What lies beneath… the weaponising of news

One of the latter-day episodes of submarine warfare – or shall we say covert operations – touched on in ‘The Deadly Trade’ (aka ‘The Deadly Deep’) was the alleged intrusion into Swedish waters of a Russian craft in 2014. Such episodes can easily spark armed confrontation, but for luck and the innate mysteries of the undersea environment (which sometimes makes it hard to say definitely what is lurking down there). This was my article from October 2014 on the Swedish episode

Similar controversies were a feature of the Cold War in the Baltic, when the Swedes were heavily taxed sometimes pursuing suspected Russian (and NATO) submarine intrusions into their waters. The most notorious episode was the grounding of a Whiskey Class diesel submarine of the Soviet Navy in October 1981. There was no doubt that Swedish forces had caught the Russians in flagrante making an illegal foray close to Karlskrona, as the boat S-363 was skewered by rocks in full view of the world.

A Soviet Navy submarine of the Whiskey Class underway during the Cold War. A diesel boat of this type ran aground in Swedish territorial waters, late 1981. Photo: US DoD.

What has sparked my return to the topic of the 2014 Swedish intrusions is a story by Elisabeth Braw of the London-based think-tank RUSI that raises some interesting issues on how the media reports such events (and whether or not it is being drawn into an info war between Russia and the West). The answer is yes, especially in the era of so-called fake news, where military operatives of the Kremlin and others states, not least China, and those of some Western powers, are weaponising it (and in some cases have been doing so for some time).

In her ‘Foreign Policy’ article Elisabeth Braw writes: ‘The military could, for example, provide training to a wide range of journalists, and not just about the latest in military equipment but about the wide spectrum of today’s national security threats and what sort of information helps the adversary.’

An image purporting to show a small, suspect object moving on the surface within Swedish waters at the time of the 2014 episode. Issued by the Swedish defence ministry.

However, as we are not officially at war with China and Russia, it’s pretty hard to persuade the free media of democratic countries that they should start censoring themselves against the ‘adversary’. Let’s face it, some of the stuff the defence ministries of Western nations pump out is also propaganda, and it is down to journalists to filter out the crap, in order to gain something close to the truth.

There are things the defence ministries of the democracies can do to foster understanding of complex issues and therefore dominate the news agenda. While journalists should strive to know their subject, report accurately, the navies/militaries of democracies must be as open as possible, establish rapport with the media (and not just the elite who inhabit a capital city). They should, for example, educate journalists in how navies work – especially technical topics that must be demystified via simple language.

The Finnish Navy guided-missile corvette FNS Naantali on patrol in the Baltic. Photo: US Navy.

In her piece Elisabeth Braw does refer to a Finnish effort to educate journalists in the face of what we in the trade used to call ‘jacked up’ stories – the sort of things that has been going on for decades, walking the razor’s edge between truth and making a good headline.

The Finnish military have their own special interest in countering what they perceive as Russian media manipulation. They obviously operate all the time in close proximity to the Kremlin’s forces in the Baltic Sea and ashore. Shortly after Sweden’s mystery submarine intrusion, they experienced their own episode. In spring 2015 Finland’s naval forces even reportedly used low power explosive charges to see off whatever was down there. Explaining the vagaries of detecting and then classifying what it actually was also presented challenges for the Finns.

I gained true understanding of how things work – including trying to pin down what lurks in the deep dark ocean – partly by going to sea (on, over and under it) with navies. I also started out reporting on defence matters in an era when people talked to people. Even serving personnel felt they could talk to journalists without fear of being disciplined for not doing it in a heavily controlled (make that censored) environment.

Often today’s naval/defence spokespersons talk in corporate/technical gibberish, trotting out dull propaganda tropes in their press releases and on social media – instead of using plain language. It makes one suspect they don’t themselves fully understand military and naval operations or their context. In that case, how can they explain anything to journalists?

The Swedish Visby Class corvette HSwMS Karlsand on patrol in the Baltic. Photo: US Navy.

Finally, if the military of the West starts off in an adversarial relationship with journalists then it is onto a loser in a democracy. Of course, that problem does not exist in nations such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, for example, where press/media freedom is heavily restricted or even non-existent. The way for defence ministries in the democracies to counter state-controlled ‘fake news’ garbage from so-called ‘adversaries’ is to mount a charm offensive and educate the media, presenting the facts of the case and leaving them to come to their own conclusions.

Don’t blame reporters for not fully understanding the complexities of finding and identifying a potential submarine intruder if you have never made a proper effort to educate and inform them in the first place. Putting out information is not the same as making it comprehensible…if you get what I mean…

* ‘The Deadly Trade’ is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK and as ‘The Deadly Deep’ by Pegasus Books in the USA Cold War submarine intrusions into Swedish waters, including the notorious ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ incident are covered in ‘Undersea Warriors’, recently published by Pegasus Books in the USA It was first published in the UK as ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion)
Iain Ballantyne is also the Editor of the monthly global naval news magazine WARSHIPS IFR and has been writing on naval and military matters since 1990.

Cold War Rewind (Have Phantom Submarines Come Back to Haunt Sweden?)

A drama worthy of the worst periods of tension during the post-WW2 standoff between the Soviet Union and the West has been unfolding in the Baltic, for Sweden has revealed it is hunting a mystery vessel.

It really is an extraordinary case of Cold War rewind, plunging the Swedes right back into a nightmare they hoped to have left far behind. During the 1980s the issue of foreign submarines allegedly making forays into its waters became intensely political for Sweden. It even stoked paranoia of forces within the country itself favouring one side or the other in the East-West confrontation.

Swedish Visby Corvette

HSwMS Nykoping, a Visby Class corvette of the Royal Swedish Navy, a type of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capable vessel said to have been searching for the mystery submarine. Nykoping is pictured here sailing in shallow coastal waters off Karlskrona. Photo: Guy Toremans.

Despite Swedish military forces stopping just short of an all-out public accusation that this new intruder is a Russian, nobody would be surprised if it is a Baltic Fleet submarine. The Kremlin has already sent its aircraft to spy on Western maritime exercises in the Baltic and surface warships to shadow them closely, so why not submarines to keep an eye on the Swedes or NATO?

Swedish officials have admitted they are looking for something in a massive “intelligence operation” but are denying a submarine hunt as such. They do say that a radio message in Russian was picked up on a frequency normally used for submarine distress calls.

At the time of writing the Swedes claim to have detected evidence of submarine activity three times – and the Swedish Defence Ministry has published images of a small, dark shape moving on the surface close inshore. There are even supposed sightings of dark figures wading ashore.


An image released by the Swedish military, which was taken by an amateur photographer. It supposedly shows a mystery craft making a wake close inshore to Sweden. It has been speculated this may be a surfaced mini submarine. Photo: Swedish Defence Ministry.

Moscow has denied there is anything unusual going on, besides the usual operating patterns of Russian Navy submarines, and there are no emergencies to report. If it is a conventional Russian submarine, then it is likely to be an elderly Kilo Class boat. Even in the Cold War the Baltic Fleet did not get receive front line submarine types – the top models were, and remain, reserved for the Northern and Pacific fleets.

A new generation of diesel boats is, though, being built in St. Petersburg at the top end of the Baltic. Could one of these be on sea trials and have gotten into trouble? Or maybe it was sent to try out its stealth qualities for real?

An alternative explanation is that a mini submarine used for shallow water insertion of Special Forces and offshore surveillance is the guilty party and has become stranded somehow. There have been reports of a Russian merchant vessel, rumoured to be the craft’s mother ship, loitering just outside Swedish territorial waters and cruising in random patterns. Three warships from the Royal Netherlands Navy were reportedly shadowing this vessel in international waters.

The mystery undersea craft will not be a nuclear-powered or armed submarine. The Baltic is too shallow and tricky navigation-wise for SSN or SSBN operations. The nuclear-armed diesel-electric Golf Class boats of the Cold War based at Kronstadt are long gone.

The dilemma of what to do was, and remains, extremely tricky for Sweden. It was neutral during the Cold War and these days, while it works very closely with NATO naval forces, is still not part of the alliance despite having a newly aggressive Russia glowering at it from the other side of the Baltic.

We have already seen Russian troops annexing the Crimea, waging a so-called covert war in eastern Ukraine and even airliners being shot down, so why not mystery submarines in Swedish waters? There is an eerie parallel here with the most notorious such incident, the so-called ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ episode, as related in ‘Hunter Killers’.  In late October 1981, an old Whiskey Class submarine of the Soviet Navy ran aground just off Karlskrona Naval Base. When some local fishermen reported they had discovered a Russian submarine perched on some rocks the Swedish military thought they were drunk, until, that is, they sent somebody out to take a look and found out it was true.


A Whiskey Class diesel-electric submarine of the Soviet Navy cruises on the surface during the Cold War. In 1981 one such vessel became stranded off a Swedish naval base, in the notorious ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ episode.  Photo: US DoD.

Throughout the 1980s the Swedes frequently detected what they suspected were foreign submarines in their territorial waters. They sent out helicopters and surface vessels to hunt them down, dropping depth charges in some instances during pursuits that lasted for days.

When it comes to the “credible source” the Swedes say they are relying on to indicate submarine activity, this must mean a sonar contact of some kind, whether seabed sensors, a maritime patrol aircraft, surface craft or even one of their own submarines.

The Swedes will be very wary of going too hard on what exactly it is they believe they have detected and also of saying who exactly is down there. For it is not easy to gain a positive contact of a submarine in the Baltic. It could well be a phantom that Sweden is pursuing or even ‘a biologic’ (as it was termed in the Hollywood Cold War submarine drama ‘Hunter for Red October’). In other words, a marine creature rather than steel boat. In the Cold War days, the Swedes may well have chased porpoises or even flatulent herring rather than submarines.

If it was submarines in the old days, they could have been NATO diesel-electric submarines rather than Russian boats. Those same uncertainties apply today, though the Royal Navy – which ran numerous covert missions using submarines into the Baltic during the Cold War – is no longer in the business since going fully nuclear-powered, which also applies to the US Navy.


The Russian Navy continues to operate Kilo Class diesel-electric patrol submarines in the Baltic. Photo: US Department of Defence.

Would the Germans or Norwegians send their extremely capable conventional submarines on covert missions into Swedish waters? Not likely, as they work very closely with the Royal Swedish Navy already and surely know all they need to about the Swedes? Russian suggestions that it is a Dutch diesel submarine that was exercising off the Swedish coast recently look very much like Moscow deploying its usual obfuscation. The Swedes say they have intercepted Russian language communications and another transmission (this time encrypted) sent to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in the southern Baltic that is host to a major naval base. Additionally, submarine water space management as operated by NATO means that any Western submarine would only be dived in clearly delineated waters, to safeguard against accidents and also to enable unauthorised intruders to be identified and countered. NATO member Poland, the other Baltic diesel submarine operator, is unlikely to risk one of its ancient diesels. Therefore, if the contact the Swedes have made is a real submarine rather than a phantom, it is almost certain to be Russian, returning to the old underwater espionage game of the Cold War era.

‘Hunter Killers’ was recently published in paperback by Orion Books and is available from Amazon or direct from Orion. Iain Ballantyne is also the editor of the UK-based global naval affairs monthly magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review. www.warshipsifr.com


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