The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 8.1.19
License to Krill: Beluga Whales and Other Russian Threats to Norway
Jessica Di Paolo, Senior Market Analyst
In April 2019, Norwegian fishermen discovered a beluga whale trying to remove a harness by rubbing up against boats. The words “Equipment” and “St. Petersburg” were etched into the harness, prompting speculation that the whale was spying for the Russian Navy. Knowledge that the whale may have escaped from a Russian marine life facility inspired locals to name the whale Whaledimir. The harness had a mount like that seen on GoPro-like cameras, but the purpose of the mount or harness on the beluga whale remains unclear. A researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research suspects that, “If this [whale] comes from Russia, and there is great reason to believe it, then it is not Russian scientists, but rather the [Russian] navy that has done this.” However, news of marine mammals employed by the Russian military is not new, as this research stems back to the Cold War days. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union attempted to train dolphins in the Black Sea for reconnaissance missions such as locating underwater sensors or mines. The beluga whales would be used for the same reconnaissance missions in the Arctic.
Diplomatic ties between Norway and Russia are at a low point given the resurgence of Russian military activity and NATO exercises in the region. Avascent Analytics previously reported on NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise in October 2018, considered to be the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War. Over 31 countries and 50,000 personnel participated in the exercise. Russian officials were furious about the scenario being played out, in which the NATO alliance would restore an unnamed Scandinavian country’s sovereignty following an attack by another country.
Prior to the Trident Juncture exercise, Russia had reopened several Soviet-era military bases in Russia’s Kola peninsula located in the Arctic. The Kola peninsula happens to be the same area where Norwegian sources suspect Whaledimir escaped from. Satellite imagery shows the construction of two pens allegedly holding beluga whales in 2019, though satellite imagery from 2017 and 2018 shows the pens didn’t previously exist. Another base in nearby Garyachia Ruchy bay shows six pens holding beluga whales.
Russian military activity in the Arctic stretches beyond the potential use of beluga whales for reconnaissance. The Norwegian military is constantly on alert for Russian activity, with Russia increasingly playing out simulated attacks via fighter aircraft and jamming Norwegian-based global positioning systems. In February 2019, 11 Su-34s simulated an attack towards Norway, before turning around prior to entering Norwegian airspace. Unsurprisingly, Norwegian officials also noticed an increase in submarine activity over the last few years and are particularly concerned about Russia’s newest class – the Severodvinsk. When an Admiral of the Royal Norwegian Navy was asked if they had ever lost track of the Severodvinsk submarine, he declined to comment. But Pentagon officials admitted that the Russian submarine was able to avoid detection in the Atlantic “for weeks.” Beluga whales spying on the NATO alliance seems significantly more trivial compared to the new, stealthy submarine.
On July 26, the chief of the German Navy announced the acquisition of two new 20,000-ton tankers to replace its aging Type 704 Rhön-class tankers. The new Type 707 tankers will be delivered beginning in 2024, at which point the Type 704s will be nearly 50 years old. In 2018, the Type 704 had to be taken out of service for heavy maintenance and repairs to remedy technical and obsolescence issues. Probably the most important feature of the new ships will be the increased speed of over 20 knots, allowing the ships to more easily keep up with smaller warships. Germany operates nine other logistics and replenishment vessels, three Type 702 Berlin-class, and six Type 404 Elbe-class. Eight of these ships were commissioned between 1993 and 2001, and will likely need replacements by the late 2020s and early 2030s. Due to the length of time needed for ship procurement programs, Avascent Analytics projects an $800 million Elbe-class replacement program to begin around 2022, and a $452 million program to replace the two Berlin-class ships no later than 2025.
However, the problems with the Type 704s point to deeper problems of readiness and maintenance that the German military have been grappling with. Furthermore, political party shifts in the German government have led to uncertainty about the size of the defense budget beyond the short term. Should these two issues draw funding away from procurement accounts, Germany may need the Type 702s and Type 404s to serve longer through a life extension program instead of outright replacing them.
Sources indicate that India signed a $215 million contract with Russia to acquire 300 R-73E air-to-air missiles on July 30. The missiles can be equipped onto the Indian Air Force’s Su-30MKIs, MiG-29s, and MiG-21s, and could eventually be fitted on to India’s new Rafale multi-role fighter aircraft. Russia’s Vympel NPO defense company has been promoting various missiles to the Indian military, including the medium-range RVV-AE air-to-air guided missiles and radar-jamming missiles. Industry press indicate that India is looking to acquire up to 400 of the medium-range missiles as well.
On July 26, the US Department of State approved a possible sale of 60 Stryker infantry carrier vehicles to Thailand. The potential sale is valued at $175 million, and media reports indicate that the vehicles themselves will most likely be refurbished rather than new. The infantry carrier vehicles are intended to fill a capability gap between current light infantry and fully mechanized units for the Thai Armed Forces. The sale is also one of the first from the US to Thailand to go through following a military coup that occurred in 2014. However, the sale has not yet been finalized.