A Russian spy ship, the Kareliya, has crossed the Pacific to loiter off the coast of Hawaii. The ship is reportedly off the coast of the garden island of Kauai. Kauai is the site of ballistic missile defense tests, and Kareliya’s presence may indicate an imminent test.
A Russian Navy spy ship is thousands of miles from home and in America’s backyard. The Kareliya, a signals collection ship, has sailed from its frozen home port in the Russian Far East all the way to sunny Hawaii. The ship, reportedly sailing off the coast of Kauai, may be attempting to gather information from an upcoming U.S. missile defense test.
The U.S. Coast Guard announced last week it was tracking the ship, Kareliya, off the coast of the Hawaiian island chain. (The photo at the top is of her sister ship, Viktor Leonov, near Havana, Cuba, in 2017.) “The U.S. Coast Guard is currently monitoring the Russian vessel operating in the vicinity of Hawaii,” said Cmdr. Dave Milne, chief of the Coast Guard’s external affairs. “As part of our daily operations, we track all vessels in the Pacific area through surface and air assets and joint agency capabilities.”
The Coast Guard released a recording of the ship, seen below. The first ship in the video is actually the tanker Pechenga, which is supplying the spy ship. Kareliya appears at the two-second mark, when her bow and AK-630 Gatling guns are visible. The latter half of the video is of the rear of Kareliya, with particular attention paid to her antennas.
Kareliya is a Vishnya or Meridian class SIGINT intelligence collection vessel. Built in Gdansk, Poland, in 1986, Kareliya is assigned to the Russian Pacific Fleet, headquartered at Vladivostok. The ship is 309 feet long, has a crew of 151, and displaces 3,100 tons. It is equipped with several electronic arrays designed to intercept communications traffic and other electronic signals. It is also fairly heavily armed with defensive weapons for a spy ship, with two AK-630 close-in weapon system Gatling guns and two SA-N-8 surface-to-air missile launchers.
The Russian ship was reported on January 19 operating 100 miles off Kauai. That’s within the U.S. exclusive economic zone but not within territorial waters, so the ship is free to operate there.
Kauai is one of the westernmost Hawaiian islands and home to Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, on the western side of the island. Barking Sands is where the U.S. military tests ballistic missile interceptors, including the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Air Defense and the Navy’s SM-3 and SM-6 air defense missiles. Russia has repeatedly warned that it considers U.S. missile defense efforts a danger to Russian security, as they could theoretically be scaled up to help blunt a Russian retaliatory strike. There is no evidence the Pentagon is interested in doing so, however.
In 2021, Kareliya was sighted just 13 miles off the coast of Kauai, or one mile outside U.S. territorial waters. Shortly afterward, Barking Sands conducted Flight Test Aegis Weapon System 31 Event 1—a test designed to shoot down a simulated medium-range ballistic missile with two SM-6 air defense missiles. The SM-6s failed to intercept their target.
Could Kareliya be parked off Hawaii in anticipation of a new American missile test? The tests aren’t typically announced in advance, though the Russians somehow have a knack for having a ship in place to collect data ahead of time. How Moscow knows is just one of the mysteries of the Russian-American relationship. [PM]
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