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Damage to cargo vessel Kmax Ruler in the Black Sea: target or signal?

MariTrace, 27 November 2023

At 16:58 local time on 8 November 2023, Kmax Ruler (IMO no. 9436642), was damaged in a missile strike at the port of Pivdennyi, Ukraine, killing one crew member and injuring four others. The last known position of the Kmax Ruler was approximately 3.5NM due east of the port of Sulina, at N 45°9.016' / E 29°54.561' within the Romanian 12 NM limit, at 03:49 on 8 November 2023, UTC. The reported destination was Pivdennyi (Yuzhnyi), Ukraine, with an estimated arrival time of 15:00 8 November 2023, UTC. Media reports from the scene suggest the carrier was loading a shipment of iron ore thought to be for a customer in China. The Ukrainian pilot onboard (named on 9 November by the Administration of Seaports of Ukraine as 43-year-old 1st class pilot Sergei Surin) was killed in the incident and three Filipino crew members and a port worker were also injured. Analysis by MariTrace of photographs and video images in the public domain suggest that the incident probably occurred at berth no. 7 or 8 of the Pivdennyi Main Port, on the eastern side of the Adzhalytskyi Firth of the inner channel, at 16:58 local time. The incident was first reported by Reuters on 9 November 2023 and re-reported widely on news channels and social media.

The 91,800 dwt bulk carrier Ocean Breeze was built in 2009 by Seongdong Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co., Ltd., South Korea (re-named HSG Sungdong Shipbuilding in 2020) and re-named Kmax Ruler on 1 March 2015. The registered owner since 27 July 2022 is Venus Mare SA, an unknown entity thought to be located on Adriatico Street, Manila, Philippines (IMO no. 6328128); MariTrace research identified the nearest best match as Venus Marine Services, also located on Adriatico Street in Manila. Prior to 2022, Kmax Ruler was owned by Initial Marine Company Limited (Cyprus, company no. HE73224; IMO no. 1765931), who assumed ownership on 26 March 2015 from a dissolved UK entity, Blenheim Shipping UK Limited (company no. 04548270). Kmax Ruler has completed 31 inspections to date, of which the most recent was at Singapore on 13 October 2023, in which 10 deficiencies under Tokyo MOU were recorded. The only recorded deficiency relating to electronics and communications was in a detailed inspection (Black Sea MoU) that took place at the port of Novorossiysk on 28 June 2017, which noted a deficiency with the ship’s satellite 406 MHz/1.6 GHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).

An update released on the social media account of the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) on 10 November 2023 cited Ukrainian officials, stating the strike likely used a KH-31 (AS-17 Krypton) air-launched missile, probably intended for a Ukrainian military target in the vicinity.

The MoD update suggested that, on failing to detect a live military radar signature, the AS-17 may have ‘locked on’ to the ship’s radar onboard Kmax Ruler. Missiles of this type are known to be in service by Russia and others, since 1988. At least five variants are known to date, with a launch range of 15 to 200km and a warhead of 90 to 100kg, configured pre-launch to seek specific radar frequencies; later variants have active (i.e. onboard) radar seeking capabilities. The type of weapon identified in this incident is typically launched from a fast jet tactical fighter plane, in this case, likely an Su-35S carrying an onboard L-265V Khibiny-MV radar warning receiver (with a range of approximately 220 km), which may have detected the ship’s onboard radar or another source nearby as a short range air defence (SHORAD) or anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Commercial vessels typically operate S-band (2 GHz to 4GHz) or X-band (8 GHz to 12 GHz) radar – but these ranges are not exclusive to shipping and are used by a wide range of commonly available devices including Bluetooth and radio-controlled drones (2.4 GHz), air traffic control and weather radar.

It is unlikely that Kmax Ruler was the intended target in this incident. The missile strike is more likely to have been the latest in a series of targeted attacks (of which there have been 21, to date) on Black Sea port infrastructure. The timing of the strike correlates with observed GPS interference and other geolocation data anomalies in the area. While discounts on war risk insurance for vessels willing to transit the area are now in place, industry statements underscore how commercial shipping is increasingly caught up in mistakes and mis-fires in the ongoing conflict. Vessel operators are advised to continue exercising extreme caution and vigilance when approaching ports and congested areas in the northwest regions of the Black Sea.

No AI was used in the writing of this article. MariTrace analysis and reporting is based on open sources; all information is human-curated and assessed via multi-phase, structured methods using industry-standard techniques to check for provenance, bias and accuracy.

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