A spy ship or reconnaissance vessel is a dedicated ship intended to gather intelligence, usually by means of sophisticated electronic eavesdropping. In a wider sense, any ship intended to gather information could be considered a spy ship.

Oker, an Oste-class ELINT and reconnaissance ship, of the German Navy

Spy ships are usually controlled by a nation's government, due to the high costs and advanced equipment required. They tend to be parts of the nation's navy, though they may also be operated by secret services.

Naval trawlers masquerade as civilian ships such as fishing trawlers, which could be reasonably expected to remain in a certain area for a long time.

Ships which are used to infiltrate spies or special forces are sometimes also called "spy ships".[1]


An early version of what would become known as a spy ship is the United States civilian cargo ship USS Gold Star (AK-12), which made frequent voyages to Japan, China and the Philippines with cargo and passengers during the 1920s and 1930s.[2] Starting in 1933 as a station ship she was assigned to monitor internal Japanese Fleet frequencies and direction finder azimuths. She had three intercept operators and one chief radioman supervised by an officer. Gold Star and ground stations provided significant intelligence before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.[3]

Spy ships in the modern sense of being specially built and entirely dedicated to intelligence tasks came into being during the early Cold War, and they are in use by all major powers. Their uses, in addition to listening in on communications and spy on enemy fleet movements, were to monitor nuclear tests and missile launches (especially of potential ICBMs). One of the most important functions for both Cold War spy ship fleets, especially in the 1960s, was the gathering of submarine "signatures" – the patterns of noise that could often identify the specific type of submarine and were thus valuable in anti-submarine warfare. During that era, the United States fielded about 80 vessels, usually classified as "environmental research" craft, while the Soviet Union had around 60 ships, often converted trawlers or hydrographic research ships.[4]

In the late 1980s, the Soviet fisheries fleet was known for having equipped many of their thousands of ships with sophisticated SIGINT and ELINT equipment, thus functioning as auxiliary spy ships tracking western naval vessels and electronic communications (though their main function remained commercial fishing).[5]


While USNS Vanguard was not strictly a spy ship, being used for space tracking, there is some overlap between her capabilities and those of a spy ship.

A spy ship usually stays in international waters[6][7] (or at least outside territorial waters), so as to not violate territorial borders. From there, it will use its electronic equipment to monitor sea and air traffic, radio and radar[4] frequencies and also try to intercept and decrypt coded radio or phone communications. This is mostly done via passive means such as radio receivers or passive sonar. Sometimes however, active measures such as radar or sonar may also be used to detect the movement of aircraft, missiles, ships or other vehicles or troops.[8][9] However, this risks revealing the ship's purpose.[citation needed]

As it is located much closer to the surveilled area than a fixed installation (given a close by shoreline), the monitoring is usually much more efficient and in some respects better than even that of spy satellites.[citation needed]

Tracking vessels also have some of the capabilities of spy ships, and as they are controlled by their national governments, they are also intermittently used for similar purposes, such as tracking enemy missile tests.[citation needed]

Soviet AGI trawlersEdit

As the United States Navy began deploying ballistic missile submarines in 1960, the Soviet Union attempted to obtain more information about the capabilities of the UGM-27 Polaris missile and the locations of the submarines capable of launching them. While the Soviet Navy requested more sophisticated ships, they were allocated trawlers (called tra-ou-lery) from the fishing fleet equipped with more sophisticated sensors and communication equipment. Very capable crews were assigned to these trawlers of unremarkable appearance. They were assigned to patrol stations off United States naval bases to photograph and report arrival and departure of United States warships and auxiliaries. Other trawlers of similar appearance would patrol weapons firing ranges used by the United States Navy to observe practice firings of modern weapons and record the acoustic and/or electromagnetic signature of the sonar, search radar, fire-control radar, guidance, and/or command electronics of each weapons system.[10] The United States Navy officially designated these trawlers as Auxiliary, General Intelligence or AGI, and they were informally known as "tattletales".[11]

An AGI might be assigned to a single patrol station for as long as six months. These ships were not fast enough to keep up with most warships, but they sometimes congregated around aircraft carriers conducting air operations of the United States Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean or United States Seventh Fleet in the western Pacific Ocean, or in suspected patrol areas of ballistic missile submarines. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized a counter AGI program for United States destroyers to come alongside the AGIs to push against them, foul their screws with steel nets, and focus high power electromagnetic transmitters to burn out the amplifying circuitry of their electronic sensors. The AGI crews then revealed their ship-handling skills using superior maneuverability to evade the destroyers' intentions. This jousting in international waters continued until signing of the U.S.–Soviet Incidents at Sea agreement in 1972.[10]

In 1972, as the U.S. and U.K. partners started operating radar station Cobra Mist, it garnered attention from many Soviet spy trawlers.[12] A year later, the radar station was shut down due to interference. The source of the interference was never confirmed and some theories still hold Soviet countermeasures responsible. [12]

List of spy shipsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ French, Howard W. (12 September 2002). "Suspected Spy Ship Salvaged". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  2. ^ Lademan, J. U. Jr. (1973). USS Gold Star - Flagship of the Guam Navy. December 1973. United States Naval Institute Proceedings. pp. 68–69. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  3. ^ National Security Agency - Naval Security Agency Report (1986). "The Origination and Evolution of Radio Traffic Analysis - The Period between the Wars" (PDF). NSA. National Security Agency. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 September 2013. Retrieved 4 June 2014. DOCID: 3362395 - Approved for Release by NSA. on 06-16-2008, FOIA Case #51505 - UNCLASSIFIED See pages 31 & 32.
  4. ^ a b "The Ferret Fleets". Time. 2 February 1968. Archived from the original on 24 October 2008. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  5. ^ Kim, Byung Ki (6 September 1988). "Moscow's South Pacific Fishing Fleet Is Much More Than It Seems". Asian Studies Backgrounder. The Heritage Foundation (80). Archived from the original on 28 February 2009.
  6. ^ Lu, Fiona (16 August 2003). "Legislative group says fishermen are spying for Beijing". Taipei Times. p. 3.
  7. ^ "Spy Ship Off L.I. Awaits Trident Sub". The New York Times. The Associated Press. 13 June 1981. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  8. ^ "Soviet Spy Ship Waiting to Observe Trident Test". The New York Times. The Associated Press. 14 June 1981. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  9. ^ "Don't Arm Serbs, US Warns". BBC. 3 April 1999. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  10. ^ a b Murphy, John. "Cold War Warriors: Spy Ships - Theirs and Ours". Emmitsburg News-Journal. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  11. ^ Gregory, William H. (1984). "Their Tattletales (Our Problems)". Proceedings. United States Naval Institute. 110 (2): 97–99.
  12. ^ a b Piesing, Mark. "The eerie emptiness of 'Britain's Area 51'". British Broadcasting Corporation Future. Retrieved 9 January 2023.
  13. ^ Puby, Manu (16 March 2021). "India commissions secretive nuclear missile tracking vessel". The Economic Times. Retrieved 16 March 2021.
  14. ^ "Norge får to spionskip - satser store summer på "Eger"". VG (in Norwegian). Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  15. ^ "Spy ship changes name and continues intelligence mission". The Independent Barents Observer. Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  16. ^ "New spy vessel to keep track with "unpredictable" Russia". Barentsobserver. Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  17. ^ Sanger, David E.; Schmitt, Eric (26 October 2015). "Russian Ships Near Data Cables Are Too Close for U.S. Comfort". The New York Times.