The Russian intelligence-gathering ship Yantar returned to T&T for the second time in November. The ship-tracking site MarineTraffic.com recorded the vessel dropping anchor at the same location out at sea on its previous visit on November 8-9, this time a bit further southwest at 4.2nm SSE of the Point Baleine lighthouse at 4.27 am on November 28.
The Yantar docked at the Cruise Ship Complex on Dock Road, Port-of-Spain between 7 and 8 pm, later that day. The Cabo Star was berthed alongside the ship on Friday morning. The ship was not exactly hiding in plain sight, however, it looks like a non-descript surveying vessel as it has no deck guns or missiles like the older surveillance ship the Viktor Leonov that docked in T&T three times last year.
Communicating via email with Guardian Media on Friday, Canadian OSINT (Open-source intelligence) research consultant Steffan Watkins said, “The Yantar sailed toward the NW when it left, and returned from the NW, but it’s unclear where it went—in two-plus weeks it could have sailed almost home and back again, but it was likely conducting operations in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, or US East Coast.
“Ships and submarines have to get supplies for their crews at intervals, so generally you can guess when they’re going to need to dock in a friendly port, if everything is going well.
“If something breaks, springs a leak, supplies/food spoil for some reason, or they expend more fuel than expected—you’ll see them sooner.
“The ship’s endurance is 60 days, that’s how long it’s supposed to be able to stay at sea between stops in port; however, it’s a book value that may or may not reflect their capability on this trip, it may be an “ideal” number.”
He said if there were more people aboard than its crew of 60, or if the area used for food storage was used for another purpose, if the vessel was burning more fuel for some reason, the time would be less.
Watkins said previously the ship made stops over locations not known to have telecom cables, and some that were known to have telecom cables—but in both cases their AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponder was on, allowing him to monitor its operations.
He said for the first time, the Yantar had its satellite transponder off for weeks, and perhaps its VHF transponder also.
Watkins said that was unusual, but not necessarily indicative of anything nefarious, other than they did not want people like him monitoring where they were.
He explained the AIS transponder provided port authorities, other ships, or people like him, the ability to follow their movements and see where they go.
Watkins said even commercial ships in piracy hot-spots often turned off their transponders when they felt it mattered to their safety.
He said Yantar was equipped to communicate with satellites, so you can see where it was in the middle of the ocean, away from shore-based receivers, which was how he tracked the ship previously by satellite.
Watkins said this time they kept that feature off, once the ship was out of Marine VHF range from shore, he was unable to know if they were transmitting a signal, or just too far from shore.
He said he would have anticipated if they were near the East Coast of the USA that they would have shown up via AIS-T (terrestrial AIS, shore-based) because there were so many hobbyists who “catch” those transponder signals and were part of the MarineTraffic.com network, or others.
Watkins said NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) was very capable of monitoring the ship’s movements in their area of interest using sensors from space, the air, on other ships, or the bottom of the sea; but so far, he has not received a response to his queries from NORAD, possibly after Thanksgiving.
When asked if the Americans were keeping tabs on the Russian ship’s movements, Watkins said he had no doubt that they had something with an eye on Yantar at all times.
He said at least satellites were monitoring Yantar, at best a surface ship, plane, or submarine was tagging along.
Watkins said previously the US Navy gave Russian vessels near the US East Coast a destroyer escort.
The ship left T&T on Friday at 5.31 pm, its destination was set to the Panama Canal, he said this suggested the vessel might cross over to the Pacific side.
Defence analyst Dr Sanjay Badri-Maharaj a former consultant to the Ministry of National Security said the Yantar was in the region for routine intelligence gathering.
He said that it was a known asset so it may collect electronic or signals data and these types of vessels made voyages throughout the world.
Badri-Maharaj said the ship may be able to tap into undersea cables for signals intelligence, map seabed contours and in wartime, it could even cut cables using its underwater drones.
He said its presence was as much about Russia deploying assets overseas as it was about anything practical.