The construction of Sweden’s new signals intelligence (SIGINT) ship is well underway in Poland. It is time to replace the 34 year old Orion, and last year the Saab Group won the contract to build a new and larger ship.
The new ship will be 74 meters long and have a displacement of 2,200 tons. That should make for a more robust and stabile platform than Orion which is only 61 meters long and displaces 1,200 tons.
In March 2018, construction began at the Polish shipyard Nauta, where the ship itself will be built. After that, the ship will be moved to Karlskrona in Sweden for installation of the sensitive intelligence equipment. The ship will be ready for service in 2020.
It would be wrong to see the new ship as directly related to growing tensions with Russia. The decision to replace Orion was made back in 2010 when nobody in Sweden had noticed a decline in security yet. It is most convenient, though, that the Swedish politicians made this choice. The ship will be very useful in the present security climate.
It is hard to imagine that a SIGINT ship will survive long in an actual war. They are slow and poorly equipped to defend themselves. But they are important tools in times of tensions and during the phases leading up to a war.
Fundamentally, such a ship has three purposes. First, it is a terrific intelligence gathering tool. This is the feature that is most advertised about the ships. It is surrounded with great secrecy what intelligence they are technically capable of collecting, but a good guess is that everything related to radio communications — including mobile phones — is in the standard package. Collection of radar signatures from ships, aircraft, and weapon systems is also a likely feature. To this comes probably a range of other things.
All this helps establish an understanding of the normal pattern of activity in a particular area, and it reveals deviations that can function as early warnings about special activities. It also increases the general situational awareness and improves the understanding of the adversary’s capabilities and doctrines.
A second use for a SIGINT ship is active electronic warfare. Russia has demonstrated that their SIGINT ships can jam both GPS navigation and cellular networks in large areas. I would imagine that the Swedish ship can do the same.
And finally, SIGINT ships are a powerful tool for political signaling (no pun intended). Often they are placed just outside the limits of an adversary’s territorial waters for long periods of time. This sends a clear message that you are watching what the opponent is up to. It also compels the adversary to allocate resources to keep an eye on the intelligence ship. This can lead to an intriguing game of interactive naval signaling along the lines of ‘We know that you know that we know’.
In the Baltic Area, specialized SIGINT ships are operated by Norway, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia.