The Russian Navy has a sizable fleet of dedicated intelligence gathering ships. Festooned with antenna, their crews listen in to other country’s communications, and analyze radar and other military transmissions. So NATO countries are naturally uncomfortable when one takes up position close to their ports and bases.
Now two Russian Navy intelligence gathering ships have taken up position off the British coast. They are in the Moray of Firth, north of Aberdeen, and just miles from the important air base at RAF Lossiemouth. The ships were visible on commercial satellite imagery on November 6.
They are on the opposite coast to where a wrecked Wave Glider uncrewed surface vessel (USV) was discovered in early October. Although there has been speculation that the unclaimed craft was a Russian intelligence gathering craft, we are confident that this isn’t the case. The Russian intelligence ships are therefore unrelated. It is however a reminder that the intelligence game is still being played around the British Isles and in the North Atlantic.
The scene is reminiscent of the Soviet ‘fishing trawlers’ which used to operate off Scotland during the Cold War. These monitored British and American warships and submarines. They were particularly active watching British and American nuclear submarines leaving the Clyde. The Moray of Firth was another frequent haunt.
The two ships have been identified as Pr.684 Vishnya Class intelligence gathering ships. They are operating approximately 23 miles off the Scottish coast, and about 34 miles from RAF Lossiemouth. The base is home to the RAF’s new Poseidon MRA1 maritime patrol aircraft, as well as four squadrons of Typhoon FGR4 fighters. The Vishnyas are accompanied by a Russian Navy replenishment ship, believed to be the Sergey Osipov.
The Sergey Osipov, a Pr. 1559V Boris Chilikin class replenishment oiler, has been in the area for a couple of weeks. She sailed down from the Russian Navy’s arctic bases on the Kola Peninsular. On October 27 it was seen in almost the same location refueling a Russian Navy missile destroyer.
The Vishnya Class are the workhorses of Russia’s intelligence gathering fleet. Seven are active including two in the Northern Fleet, which are likely these two. They are 91.5 meters long and displace 3,470 tons, about the same as a frigate. They have a crew of around 150 persons.
One of the Northern Fleet’s Vishnya Class ships, the Viktor Leonov, frequently operates off the U.S. Coast and in the Caribbean. She was there in December 2019, when she was accused of operating in an unsafe manner. And it is probable that one of these ships is her. She may be headed to operate off the East Coast of America now.