When it was launched it looked like nothing else. Its pizza slice-like design made it one of the most stable ships for its size and it has since spawned a whole new class of crazy looking vessels. Yet this clandestine spy ship is most notorious in Russia, whose military absolutely detests its existence.
Meet Norway's Marjata, one of the most advanced spy ships in the world.
Launched in 1992, the 7,560 ton displacement Marjata, the third Norwegian spy ship to carry that name, has a pretty tough primary mission- to chase around and shadow the Russian Navy's incredibly powerful, Barents and Norwegian Sea based Northern Fleet, through some of the most challenging sea conditions in the world.
Her unique 'Ramform' hull was a revelation of sorts in the maritime design world when she was launched. The design is not only an incredibly stable one, which helps when your mission includes packing around delicate listening sensors and ELINT surveillance gear, but it also allows for generous interior volume and it can stay afloat in heavy seas with large portions of its hull well under the waterline. In addition, cargo shifting and exact trimming is much less critical with a Ramform hull design than it is with traditional hull configurations. The ship's wedge shape design also allows for very quiet operation, which is important for monitoring the underwater activities of potentially unfriendly navies.
Marjata was designed for efficient operation and carries a crew of about 14 sailors along with 30 intelligence specialists, although her complement can change drastically depending on the mission and surveillance technologies installed aboard. The ship also has a large helicopter pad which can facilitate the switching out of crews during long duration missions.
Based normally in Kirkenes, Marjata is most active when the Russian Northern Fleet is as well, constantly shadowing them during large exercises. According to one Russian naval website, the Marjata and her similarly named Norwegian predecessors is so commonly visible during Russian North Sea and arctic naval maneuvers that it has a common nickname, "Masha," and some Russians speculate it is actually crewed by Americans (rough translation):
Probably not in the North is there a ship's officer who would not know who this "Marjata" is. Many old-timers will remember the one old "Masha." Marjata NATO military for many years used the research vessel "Marjata" to monitor military activities , gathering intelligence and military information in the North.
Most of the year the ship is in international waters. Crew of "Marjata" is only American personnel . Rare out ships to perform combat training complete without meeting with this lady. Often it comes in the closed areas and interfere with combat exercises, recording parameters of our stations and radio...
The writer also claims that Russia would commonly do whatever they could short of full on attacking the Marjata to get rid of her:
...The Northern Fleet patrol drove "Masha" from the target position by shooting her in the stern of the RBU and the AK-726. Also fresh in the memory of a respected team of naval commander, given in almost similar circumstances: "The rocket salvo across the island! Island - "Marjata"! "
Nowhere has the presence of the Marjata made more news in these post Cold War times than during the tragic series of events that occurred on August 12th, 2000. On that morning the Russian nuclear cruise missile attack submarine Kursk K-141 was participating in the largest naval exercises since the fall of the Soviet Union and was about to fire a pair of inert torpedoes when she blew up and sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea. Marjata, in her usual fashion, was very nearby monitoring the live-fire drills and as a result she observed the tragic and terribly embarrassing events first hand, something the Russians were far from excited about. The whole ordeal, including the Marjata's part in it, are well presented in this moment-by-moment account featured in The Guardian.
Since the invasion of Crimea last winter, and Russia's subsequently much more provocative military stance on the world stage, western intelligence agencies have been scrambling to keep an eye on what seems like an endless series of land warfare drills, naval exercises, and air combat training events.
The countries along Russia's western border with Europe, and namely near where Russia's bluntly powerful Northern Fleet is based, have been especially busy trying to keep up with and ascertain Russia's mutating geopolitical and military aims. This has been made even more important as a result of Russia's growing intent to lay claim to vast oil and natural gas deposits in the arctic, thus it is quite likely that Marjata has been busier than ever. Some relief coming soon in the form of at least a partial replacement for her, the much larger, although traditionally hulled, the 440 foot Marjata IV.
The hull of what is said to be Norway's next Marjata spy ship:
This new giant intelligence ship was ordered in 2010 and was built in Romania. She was towed through the Bosphorus to Norway last March and is currently being outfitted for her operational debut in 2016. It is said that once finished the ship will be the most advanced intelligence ship in the world and there are some rumors that it may play some role in the US missile defense apparatus as well.
Since her commissioning twenty years ago, other and much more extreme Ramform hull designs have come online, with the format being particularly suited for seismic and other geological survey ships. One of the most incredible and luxurious 'working ships' in the world is a Ramform design, known as the Ramform Titan Class.
The Ramform Titan, operated by Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) is a 3-D seismic mapping, research and exploration vessel, but it has some of the creature comforts of a cruise ship. These include a pool deck, a lecture hall, lounge with with sweeping bow views, central grand staircase and an incredibly gymnasium among other comforts. Her wedge shape and super-wide stern allow for 24 tow points and winches for deploying and towing sensors, as well as easily launching and recovering slips for up to four small fast boats.
Although the Ramform Titan and her identical sister ship Ramform Atlas are the most impressive of the Ramform hull designs, there are others of various sizes with PGS operating nine of the types. The company is also on record saying that the Titan Class will be made up of at least four vessels, with two already having been delivered.
PGS's Ramform fleet are the most capable seismic survey ships in the world, and that capability owes a lot to the Marjata's pioneering design. Still, Ramform hulls are an up and coming configuration for yachts and naval vessels as well.
For the yachting world the design makes perfect sense. It is one of the most stable designs ever conceived. It offers generous internal volumes and wide cross-sections, something that can really open up a designer's creativity. Additionally, the Ramform layout allows for much larger stern, where more and more important features on yachts are located, like the ability to store more tenders and toys, as well as creating a large and wide "steel beach" for passengers to enjoy.
Because of the ship's large footprint but high efficiency, large helicopter pads and aviation hangars no longer have to detract from other potential luxury features, as there is plenty of 'surface area' to go around. Worldwide luxury icon Hermes and artsy contemporary ship builder Wally Yachts have already concepted a minimalist Ramform yacht design, and it was incredibly well received by the yachting world.
On the military end of things, Ramform hull designs could allow naval designers to also rethink space management, and even mission capabilities of traditional classes of ships.
For certain missions where high-speed is not a major factor, Ramfrom designs could provide much more interior volume, deck and stern space than traditional 'linear' combat ship designs. This could be incredibly useful for a dedicated missile defense ship, that really doesn't have to travel fast but has to stay on station for a very long period of time. They also need a lot of deck space to accommodate potentially hundreds of vertical launch cells for missile interceptors.
Seeing as naval persistence and sea basing is becoming a major priority for the United States Navy, Special Operations Command and Marines, the Ramform's large deck and interior space makes a lot of sense to fulfill such a mission. Similar to how the USS Ponce is serving as a mobile sea base right now for special operations and mine sweeping in the Persian Gulf.
USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf:
A Ramform hull ship would be much more capable of such a mission, with its large deck providing space for heavy mine-hunting helicopters like the MH-53 Sea Dragon, and its wide stern being able to house, launch and recover literally dozens of small boats, even while the ship is underway. These small boats don't even have to be manned as a Ramform configured ship could launch and recover a armada of unmanned small boats to provide offensive and defensive swarm capabilities like no other vessel could. Fuel for both aviation and surface warfare assets could be stored in mass in a Ramform hull's vast interior keel space.
As Marjata's time as one of NATO's most important spy ships ticks down, her legacy is a strong one. Being a springboard for a whole new ship design concept that is being used by some of the most advanced exploration vessels in the world, while also leaving the door open for potential yacht and surface warfare designs, is an incredible accomplishment. Yet this humble and unique ship's greatest achievement is the fact that it is so widely despised by the very power that it was built to keep tabs on. Only time will tell if her larger replacement will live up to such a powerful legacy.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com