Just two weeks before the Nord Stream gas pipeline was destroyed by underwater explosions, the German Navy had an intelligence ship and a submarine hunting warship, among others, circling in the waters east of Bornholm. From 9 until 14 September, the two military vessels spent a total of six days cruising in close proximity to the two later explosion sites, according to data available on the commercial platform MarineTraffic (Professional). The ships‘ presence was part of the naval exercise „Northern Coasts 2022“, which also included a German submarine and a mine sweeper.
With this many sensors and reconnaissance equipment in the vicinity of the later explosion sites, did they detect anything suspicious during their maneuvers?
by Sebastian Okada
The general public has been left in the dark about the perpetrators and circumstances of the attack on the German-Russian pipeline, but a few details surrounding the incident have been emerging lately. The point in time when the explosives were placed next to the gas pipelines is particularly of interest since it may eventually lead to the answer of who did it. Theoretically, the bombs may have been lying on the ocean floor for weeks or months before the perpetrators triggered them on 26 September. But it appears increasingly likely that the ordnance was placed in mid-September.
One piece of the puzzle pointing in that direction is that two military patrol boats of Sweden and Denmark seem to have taken a repeated look at something in the later explosion area on 22 and 24 September, only days before the explosions. A second indication recently came from a report in WIRED magazine that two „dark ships“, i.e. ships with their tracking transmitters turned off – were discovered passing through the later crime scene. No exact time was given in the reporting, but they passed the locations „during the days immediately ahead of the leaks being detected“. That sounds like a few days, not weeks or months, before the explosions.
Before this backdrop, we scrutinized vessel movements on MarineTraffic for anomalies in mid-September. The platform’s data is based on ships‘ automatic identification system (AIS) transponders, essentially a tracking system. Both military and civilian vessels can switch their AIS beacons on and off.
The results of our analysis show that the German Navy spent several days within what experts consider reconnaissance range to the later explosion sites, two weeks prior. The vessels in question were equipped with sophisticated sensors for picking up signals and movements both over and under water.
The Intelligence Ship
The German Armed Forces call it their „eyes and ears“: The „Oste“ A52 (shown above in 2018), built in the 1990s, is an intelligence ship loaded with electronic, optical, and hydro-acoustic sensors. Details of its detection equipment are hard to come by, since they are obviously classified. But according to naval experts various types of passive sonar exist that, depending on natural conditions at that moment, may have a reconnaissance range of 30 sea miles (55 km) or more.
Some types, such as the so-called „dip-in“ sonars, have considerably longer ranges. They are lowered from a ship or helicopter by cable into the sea, thus reaching deeper levels of acoustic channels in the water. These channels can, under the right circumstances, carry soundwaves from much longer distances than 30 miles back to such a listening device.
The „Oste“, however, was not the only eyes and ears in the waters east of Bornholm two weeks before the detonations. It appeared together with the German frigate „Schleswig-Holstein“ (F216). At a distance of 9 to 25 sea miles (17 – 47 km) from the later explosion sites #1 and #2, they jointly circled in the area for the next six days from 9 until 14 September.
Both vessels‘ movements were part of a naval exercise conducted by the navies of Germany and its Baltic neighbors called „Northern Coasts“, which takes place annually.
The „Schleswig-Holstein“ was in fact the official lead ship of the excercise. Operational details were not publicized for security reasons, however, since the Russian war against Ukraine is still raging. (The naval exercise followed the earlier and more extensive NATO BALTOPS exercise held from 5-17 June.)
The open-source tracking data did not show any military vessels from any other nations riding jointly with the Germans when they circled east of Bornholm between 9 and 14 September. But according to a later press release from the Germany Navy, they were accompanied during the maneuvers by the German submarine „U 32“ and the mine sweeper „Bad Bevensen“. The latter indeed showed up in the maritime tracking data on 13 September.
The Submarine Destroyer
The „Schleswig-Holstein“, also built in the 1990s, was designed specifically for submarine warfare, i.e. detecting underwarter movements. It has sophisticated sensors under its hull that are able to pick up activities even at a fairly long distance. Its reconnaissance range under water is estimated to be several dozen sea miles, depending on natural conditions and the size of the target vessel.
The Mine Sweeper
In deep of the night, at 2:30 a.m. local time on 13 September, the German vessel M1063, also called the „Bad Bevensen“, joined the other two. The ship specializes in detecting and clearing underwater mines. It features a fiber-optic, cable-operated drone called „Seefuchs“ (Sea Fox) acting as the ships‘ underwater eyes and ears and, if necessary, is used to dismantle mines.
It is an interesting coincidence that a mine sweeper, of all things, arrived in the waters east of Bornholm two weeks before the nearby pipelines were blown up by the equivalent of approx. 500 kilograms of TNT. Did it or the other ships, the „Oste“ and the submarine hunter „Schleswig-Holstein“, detect anything out of the ordinary during their maneuvers?
It appears that the mine sweeper lingered in the area with its two sister vessels for at least 31 hours (13 Sep 01:36 UTC until 14 Sep 08:26 UTC) before its location signal was lost and it apparently headed to Klaipeda, Lithuania, where it arrived on the morning of 15 September.
Leaving the Area
Shortly after the mine sweeper, the „Oste“ and „Schleswig-Holstein“ both also finally left the waters east of Bornholm after six days. They arrived in the port of Klaipeda, Lithuania, one day later on the morning of 16 September. There they took a break from the exercise, according to a later press release from the German Navy.
A Small Earthquake
Whoever was responsible for the underwater explosions on 26 September, they had picked an especially dark night to set off the first blast. There was a new moon during that night and the sea lay black under the Baltic sky, when the first bomb exploded at 02:03 a.m. local time (00:03 UTC) in the waters southeast of Bornholm.
At that very moment, when the ocean floor shook from a detonation measured by seismologists as a 2.3 on the Richter scale, the „Schleswig-Holstein“ was passing by 56 miles (103 km) to the north. The German submarine hunting vessel was returning from Klaipeda, heading west for the port of Kiel in northern Germany.
Judging by the ship’s movements when the ordnance exploded at 00:03 UTC (02:03 local time), the „Schleswig-Holstein“ did not even slow down from its travel speed of 18.5 knots (34 km/h) – a sign that the crew likely did not notice the blast.
If the German watch officer that night had only known that, 56 miles further south, his country’s economic interests had just been blown to bits by special forces of another nation.
The commercial data we had access to is almost certainly only a partial view of all the vessels that were actually active in that part of the Baltic. Vessel traffic provided on commercial platforms is generally limited to those who choose to broadcast their position on open sources (AIS), while vessels have ways of turning off such transmissions, even if that violates existing safety rules. In addition, transmitter signals are often lost when ships head out to the open sea and out of coastal receiver range.
Full disclosure: The author is by no means a naval investigator or military expert, but instead an investigator of white-collar crime. For some context, military experts were consulted.
Sebastian Okada heads the investigations department at Corporate Trust Business Risk & Crisis Management GmbH, an international security consultancy based in Munich, Germany. He has been an investigator for 18 years.
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