April 20, 2019

The HMCS Toronto had an identity crisis while deployed with NATO SNMG2 in the Black Sea

There are some things that happen in world military affairs that only I get upset about, and this is probably one of those things.

According to their AIS transponder, HMCS Toronto departed 2019-01-21 ~11:45Z from CFB Halifax for a six month tour with NATO Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (#SNMG2), and unlike previous Royal Canadian Navy-NATO deployments (like HMCS St Johns), HMCS Toronto has been operating with their AIS transponder off the whole time, for months.. until they entered the Black Sea and seem to have started broadcasting the MMSI of the HMCS Charlottetown. In some form or fashion, whatever had been entered manually into the transponder was not as it should be - but I don't know how it happened. From my seat here in Ottawa, one of my windows to the deployed maritime world is MarineTraffic.com, which has a worldwide network of AIS receivers. Along the way, in the Black Sea (and now in the Med), HMCS Toronto has been near many of those receivers, and I was able to put them on a map to illustrate where they were. Each place where they were broadcasting their location using AIS was being heard by not just the MarineTraffic.com receivers when they were close to shore, by design they were being "heard" by any ship, including Russian Navy SIGINT vessels in the area, without going through MarineTraffic.com. I mention this to make sure you have at the forefront of your mind that the HMCS Toronto itself is broadcasting their precise location, over marine VHF, and through the miracle of technology, are transmitting that location to everyone around the world; it isn't just Russian AGIs that know where the HMCS Toronto is - and that's not a problem or cause for concern!

The commander of SNMG2, Commodore Boudewijn Boots of the Royal Netherlands Navy, engages with the public over social media, bringing pictures from the bridge to Twitter, letting you know where they are regularly; so I have absolutely no doubt the location of the ships is in no way a "secret", and revealing the location of HMCS Toronto is in no way compromising their security - they are broadcasting their location themselves, but are showing up on MarineTraffic.com as using the identification number (MMSI) of the HMCS Charottetown.

Are they trying to impersonate HMCS Charlottetown? What happened?

There are many Twitter accounts that are not operated by individuals, and are actually detractors put there to hijack the conversation and mislead the public; that said, I haven't given up on the platform yet, even though its extremely difficult to tell the difference between outraged soccer moms and paid disinformation operatives conducting their affairs in bad faith.

One inventive answer is that it was a prank or otherwise inside joke among the comms operators on the HMCS Toronto referencing when HMCS Charlottetown was performing exercises near Florida and labelled itself a "Pleasure Craft" (rather than a warship) over it's AIS transponder.
I'm not convinced that's the case.

I always appreciate messages from people who may know something but can't tell me anything because I don't have a need to know; "There are things at play here that are beyond the letter of the book." Okay, that's almost Yoda-worthy.

We also have at least two organisations' standard operating procedures in competition with each other, along with the personal views of the commanding officier (Cdr Martin Fluet), the commander of SNMG2, NATO itself, and the Royal Canadian Navy. Something changed, and I don't know who gave what orders to whom.

I was not paying any attention to HMCS Toronto's movements, because after they left Halifax and turned off their transponder, I didn't expect to see them for six months. When they departed the Black Sea, and I noticed they were using the MMSI assigned to the HMCS Charlottetown, I was quite surprised. You'll remember they were the ones who lost power / caught fire / broke down off the coast of Scotland and we were able to track them as they were limping around. Maybe they decided that was too transparent, and have gone in the other direction? The problem with that mentality is the underlying reason to turn off their transponder; to avoid public scrutiny, not t avoid the Russian Navy - who I'll guess are the primary adversary when conducting European war games. The Russians have their own national technical means to monitor and track NATO ships; and AIS, used by commercial ships the world over to avoid collisions, is not their primary method to detect or monitor #NATO ships. Does it help? Sure, everything helps, I'll give you that. If the Russians think the USS Ross is at a specific location, and they can "hear" USS Ross broadcasting its information from that same location, it does act as a confirmation, but if there's ever a shooting war, the first thing all the NATO ships would do is turn off their transponder - not just change their name, or pick a different MMSI.

Changing the ship's MMSI doesn't hide the location of the ship from anyone; why do it?

That is what I was losing my mind over.

It is ultimately the commander of the HMCS Toronto who is responsible for the safety of his crew and his ship. The commander's choices are guided by directives from his superiors.
  • What advice was provided to him from NATO? or the Royal Canadian Navy? I don't know.
  • Was there a new directive or was the SOP changed? I have no way of telling, 
  • Did Commodore Boudewijn Boots and Cdr Martin Fluet, actually change nothing, but someone made a typo when entering the transponder number in the system? Maybe. The MMSI for HMCS Toronto and HMCS Charlottetown are only one number off.

My frustration is fundamentally that it is unrealistic to think the Russian Navy, who were following SNMG2 the whole time, mistook HMCS Toronto for HMCS Charlottetown. Nobody in the world was fooled. There was absolutely no improvement made to the security of the ship, or the mission, as far as I can tell.

  • If it was an act of obfuscation or deception it was completely useless and didn't warrant doing.
  • If this was done on purpose, in order to deceive, what does that say about the Royal Canadian Navy's level of maritime domain awareness? Did they think it would change something?
    That's what greatly concerns me.
  • If this was a typo, a major system on the ship shouldn't have typos, and at the time they left Halifax they were using the right transponder number, meaning they changed it along the way. That's disturbing.

I would love to discover that this was all a ruse by the Royal Canadian Navy, and this was a repainted HMCS Charlottetown that actually transited to the Black Sea because the HMCS Toronto had much more extensive damage than had been previously reported; but I have no evidence to support that, I just made it up.

Derrick cracked me up with this, and it's at least partially true. The Royal Canadian Navy, and by extension NATO, and the American DoD, I believe, need a lot of help in understanding what is or isn't effective in hiding their movements. I follow the ships I do to remind the public and journalists that we (the people) can and should track our military with the transponders they broadcast their location to their adversaries with, and are aware they are using, so we can know as much as they do. Why should the Russian Navy know where Canadian ships are, when the Canadian public doesn't? If "they" know, *you* should know.

1 comment:

  1. Good story, but please proof read prior to publication:
    1. "The" HMCS Toronto? The Her Majesty's Canadian Ship Toronto?
    2. HMCS "St Johns"? It's HMCS St. John's. Period and apostrophe.
    3. "HMCS Toronto has been operating with their AIS transponder off". I could go on about your use of "their", "they", and "them" with respect to an inanimate object like a ship, instead of using "its", but whatever.
    4. "it's AIS transponder"? "It is AIS transponder"? It's actually "its". Le sigh...