April 23, 2014

Nikolay Chiker RAL-48 Feb-Mar 2014

Nikolay Chiker RAL-48 | March 28th, port of Port of Willemstad, Curacao
Photo taken by C. Bustraan - Thanks to scheepvaartnieuws
While looking for information on the Viktor Leonov SSV-175, and trying various searches to figure out where it went after it's "surprise" visit to Havana Cuba, I stumbled across the Nikolay Chiker RAL-48 (ex-Soviet SB-131 Nikolay Chiker); a Cold War-era super-tug, which was also reportedly hanging out near Florida.  Isn't that odd?  A super tug, that's now a rescue tug... a Russian Navy support ship...  Why would Russia, float a support ship, from a deployment in the Medeteranian escorting an aircraft carrier task group, all the way to Florida? 
Spring Break?  No, they missed it. 
Mardi Gras?  They missed that too.

Well, if you dig, not too deep, and pull a little Tom Clancy out of your imagination, you can guess that a support ship should be "around" other ships if it's not just going from A to B. 
It seems it was seen recently spotted with the Viktor Leonov SSV-175.
Interesting, but... The Viktor Leonov SSV-175 is massive, fully stocked since it's trip to Cuba, and has no need for a tug.  As far as I can tell the Nikolay Chiker RAL-48 isn't a resupply ship, so there's no need that I can see for them to meet up.  According to quick Googling, the Nikolay Chiker RAL-48 can stay at sea up to 50 days at a time.

Well where is it from?  What's its home port?  Murmansk, Russia... The home of the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet.  Okay, more Googling... That's where 50% of the Russian Navy's submarines are located...  and the Viktor Leonov SSV-175 too. Remember the ill-fated Kursk?  The Nikolay Chiker RAL-48 was there early in the rescue operation.  Why?  Because it's a rescue ship.  A rescue ship from the Northern Fleet where the Kursk was from.  I should mention the submarines of the Northern Fleet are an all star cast out of a Tom Clancy novel; Akula-class attack submarines, Delta-class ballistic missile submarines, Borei-class ballistic missile submarines, and some old-school Diesel-Electric Kilo-class submarines.  However, when things go wrong, they need a rescue tug on hand... like the Nikolay Chiker RAL-48.

So... where was the Nikolay Chiker hanging out?  Off the East coast of the United States... coincidentally(?) right near the United States Navy base at Kings Bay... You know Kings Bay right?  That's also known as Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay - where the US 2nd Fleet operates their state of the art sub base.  Oddly, it's also where this was happening while Viktor Leonov SSV-175 lurked off the coast, with it's transponder off.  Remember, it's a spy ship eh.  Why camp off the coast during a media event..?

Right, back to the Nikolay Chiker... so we know it's from a sub-heavy Russian Navy base... it's sailing in circles apparently not doing anything off the East coast of the United States, sending morse code messages back to mother Russia every once and a while about the weather, ocean temperature and salinity... right near several American naval bases... and it is known to hang out near Russian submarine operations.  Isn't it not a stretch to surmise there are Russian submarines operating off the East coast of the US, not-so-secretly, since they have a tug top-side following them around?  Maybe like they did in 2012? ...or 2010? ...or 2009?

Russian attack submarine slipped past US Navy and patrolled Gulf of Mexico for weeks undetected
Published: 15:54 GMT, 15 August 2012 
Updated: 20:10 GMT, 15 August 2012 
A Russian attack submarine slipped into the Gulf of Mexico undetected and sailed through US strategic waters for weeks without the US Navy noticing, it was reported on Wednesday.
The US military didn't even know about the presence of the Akula-class nuclear submarine earlier this year until after it had already left the gulf, still carrying a payload of long-range missiles.
The revelation is part of a startling trend of Russian incursions as the former Cold War foe ramps up its military might under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin.
The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news site, quoted anonymous military sources as saying the sub was in the gulf for a month.
The exact time frame of the vessel's presence was not clear.
'The Akula was built for one reason and one reason only: To kill US Navy ballistic missile submarines and their crews,' a source told the Beacon.
The US Navy's Atlantic submarine fleet is based at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay on the coast of southern Georgia.
Akula-class subs are designed to run fast and quietly. They are equipped with torpedoes, mines and cruise missiles.
Russia has a fleet of nine of the vessels, which are 360 feet long and are powered by a pressurized water nuclear reactor.

The last time a Russian sub was spotted this close to the US was in 2009, when a pair of the subs were discovered patrolling off the east coast.
'Sending a nuclear-propelled submarine into the Gulf of Mexico-Caribbean region is another manifestation of President Putin demonstrating that Russia is still a player on the world’s political-military stage,' Norman Polmar, a naval intelligence consultant, told the Beacon.
In June, a fleet of Russian strategic nuclear bombers conducted a training operation in the Arctic without notifying the American military.
Then, in July, a Bear H strategic bomber, capable of carrying cruise missiles, entered American airspace near California. US Air Force fighter jets had to be scrambled to meet the plane and turn it back.
'It’s a confounding situation arising from a lack of leadership in our dealings with Moscow. While the president is touting our supposed "reset" in relations with Russia, Vladimir Putin is actively working against American interests, whether it’s in Syria or here in our own backyard,' Republican Sen John Cornyn told the Beacon.

On Saturday April 19th 2014 the Nikolay Chiker arrived outside the port of Havana, Cuba and circled until Sunday April 20th when it went into the port.  It stayed from Sunday April 20th till Tuesday April 22nd when it left port and headed West.  So, where is it going?

I'm not the only one who's curious about fleet ocean going tugs that can support sub or carriers with intentions that are less than obvious; here's an excellent post including some of the 2013 Nikolay Chiker movements:

and another engaging in more speculation about the link between the tug and SpaceX in 2014

Here is Rachel Maddow's show that features the Nikolay Chiker quite prominently.  Originally aired April 17th 2014, I think

Tom Hill has been reporting on Twitter the locations of the morse messages they have been sending out (Thank you Tom! @te3ej) and I've been gathering the AIS data from public web sites to fill in the blanks.  I've also been following Russian Navy Blog (@russiannavyblog) and Guido Olimpio (‏@guidoolimpio) for background and tips; they've been very helpful.  Here is what I've been able to piece together:

(this is best viewed full screen FYI)


Other References:

Twitter "chiker" search

Searching for Nikolay Chiker or RAL-48 could be problematic due to spelling issues, so I normally just search using "chiker".  Yes, there are unrelated tweets about other things... but not that many.