Hunt for Missing Jetliner

(Reflects Echoes of WW2’s HMAS Sydney Disappearance)

The massive naval-led effort to solve the mystery of what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 had at the time of writing not yielded even a scrap of solid evidence.  This was despite the efforts of multiple Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), surface vessels and at least one nuclear-powered submarine.

For all the powerful sonars, surface search radars and Number One Eyeballs, reports of possible debris were red herrings – items spotted in the sea turned out to be flotsam and jetsam. An examination of the seabed where a suspected black box pinger was detected, using a mini-submarine operated from an Australian vessel, looked certain to be fruitless. Hopes rose when likely looking debris was found on the shores of western Australia, but this also turned out to be a false lead.

More and more the agonising case of MH370 started to resemble another disappearance in the same waters more than 70 years earlier, that of HMAS Sydney. As was the case with the vanishing Royal Australian Navy (RAN) light cruiser in WW2, conspiracy theories started to fill the knowledge vacuum.

Outlandish proposals included claims the US military had taken over the jetliner by remote control – to intercept weapons systems and/or espionage operatives bound for China – and had then flown it to Diego Garcia before disposing of passengers and crew. Why the US Department of Defense (US DoD) and its allies would go through the charade of devoting numerous, expensive assets and personnel to then searching for MH370 was not credibly explained.

Such ideas reflected theories that sprang up in the wake of the warship’s disappearance more than seven decades earlier. In November 1941, HMAS Sydney was destroyed after being surprised at point-blank range by the disguised Nazi surface raider Kormoran. Sydney was last seen steaming out of control and on fire into the blackness of night. Kormoran also sank, but with survivors who were later captured.

HMAS Sydney

The light cruiser HMAS Sydney, pictured several months before she disappeared in mysterious circumstances after a battle off western Australia. Photo: Commonwealth of Australia.

Sydney took all 645 Australian and British sailors aboard to their deaths. Nobody caught sight of HMS Sydney for nearly 67 years. That was when undersea wreck hunter David Mearns found her in very deep waters beyond western Australia (in March 2008).

In the intervening years conspiracy theories included a claim HMAS Sydney was sunk by the Japanese, as a precursor to Pearl Harbor. Prior to the discovery of the HMAS Sydney and Kormoran wrecks by Mearns, only tantalising fragments of wreckage, and even the corpse of a sailor washed ashore at Christmas Island, were found. Nothing, except for an empty carley float, was positively identified as being from HMAS Sydney

David Mearns has this spring been consulted by those keen to pick his brains for how the wreckage of MH370 might be located, not least by rolling news channels around the globe desperate to say something in the absence of nothing concrete to report. On April 16, Mearns was confident enough the wreckage site had been found to tell Australia’s ABC News: “I think essentially they have found the wreckage site. While the [Australian] Government hasn’t announced that yet, if somebody asked me: ‘Technically, do they have enough information to say that?’ My answer is unequivocally ‘Yes’.”


A Sailor aboard the Australian naval support ship HMAS Success endures wet and freezing conditions while using binoculars to search for evidence of missing MH370. Photo: ABIS Julianne Cropley/RAN.

Aside from the detection of possible black box pings by vessels involved in the search for MH370, Mearns based his confidence on gut instinct and experience. He had been involved in locating Air France Flight 447, which in 2009 crashed into the Atlantic off Brazil, with no survivors. “You just don’t hear these [black box] signals randomly in the ocean,” he told ABC. “These are not fleeting sounds – they have got four very, very good detections, with the right spectrum of noise coming from them. It can’t be from anything else.” Confirmation would come when photographic evidence of the jetliner wreck on the seabed was obtained.

Meanwhile, the search for whatever remains of MH370 continued. Key players have included the British survey ship HMS Echo and the nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Tireless, the latter using her immensely powerful passive sonar to investigate leads. Tireless was pulled off the task in late April, returning to her more usual missions somewhere else in the Indian Ocean.

HMS Echo searches for MH370

A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion aircraft flies past HMS Echo while both are searching for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Photo: Australian defence ministry.

The Echo was initially tasked with searching a 1,000 square mile area following the detection of a potential black box pinger by the Chinese vessels Haixun and Dong Hai Jiu (at the beginning of April). By then Echo had already used her sophisticated sidescan sonars to, according to a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) source, “search an area ten times the size of Greater London – some 6,000 square miles of ocean.”

The MoD source added: “Echo’s hi-tech sonar has been specially adapted so it can pick up any transmissions on the black box’s frequency. This is the first time Echo’s sonar has been used this way and so far it has located several possible contacts – but sadly none of them proved to be from MH370’s black box.”

The Devonport-based survey vessel’s captain, Commander Phillip Newell, revealed that the 60 men and women in his ship’s company were applying themselves totally to the search. “They are working 24/7 to find MH370,” he said. “They are young, bright and enthusiastic and will step up to every challenge in the search for the missing aircraft.”


 Graphic showing search areas off western Australia, in the same zones where it was suspected HMAS Sydney vanished in WW2. Image: AMSA.

In late April Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a telling observation that dented the hopes of relatives of 239 people who disappeared with Flight MH370 – but nonetheless was a painful truth that had until then been not much addressed in public (and certainly not by politicians).

Prime Minister Abbott told a press conference the hunt for potential surface debris from MH370 was over and that search efforts would now be concentrated on the ocean floor, across a vast area of the Indian Ocean off Western Australia.

He suggested that there was a possibility the wreckage of the jetliner would never be found, though he vowed that he would do his bit to ensure every effort possible was made to find MH370.

Those words again echoed what happened all those many years ago.  The search to find HMAS Sydney – and solve the mystery over what fate befell her and the men in her – was an agonising decades-long saga that traumatised the Australian nation. Fixing the exact fate of MH370 agonises many across the world. It pains even those without lost loves ones. They cannot bear the fact that such things can happen, despite our so-called all-seeing, inter-connected, high-tech world.

Even with all of today’s sophisticated sonars in surface ships and submarines, far-ranging maritime patrol aircraft and satellites, the vast ocean does not give up its secrets easily, if at all.

A version of this article will be published in the forthcoming edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine, which is due out on May 16. Visit the magazine’s site  for more naval news, commentaries and analysis: For more on the mystery of HMAS Sydney, investigate the DVD production ‘Sydney, Cipher and Search – The Inside Story’, which was produced and directed by Iain Ballantyne with Stuart Rogers. It can be purchased via Amazon

Also read the book by Captain Peter Hore, ‘Sydney, Cipher and Search’ (Seafarer Books, £9.95, paperback) available from Amazon and direct from Seafarer Books. 



Crimean Steal of the Century

(Does Russia Want to Annex Ukraine’s Aircraft Carrier Construction Yard?)

by Iain Ballantyne with Usman Ansari

It was the last stand of the Ukrainian Navy. Try as they might, Russian forces for a long while failed to take the mine warfare vessel Cherkassy. Several times the Russians tried to storm aboard in a hail of stun grenades and gunfire while intimidating Mi35 helicopter gunships clattered overhead, but the defiant Ukrainians held out.

Every other Ukrainian vessel in the Crimean peninsula had been taken over with many sailors and marines defecting to the new Russian rulers. Yet the nearly 62 crew of the Cherkassy, a beefy 750 tons ship armed with 30mm cannons and machine guns in addition to rockets, begged to differ (and in the absence of any specific orders on what to do from their naval headquarters).

Cem Devrim-

Valiant mine warfare ship Cherkassy, the last Ukrainian naval vessel in the Crimea to yield control to the Russians. Photo: Cem Devrim Yaylali. © Cem Devrim Yaylali, 2013. For more by Cem Devrim Yaylali visit

Despite the bangs and flashes, lethal force was not unleashed by either side, with Cherkassy’s men using powerful water jets to hold potential boarders at bay, also dropping low power charges around their ship as a deterrent.

The Russians used a sunken ship – seemingly a Ukrainian mine-sweeper – to block the channel leading from the Donuzlav Lake into the open ocean on the western side of the Crimea. Having failed in her attempt to tow the block ship out the way, Cherkassy continued cruising around and around until, finally explosives wrecked her steering during one assault by the Russians. This left her ethnic Ukrainian commander, Captain Yuri Fedash, with three choices: Go out in a blaze of glory by using his weapons on the Russians; scuttle the Cherkassy; surrender. Some of the vessel’s complement had already wavered, with Capt Fedash allowing a dozen of those men to disembark peacefully.

Stormed successfully by Russian naval infantry, the end finally seemed near for the defiant Cherkassy. Capt Fedash ordered his men below decks and told them to seal all hatches while he tried to negotiate with the invaders. Admiring the clever tactics of the Ukrainians – and their efforts to avoid bloodshed – the Russians agreed to let Fedash and some of his officers have one last ward room dinner aboard before pulling down the Ukrainian ensign in the morning.

This was in marked contrast to the treatment handed out to other Ukrainian vessels. Twelve of the Ukrainian Navy’s 17 major surface combatants were seized peremptorily by Russian forces along with the bulk of naval aviation assets and sole submarine. Ukraine also lost its combat dolphins. The dolphin programme aimed at training the intelligent and fiesty mammals in countering combat frogmen and also detecting underwater objects such as mines. After a long period of stagnation, the programme was revived for the Ukrainian Navy in 2011 after years of being used for civilian purposes, but still suffered from a lack of funding. The Russians are likely to pump money in. Ukraine has also lost most of its significant naval and marine corps bases and other key defence facilities. Of the 15,450 naval personnel, 12,000 were stationed on the Crimean peninsula. The majority of these are believed to have defected to Russia or resigned from the service. Those that have chosen to continue under Kiev had to make their own way back to territory under Ukrainian control.

While warships were blockaded in port and seized, some of the Ukrainian Navy’s aviation assets managed to escape. These included a Kamov Ka-27PL and three Mil Mi-14PL maritime helicopters, a Beriev Be-12 amphibian, and two Antonov An-26 transport aircraft. Aircraft undergoing maintenance had to be left behind.  The tattered remains of the Ukrainian Navy are now based in the port of Odessa, including its most capable ship, the Krivak III Class frigate Hetman Sahaydachny. Ukrainian access to the Sea of Azov has been cut by Russian occupation of Kerch, leaving Kiev’s eastern ports marooned. Just how Kiev plans to reconstitute its maritime capabilities is uncertain, but given the prevailing East-West tensions it is possible surplus equipment from NATO states could be transferred.

Western action could also have a direct effect on the Russian Navy, with Paris contemplating blocking the transfer of two Mistral Class amphibious assault carriers being built under contract in France. The first of those vessels, Vladivostok, was due to reach Russia by the end of 2014. The second, the somewhat fatefully named Sevastopol, was due to arrive next year and join the Black Sea Fleet (BSF).

Though a series of sanctions have been announced against selected Russians and Russian interests, the Mistral deal was not at the time of writing cancelled. The French view the ships as commercial vessels due to them currently lacking weapon. systems. Should Russia move to take further parts of Ukraine or the Russian ethnic enclave of Trans Dniester in Moldova, the amphibious assault ships may be included in a new set of sanctions. Meanwhile, in Kaliningrad – the former East Prussia, annexed by Russia in 1945 and also host to a major naval base at Baltisk – the Yantar shipyard has just launched Russia’s first Project 11356 frigate. The Admiral Grigorovich is a 3,850 tons multi-role vessel capable of independent or combined Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Air Warfare (AAW), or Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) missions. The lead ship of a class of six slated, they will be assigned to the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) along with new generation submarines.

Some in the West may be puzzled by all the focus on the Black Sea for Russian naval forces and territorial expansion, but that is because the democratic leaders of Europe think in terms of exerting influence via aid packages and trade, keen to export liberal ideals of freedom. President Putin thinks in hardball terms. Last month (March) he gave a speech in the spectacular St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin.

Putin in Conference

President Vladimir Putin during his historic speech last month (March) in the Kremlin.

Photo: Office of the President of RussiaIt placed the issue of the strategic naval base of Sevastopol at the heart of his nation’s annexation of the Crimea. President Putin told his audience he feared that, without Russian intervention, the Ukraine would soon have become a fully paid up member of the West.

This would have placed a potentially hostile military organisation close to the heart of the Rodina, the Russian motherland. The former KGB officer told his audience: “What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.”

Putin followed this with a drily humorous statement: “But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case [but] we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory.” He went on: “I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.” Putin in his March speech described Sevastopol as “a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.”

He also said: “Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge. Each one of these places is dear to our hearts, symbolising Russian military glory and outstanding valour.” There was, as ever, hard-nosed strategic interest at stake for Russia, which seeks to prevent the Assad regime from collapsing via arms shipments from the Black Sea.

The BSF is also a counter to NATO’s new Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) ships patrolling the Mediterranean and elsewhere. This month (April) a Russian fighter jet repeatedly buzzed one of those BMD ships, USS Donald Cook, as the Arleigh Burke Class destroyer sailed in the Black Sea, bound for NATO exercises. See the forthcoming (June 2014) edition of WARSHIPS IFR (out on May 16) for more on that incident.

Russian Leader dolls

Putin’s predecessors in Russian doll form (from right to left): Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Lenin and Yeltsin (who presided over Russian post-Cold War decline). This set of dolls was purchased by Iain Ballantyne at Sevastopol in 1991. Image: Strathdee Collection.

In some ways the Cold War never ended – the past 23 years have been but a pause in the overt, muscular rivalry between Russia and the West.  And can President Putin tolerate even eastern Ukraine being still under the Kiev government’s control, despite what he says today about no further moves? The majority ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine may one day soon provide the Kremlin with an excuse to protect them, but under the skin it will again be about strategic necessity for Russia.

Not only would it ensure that NATO cannot get any closer on the northern shores of the Black Sea it would once more bring under Moscow’s control the industrial resources of the Donetsk region and also, crucially, the Black Sea Ship Yard at Nikolayev. If the Russian Navy is to progress with its regeneration, the addition of such a ship construction facility – which built all the Soviet Navy’s helicopter and aircraft carriers – would be a key addition.

The Kremlin has often stated it wants to build half a dozen new strike carriers but currently lacks the major surface ship construction capacity and skills to do so. The new carriers are unlikely to be built at Sevmash on the White Sea, which recently completed a very troubled and prolonged reconstruction of the former Soviet carrier Gorshkov for India, not least because its roster is packed with new submarine orders.


A port beam view of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov en route from her construction yard at Nikolayev on the Black Sea for duty with (what was then) the Soviet Northern Fleet. The same design of ship today serves in the Russian, Indian and Chinese fleets. Photo: US Navy.
An astern view of the Kuznetsov with a strike jet and helicopter on her large flight-deck.
Photo: US DoD.

The extant strike carrier of the Russian Navy, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was built at Nikolayev. Even the Chinese Navy’s new carrier was built there.

Launched in 1988 and originally to be called Riga, her name was changed to Varyag before the almost complete vessel was sold to a Chinese commercial company in 1998. At one point allegedly destined for use as a floating casino off Macau, ultimately the former Varyag was reconstructed in a Chinese naval shipyard.

Today she is China’s first aircraft carrier, named Liaoning. Ukraine’s sale of that vessel to China, now deploying her regularly as a symbol of growing maritime might (with more, home-grown, carriers rumoured) must have deeply angered many in the former Soviet Union and really dented their pride. They now find their former carrier construction yard tantalisingly not far from the newly reclaimed Crimea. All Putin needs is the excuse of safeguarding ethnic Russians to annex Nikolayev too.

For more on Russia versus the West in the Cold War, read ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books) by Iain Ballantyne. The paperback edition is due to be published this summer. This blog is a slightly revised version of an article that appears in the  May 2014 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine.

Sevastopol Power Play Lays Down Putin’s ‘New World Order’

An explanatory note: My first guest blogger is the forthright ‘Odin’, who pens the leader commentary for WARSHIPS IFR magazine. This one is to be published in the forthcoming April edition of the mag, which is due out on 21 March. As it is highly topical and newsy I am sharing it with you here now, plus, following on from the Odin commentary are two elements of the magazine’s news coverage on the Ukraine and Crimea crises as I feel WARSHIPS IFR (of which I am Editor) has latched on to some angles that have received little attention so far. I will be crafting another blog with a Black Sea flavour soon.

‘A big struggle is taking place right now. Not a struggle over the Crimea, or Ukraine, or Russia, it’s a struggle for the world order…Right now, Putin stands only one step away from becoming the world leader, the key figure, the embodiment of liberty and independence from US hegemony.’
Professor Alexander Dugin, Moscow State University, writing in Komsomolskaya Pravda.

During the Ukrainian and Crimean crises of 2014 President Vladimir Putin of Russia has not used the same script as other world leaders. While the West’s foremost nations talked the talked, promising billions they could ill afford in financial aid to sustain the new government in the Ukraine, Putin’s troops walked the walk.

In Washington D.C. this all took place against proposals to cut the USA’s armed forces, of withdrawing completely from Afghanistan, while in Europe the British proceeded apace with their own disarmament. The French, also implementing defence cuts, were discovering they had a strike carrier that was only 65 per cent operational. Meanwhile both Russia and China continued to grow their armed forces, their navies in particular.

The waypoints to the Crimean situation were clearly marked. The Russians, who had been outraged when the West destroyed the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, were jubilant last year when they successfully forestalled a similar fate for Assad and his cohorts in Syria. For Putin that was when the West blinked, shying away from strikes that could have seriously undermined Moscow’s foothold in the Levant (particularly its naval support facility at Tartus). The Russian leader saw this as a further sign of Western lack of resolve, particularly allied with NATO’s retreat from Afghanistan.

For him, armed forces are a major weapon of influence and he has no time for soft talk of ‘aid super powers’, except when supplying the tools of war to Moscow’s client states. Putin believes in playing hardball with military aid.

Following on from the endless stream of amphibious warfare vessels carrying weapons to the embattled Assad regime in Syria to shore it up, Putin in early 2014 decided to intervene in the Ukraine by sending ‘political advisors’ to bolster President Viktor Yanukovych. When ordering his paramilitaries to gun down protestors calling for their country to join the West did not work, Yanukovych fled to the Crimea, an autonomous region that is heavily populated with ethnic Russians. It is still home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) under a leasing arrangement that sees that force well entrenched in Sevastopol and at other bases across the peninsula.

Yanukovych was whisked away to Russia, from the port of Balaclava itself and soon naval infantry – insignia removed to gain advantage from confusion and acting in a very restrained and professional fashion – were on the move in a carefully orchestrated plan to steal the Crimea from the Ukraine.

Putin and Yanuk

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, second from left, and then President Viktor Yanukovych of the Ukraine (magnolia suit) at the Black Sea Fleet’s Navy Day in Sevastopol last summer. Photo: Russian Navy.

While the new government in the Ukraine conducted a war of words, Moscow’s forces continued to be deployed in classic Russian style, using moves from the old Cold War era playbook – Hungary 1956, Prague 1968 and Afghanistan 1979 – except with a menacing subtlety the Soviets, with their clunking fist of a Red Army, could never have emulated.

Paratroopers from various parts of Russia were soon flown in after Crimean air space was unilaterally closed to civilian traffic. The so-called invasion was – certainly in its first phase – actually taking place on territory that has a deep spiritual, as well as strategic, hold on Russia. Many of the troops, including the 810th Marine Infantry Brigade were on their home turf, as that unit has been in the Crimea for many decades. Its job is to protect Russian bases in the peninsula, which it duly did. It also sealed off Ukrainian forces in their bases. Russians believe the Crimea should really never have been separated from Russia by Nikita Khrushchev’s gesture that awarded it to the (then) Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1954.

Ukrainian speaking in the north and west and Russian-speaking in the south and east, the Ukraine has a bloody past. Many Ukrainians saw the invading Nazis as liberators during WW2 and Stalin made sure they paid a heavy price for that. Ethnic German, Ukrainian and Tatar populations were removed so that Russians could be settled in Ukraine’s fertile eastern lands. Today’s Russian-speaking provinces (or oblasts) look to Moscow for their leadership. Ukrainian-speaking oblasts want to join Western Europe – a ready-made recipe for conflict. But beyond all this is the strategic question and that, above all, drives Russia’s behaviour. It still feels that in the world it has only two reliable and powerful friends: Its army and navy.

Access to ice-free ports has been a key strategic aim for Russia, whether under the Czars or the Soviets, and President Putin will not abandon that historic cause.

He is also determined to stop NATO’s advance into Eastern Europe and from the Russian point of view the Western defence alliance has been nibbling away (perhaps unwisely) at Russia’s buffer zone.

The Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are now NATO members and Putin fears the Ukrainians could soon join the alliance. A sign of their intent has been the ever-tighter partnership on operations between Kiev’s naval forces and those of the West. One swift achievement of Russia’s Crimean power play was the virtual neutralisation of the Ukraine’s naval forces.

Following the effective occupation of the Crimea by Russian forces, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States withdrew from preparatory talks for the 2014 G8 meeting due to be held in Moscow in June.

As this magazine went to press, the world was facing the most serious turn of events in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall – suddenly the post-Cold War era of peace and stability was over and a new fear of conflict was unleashed on the Continent. Anywhere with a substantial Russian ethnic minority could be open to Moscow’s military action in defence of its peoples.

The Baltic States have long feared such a move.  And with the Russians still occupying the large Kaliningrad naval base enclave (the former East Prussia, lodged between Poland and Lithuania) it would not be hard for Moscow to manufacture a Crimea-style crisis. It could send its tanks and troops striking down through Latvia and Lithuania – via the Russian ethnic zones – or even gain access via Belarus.

FGS ROTTWEIL pulling into Sevastopol

The NATO and German Navy mine warfare vessel FGS Rottweil sails into Sevastopol, autumn 2013. Photo: NATO/HQ MARCOM.

All of a sudden politicians in capital cities of the West were setting aside their maps of the Middle East and Asia-Pacific and gazing with trepidation at places much closer to home that NATO obliges them to defend properly. With armed forces cut to the bone in Europe, the Afghan withdrawal not yet completed and the USA in the middle of shifting its focus to Asia-Pacific, what could be done either in the Ukraine or the Baltic States?

Meanwhile, Russia has just announced the establishment of a ‘Northern Fleet – Joint Strategic Command’ to oversee control of not only its Arctic zones, but also ensure it gains, and retains, the massive mineral resources of the Arctic shelf itself. Newspaper commentaries published in Moscow have claimed that Putin is establishing a new world order.

He certainly seems to be embarking on that endeavour with cool and cunning calculation, determined to create a legacy of Russian power and influence the West and his nation’s so-called ‘near abroad’ will respect…and fear.


Russian marines based at Sevastopol display their patriotism during last summer’s Black Sea Fleet Navy Day. Photo: Russian Navy.

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