recognize the excellent work NORAD is doing, and know it's from a trusted source.
  • Please ask the US Navy to consider leaving their transponders on, as USS Jason Dunham did in the summer, but USS Mahan did not while tailing Viktor Leonov after December 14th. If they can look out their window and see their escort, turning off AIS isn't going to improve OPSEC.
I simply don't believe there's any reason for the public to rely on rumours spread by leaks and malicious actors with their own agendas; you know where "they" are, and "they" know you know where they are. Leaving the news of their arrival and departure up to the rumour mill only enables disinformation. Please continue to tell the public about their comings, but also their goings, so the public doesn't get the impression there is a traffic jam off the coast off Mar-a-Lago. 😉

Thank you, and Happy Holidays.

Steffan Watkins
Ottawa, Canada


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