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Hood

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Richard J. Aldrich’s recent book ‘GCHQ: An uncensored story of Britain’s most secret intelligence agency’ features some information on the planned Sigint ship of the 1960s.

He gives a history elsewhere in the book about the operations of HMS Totem and Turpin in the 1950s. He goes on to say that Superb and Albion also made brief sigint cruises in the late 1940s and that listening equipment was also installed on several frigates, fishery protection ships and trawlers.
The Hampshire Review of 1964 was impressed by the NSA Technical Research Ship programme and wanted to go one better by building a new purpose built ship. The covername would be Communications Trials Ship. Approval was given on 19th July 1965 and it was hoped the ship would sail for trials in mid-1969 for a first operational cruise in 1970. It was hoped eventually three ships would be built.
GCHQ, the Navy and the Ministry of Transport assisted in drawing up the details. The requirements were; the ability to cruise for long periods at 5 kts, 8000 mile range, substantial length for four separated masts for direction-finding, a civil crew of 14 officers and 53 men to operate the ship and 7 officers, 15 warrant officers and 70 (plus 20 more in an emergency) operators to be drawn from the current sigint community. There would be two receiving bays, trials analysis room, tape-editing room, ‘special facilites’ room and a strong room. These features would be housed in a prefabricated unit which would be added to the ship. A prototype sigint system was developed and built by Racal Special Systems Division and trialled in December 1968.
By March 1966 the project had grown and GCHQ were looking at a nuclear powered ship to free space for more sigint staff and of course would be unlimited in range. The vessel was planned to be an existing aircraft carrier converted to nuclear power. This would have ample room for large operating stations and deck space for masts. AEA were brought in as were Harland & Wolff to do the estimations of cost and final planning. Eventually in 1967 the need to cut back spiralling costs and the incidents with the USS Liberty and Pueblo finally killed the project.

Aldrich doesn’t mention which carrier was deemed suitable for conversion. A fleet carrier seems unlikely so that rules out Eagle and Ark Royal, probably Victorious too as she was due for another refit in 1967.
Triumph was still operating as a repair ship East of Suez. Leviathan’s hull was still extant until 1968 when she was scrapped. Centaur had just been demoted to depot ship in 1966, Albion was coming to the end of her career too. Those are the four likely choices, perhaps the front runner is Leviathan as she would need less stripping out and offered a blanker canvas to work from. Even so the costs must have been high and the concept of nuclear power rather hinders the plan to use a civilian crew. At this time the RN was only just beginning the SSN programme so qualified reactor engineering crew are lacking. As ever it’s a case of the 1960s over-enthusiasm to have the best and most complex at whatever cost. A merchant based design would probably have been cheaper.

Does anyone know any more about the likely designs (did the DNC get involved?) or the details?
 

JFC Fuller

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Hood,


First, thanks for posting, this is fascinating! It is the first I have heard of a UK SIGINT ship programme. I think we should question the authors narrative of the programme, it might be worth checking the references he gives for the nuclear element, the nuclear power/aircraft carrier conversion thing might be a case a threading 2 strands together to make something that is not actually correct (i.e; an aircraft carrier conversion may have been under consideration but then nuclear power was considered but in a new build ship). The reason for my hesitation is that converting an aircraft carrier from a steam plant to nuclear power is a crazy idea. When I google book searched this (the view only gave the references not the piece you quoted) one of the references was a Daily Express article. If it was really being suggested that an aircraft carrier should be converted to nuclear propulsion then somebody had really lost the plot.


I would love to know the full story on this.
 

blackstar

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"By March 1966 the project had grown and GCHQ were looking at a nuclear powered ship to free space for more sigint staff and of course would be unlimited in range. The vessel was planned to be an existing aircraft carrier converted to nuclear power."

Yeah, that's just plain nuts.

And even back then nuclear power was expensive. It is also totally unnecessary for a ship that is going to spend most of its time cruising around at 5 knots. It's great for high speeds and long endurance, but you don't need it for a vessel that moves slower than a freighter.
 

Grey Havoc

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blackstar said:
Yeah, that's just plain nuts.

And even back then nuclear power was expensive. It is also totally unnecessary for a ship that is going to spend most of its time cruising around at 5 knots. It's great for high speeds and long endurance, but you don't need it for a vessel that moves slower than a freighter.
On the other hand, given the nature of it's roles, being able to keep a SIGINT/Intel gathering vessel out to sea almost indefinitely would have it's advantages.
 

JFC Fuller

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The more I think about it the more ill-suited a carrier conversion seems to, that type of vessel just seems far to large, especially taking into account the planned crew that the author mentions.
 

Hood

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sealordlawrence,
I share you doubts too. If it really was this feasible to make a nuclear conversion then the RN would have looked at such conversions for other ships. I don't honestly think it was possible to retrofit a reactor and its shielding into an existing ship.

According to the narrative in the book the cover story of the project was that the ship was "a floating radio-transmitting station on behalf of the Diplomatic Wireless Service". He says this allowed some "pre-publicity" which resulted in the Sunday Express article of 5 June 1966. This seems odd, surely any cover should have been watertight, what pre-publicity could GCHQ afford since any decent KGB or GRU agent/ officer is going to work out what's going on. Also he comments on the fact that the Navy lacked enough signint operators to man the ship themselves and the RAF and Army feared the loss of personnel from its land-bases and GCHQ felt that putting civilian operators aboard a ship for months on end would be impractical (he mentions elsewhere in the book about grumbles about overtime during Suez crisis etc.) so it seems odd they kept enlarging the plans when they lacked the money or resources to pay for and operate such a ship. Of course the crew requirements he states in the book might be for the orginial new-build ship idea, the crew requirements for the carrier-based ship would be larger due to the extra engineering staff and sigint operators able to be carried.

Sources;
CTS/P (66)1, 'Communications Trials Ship Watch Commitee: State of the Project and Future Programme' 25/01/1966
MT40/207, 'Communications Trials Ship: Sketch Staff Requirements' 1965 also from that file a couple of transcripts of meetings in 1965 have been quoted.
The source on the nuclear powerplant is; Kay (AEA) to Murray Smith (BT as in British Telecommunications), 'Application of Nuclear Power' 15/03/1966, MT40/207 (note this is footnote number 10 for the passage about nuclear powerplant, carrier conversion and pre-publicity. Whether this source alone mentions all three aspects is the major question for there is no other source listed for those assertions).
The source on the Sunday Express article is; P.Vane 'Britain Plans Atom Ship as Radio Voice in Ocean' 05/06/1966
Also Aldrich notes in this source; see also 'Communications Trials Ship Watch Committee: Working Group 'E' - Finance' minutes of meeting 06/07/1966, MT40/207 (possibly this later source is a reaction to the newspaper article?)
 

JFC Fuller

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Hood,

Thanks again for the reply, I suspect that what we are seeing here is a whole range of ideas (to meet the same basic requirement) being mashed together to form an incoherent one that is not true to reality. I am certain that there was actually a plan for a SIGINT vessel but that the most likely product of this has been lost in the research/editing phase of this book and has become conflated with some of the more outlandish and impractical schemes that usually exist in the margins of such projects. It is an interesting teaser though and is something that has not made its way into the wider RN history of the time yet- there is definitely more research to be done! As for "pre-publicity" intelligence and secrecy in general has always included an element of pointless deniability (as much for ones own populace as for the target of the intelligence gathering operation) so such a silly scheme is hardly surprising.
 

blackstar

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Grey Havoc said:
On the other hand, given the nature of it's roles, being able to keep a SIGINT/Intel gathering vessel out to sea almost indefinitely would have it's advantages.
Crew fatigue would be a problem. Nobody is going to want to be at sea for very long periods of time, especially for a mission that boring. The sailors would get restless.

I don't know off the top of my head of any good articles on sigint ship operations. So much of that remains shrouded in secrecy. However, the US Navy, after the Pueblo seizure in 1968, did change the way it collected sigint. They moved away from small unarmed ships and brought the mission into the fleet itself. I'm not sure when they started putting trailers packed with electronics onboard destroyer size vessels. This was apparently one of the things going on during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and other destroyer escort vessels were also used for this purpose (something that you won't find much information on). That seems to be a better approach overall--putting the equipment on a bunch of ships that can defend themselves and then rotating them in and out of hot zones. (There was a big NSA history declassified a few years ago and it might have some of this story.)

This sigint carrier idea seems like it would be a big, obvious target.
 

Sea Skimmer

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A big fat target? Why would this matter, its clearly a ship for peacetime operations. Sustaining operations as long as possible is vital to SIGINT because if you are only active part of the time the enemy will only make important transmissions like testing new radar systems when you are not around.
 

Hano

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My suspicion is that an SSN would do the job far better than any kind of conversion. Better still it could do so without the opposition even knowing it was there.
And judging by the restrictions still extant on certain files at the PRO this is almost certainly what did happen...
cheers
H
PS Long time lurker, first time poster, thought I'd say hi - keep up the good work y'all
 

Hano

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Hobbes said:
There was one requirement that's difficult to fit on an SSN:

substantial length for four separated masts for direction-finding

Fair point. I just wonder how that requirement changed as advances in electronics came onstream? It's not my area, but presumably transistorisation and so on would have had a significant effect as time went? Anyone know more?
cheers
H
 

Hobbes

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They were trying to do triangulation from a single ship: with two receivers, you carefully aim the antennas to get the direction of the broadcast, and plot where they intersect. This gets more accurate if the antennas are further apart.
These days, using GPS, you can probably get away with using a single antenna and moving it (if the broadcast lasts long enough). In the 1960s, precise navigation was still an unsolved problem, although inertial navigation was being worked on and had the potential to be accurate enough.
 

blackstar

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Sea Skimmer said:
A big fat target? Why would this matter, its clearly a ship for peacetime operations.
USS Liberty
USS Pueblo
 

Hood

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Well it was events like the Pueblo Incident that scuppered this plan as much as the costs.

In concept it was to replace/ augment the land bases that were being rolled back by decolonisation. After Suez places like Sri Lanka wanted rid of British spy bases on their territory and so thoughts turned to having a ship which could replicate these functions which could move in response to crisis flashpoints and cover the world East of Suez. Also remember this ship is not just for looking at radar info or rocket telemetry (that's covered by Comet R.1 and Nimrod R.1 flights over Turkey and Iran into the Caspian Sea and submarine elint in the Barent Sea) but rather they are meant to hoover up all radio traffic, diplomatic, commerical, morse code etc for vast areas. Obviously this would have required some computer power by the time the ship commissioned or some sort of sat-com link to the banks of IBMs back at GCHQ where the real data-crunching went on. Also the book mentions the ship was to detect 'moon-bounce' waves from Siberia. Of course the satellite took over this aspect.

Another interesting point is what flag these ships would have come under. With civilian crews but a mixed civilian, naval, military sigint crew would these ships ever have been offical Royal Navy vessels? One supposes not, again they can't masquerade as pure civilian ships so would they have been units of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary? Or some other quasi-military organisation?
 

Sea Skimmer

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blackstar said:
USS Liberty
USS Pueblo

Both would have been fine had they been large aircraft carriers. The former would have been impossible to misidentify, the later would have been too big to be threatened by small North Korean gunboats. Pueblo also would have been okay if she'd mounted any actual armament, and both ships were attacked mainly because of incompetent leadership in the CIA and Navy, not because they hadn't been able to operate safely, as did a dozen other ships in the same role, for years upon years.


Something like ten US and CIA ELINT planes were actually shot down or damaged by communist aircraft BTW, but somehow nobody stopped building unarmed transport plane conversions for the job.
 

Abraham Gubler

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Hobbes said:
These days, using GPS, you can probably get away with using a single antenna and moving it (if the broadcast lasts long enough). In the 1960s, precise navigation was still an unsolved problem, although inertial navigation was being worked on and had the potential to be accurate enough.
Aircraft used radar fixes from terrain and doppler shift to find out where they were before highly accurate GPS/INS.
 

blackstar

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Sea Skimmer said:
Something like ten US and CIA ELINT planes were actually shot down or damaged by communist aircraft BTW, but somehow nobody stopped building unarmed transport plane conversions for the job.
But they did start operating them differently and using different aircraft. They got rid of the prop planes, for instance. And they operated them in such a way that they could put up fighters for protection if necessary.

My point being that a large, or slow, or unarmed vessel just hanging around at sea was considered outdated after those incidents.
 

Sea Skimmer

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They didn't get rid of prop planes, look at the EP-3 the Chinese rammed. Now piston engines, those were already on the way out but only because they were old. Remember several RB-47s were attacked or shot down in the early cold war, and they had tail guns as well as being rather fast in an era of subsonic fighters. As for escorts, not really. RC-135 flights were being made along the edges of the USSR in the 1980s anything from one to several thousand miles from so much as a base for friendly fighters. Some of those flights are a factor in why the Korean airliner got knocked down when it strayed into Soviet airspace on a parallel course to an RC-135 flight. Sure, some things did change, mainly to not be blatantly stupid about how operations were conducted, but the US just kept operating and fielding new unprotected recon platform long after those incidents, nothing else to do about it if you want certain kinds of ELINT.


Calling Pueblo big is more then a bit generous for a ship that displaced about as much as some LCTs did. That was a big part of her whole problem. If she'd even been as big as USS Liberty its doubtful the North Koreans would have attacked her, and if they had her crew would have had more options. Plus you could always just put a three or five inch gun on the stern on any of these vessels, which would have been wise. As it was the rise of satellites was already taking over most of the role these ships fulfilled by the late 1960s, but some did operate into the early 70s as I recall. Meanwhile Russian and Chinese ones are still cruising the ocean to this very day, though some of them do have light cannon. Doesn't seem like an obsolete idea at all if you really want to soak up information, especially certain tactical radio frequencies that don't propagate into space. Dangerous, sure, but it looks like the real issue was cost and Pueblo more of an easy excuse about why suddenly a capability is not needed.
 

JFC Fuller

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The Royal Navy was using the Ship Inertial Navigation System (SINS) from the mid-60s onwards, it was used in the Polaris boats, aircraft carriers amongst others (was also a technology transfer from the US), IIRC it was first installed in Dreadnought in 1962.
 

blackstar

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Sea Skimmer said:
Calling Pueblo big is more then a bit generous for a ship that displaced about as much as some LCTs did.
I wasn't calling Pueblo big, but she was slow and unarmed. After those two incidents, the US Navy changed the way it did sigint operations. My point is that the concept mentioned earlier for the British sigint ship just doesn't look viable. There are better ways to do the mission, such as electronics vans on destroyers and using submarines.
 

JFC Fuller

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blackstar said:
I wasn't calling Pueblo big, but she was slow and unarmed. After those two incidents, the US Navy changed the way it did sigint operations. My point is that the concept mentioned earlier for the British sigint ship just doesn't look viable. There are better ways to do the mission, such as electronics vans on destroyers and using submarines.
The problem is that beyond "SIGINT" we do not know precisely what the mission was, accept that in at least one incarnation it required three widely spaced masts. So it is somewhat difficult to make any particular analysis as to the suitability or otherwise of a ship platform to undertake the mission.

This subject is a fascinating one but at the moment we actually know very little beyond a few snapshots of some proposed solutions.
 

Grey Havoc

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Hood said:
He gives a history elsewhere in the book about the operations of HMS Totem and Turpin in the 1950s. He goes on to say that Superb and Albion also made brief sigint cruises in the late 1940s and that listening equipment was also installed on several frigates, fishery protection ships and trawlers.
Quick side question. Didn't HMS Manxman also carry out SIGINT duties during Suez?
 

Hano

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I'll check when I get home, but iirc she was part of the C2 element.
And (this is where it gets really hazy), wasn't she an old Corvette, I can't recall the class offhand
As to potential roles for smaller hulls back then, there's a whole cornucopia of possibilties
cheers
H
 

TomS

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Hano said:
I'll check when I get home, but iirc she was part of the C2 element.
And (this is where it gets really hazy), wasn't she an old Corvette, I can't recall the class offhand
Fast minelayer -- basically a bloody big fast destroyer-type ship with self-defense armament and a massive mine capacity. The big open mine stowage space made them attractive as fast transports. I've not heard of them doing SIGINT, and one service member's account of her Suez service makes it seem improbable.

http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/hmsmanxman/life/tony_hills/page_4.htm

Manxman's mining deck which was void of actual mines, was, among other things, used to store fresh fruit and vegetables during the Suez Crisis, and we made many a run back and forth as a convoy supply ship.
That seems an unlikely employment for a ship doing valuable signals intelligence work.
 

The Skipper

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I'll check when I get home, but iirc she was part of the C2 element.
And (this is where it gets really hazy), wasn't she an old Corvette, I can't recall the class offhand
As to potential roles for smaller hulls back then, there's a whole cornucopia of possibilties
cheers
H
H.M.S. Manxman was a minelayer, not a corvette.
 
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