Key point: Each side make spy ships to keep tabs on each other and gather intelligence. However, not all ships were made equal.
In June 1981, the Soviet Union began building a huge, nuclear-powered reconnaissance ship specifically designed to sail thousands of miles to the U.S. missile test site at the remote Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There, the vessel would sit for months, hoovering up electronic data in order to determine what America’s most secretive weapons could do.
But the spy ship Ural, completed in May 1983, sailed only once—from the Baltic shipyard where she was built to her home port of Vladivostok—and never went anywhere near Kwajalein. Hobbled by faulty hardware, cursed with bad luck and starved of funds for repairs, Ural was slowly dismantled.
The giant spy ship’s sad history is a window into the vast, sophisticated and highly secret machinations of Cold War espionage—machinations that sometimes didn’t quite work out as planned. And sometimes resulted in weaponry that was more dangerous to its operators than to the enemy.
This first appeared earlier this year and is being reposted due to reader interest.
Nearly 900 feet long, 100 feet across at her widest point and displacing 34,640 tons of water, Ural was huge. Her hull and machinery were based on the blueprints of the Kirov-class nuclear battlecruiser, one of the biggest and most powerful surface warships ever built.
Her twin nuclear reactors could, in theory, generate 171 megawatts—as much as a small civilian power plant. All that juice was meant to both propel the ship to a speed of 22 knots and power one of the densest, most complex arrays of radars, radios and electronic listening devices ever put to sea.
“The Ural could loiter for an unlimited amount of time in neutral waters without refueling in the American littoral and analyze the electromagnetic spectrum around American ICBM and strategic aviation bases,” the Russian Independent Military Review wrote in 2006. “She is equipped to quickly evaluate an enormous amount of reconnaissance data and transmit it to the national command authority.”
But exactly which radars and sensors Ural carried have never been disclosed. “Even today, 25 years after being laid down, it is very difficult to find reliable information about her construction,” the Russian publication noted.
In any event, Ural never got to actually use all that high-tech gear. She was a sailing disaster magnet from the moment she entered service in December 1988. Soviet—and later Russian—authorities were never willing to risk sending Ural on an actual deployment.
History of mishaps
Ural’s bad luck began early on, during her long voyage from the shipyard in the Baltic Sea to her Pacific home port—a two-month trip that took the giant spy ship and her 1,000 sailors all the way around Europe, presumably through the Suez Canal and onward across Southeast Asia to Vladivostok, near Russia’s borders with China and North Korea.
During a stopover in Cam Ran Bay in Vietnam, guards aboard Ural threw grenades at what they thought was an enemy infiltrator swimming toward the secret ship. Turned out it was a sea turtle. Russian Navy Blog helpfully listed that and other screw-ups a 2008 post.
Ural didn’t just kill turtles. She also became what Russian Navy Blog described as “one of those rare ships free of rats.” When her electronics were all switched on, something—radiation, perhaps—swiftly killed all the rodents aboard. Rats “only reappeared when the ship moored at the pier.”
The recon ship finally arrived at Vladivostok only for her crew to discover that the vessel’s special pier wasn’t complete. “She was forced to anchor out in the bay and begin her invisible battle with corrosion and failing machinery, which had to remain running while at anchor to support the systems that supported the huge crew,” Independent Military Review recalled.
Soviet commanders wanted Ural to head to Kwajelein, where since the 1960s the U.S. military had been testing ballistic nuclear missiles and special anti-missile interceptors—the latter precursors of America’s current high-tech missile defense shield.
But the brass quickly canceled deployment plans after the extent of Ural’s problems became evident. The reactor cooling system didn’t work properly. The Korall surveillance gear and its associated Elbrus computer malfunctioned. “There was nothing fleet specialists could do about them,” the Russian journal noted.
In the summer of 1990, a fire broke out on the spy ship. “A large part of the vessel was damaged,” the blog English Russia reported.
It got worse. In the fall of 1991, a powerful storm tore the scorched Ural loose from her moorings and swept her out to sea, nearly dashing the atomic vessel against a rocky islet. According to Russian Navy Blog, the next day the crew got special deployment rations including sausage and milk, as the vessel was technically away from her home port—small consolation considering the accidental “deployment” almost destroyed Ural.
And in 1992, Ural was pier-side in Vladivostok when an ammo depot just a mile away accidentally exploded, peppering the naval base and docked ships with rounds and shrapnel. “Under a hail of fire, the crew, at night, with only the help of one tug and her own power, moved the ship to a safe place,” Russian Navy Blog stated.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, taking the Soviet military with it. Russian shipbuilding ground to a halt. The Kremlin could not afford to pay for even routine training and deployments—to say nothing of the potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs Ural needed.
She wasted away in Vladivostok. Over time, Ural took on water and began listing five degrees—a problem that several repair efforts could not correct. To keep her from breaking free in another storm, dock workers actually welded the giant ship to the pier.
Being assigned to Ural, besides being horribly dangerous and uncomfortable, was a career-killer for professional seamen and naval specialists. “Officers sent to crew the ship requested transfer or release from duty after a year or a year and a half of prospectless service on board,” according to Independent Military Review. “There were occasions when the command didn’t satisfy such requests and the officers jumped overboard and swam for shore.”
Ural’s crew dwindled to just 100 sailors, 10 percent her original complement. The shrinking manpower hastened her slide into utter decrepitude. There was talk of selling the ship or even using her as a civilian power plant, but the Kremlin would not risk exposing her secret equipment—even if it didn’t work.
In 2002, the Russian navy formally decommissioned Ural—and spent nearly the next decade figuring out how to dispose of her. In the meantime, the giant spy ship finally saw active service … in fiction.
In Max Brooks’ 2006 zombie apocalypse book World War Z, Ural is the broadcasting base for Radio Free Earth, the news network of zombie-war survivors. And in the 2009 anime Evangelion, Earth forces use Ural as a command post in battles with powerful invaders.
But in real life, Ural was a lifeless hulk. By 2010, she was at the Far East Zvezda Shipyard for dismantling, a process that was due to wrap up in 2017.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared earlier this year and is being reposted due to reader interest.