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Spy Ship
Not James Bond/Sydney Bristow, although that's one for The Ship Yard...

A vehicle, in whatever medium, that looks like a civilian one, but is actually there to gather intelligence. Typically disguised as fishing trawlers, because they're so ubiquitous on the oceans that even though every navy and spy agency knows fishing trawlers are used for spying there's no way to know which ones are spy ships and which are genuinely just there to catch fish.

Supertrope of Van in Black.

See also Black Helicopter.


Examples:

Comic Books

Film
  • As a Long Runner series of movies about spies, James Bond films of course have several examples:
    • An odd variation in The Man with the Golden Gun. James Bond discovers that the partially sunken RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Victoria harbor has been turned into a British listening post for spying on the Chinese.
    • For Your Eyes Only has one accidentally fish up a Sea Mine and sink.
    • This goes back to Dr. No: Quarrel runs a simple fishing boat, but he helps out secret agents all the time.
  • The Final Countdown has the USS Nimitz task force shadowed by a Soviet-flagged "fishing trawler" that isn't doing much fishing.
    • Truth in television, see real life below
  • The Wackiest Ship In The Army (and the subsequent Recycled: The Series) was set in the Pacific theater of World War II and centered about the crew of the a leaky wooden twin-masted schooner (the USS Echo in the movie and the USS Kiwi in the series) whose mission was to place spies behind Japanese lines. The ship's cover was an itinerant trading vessel sailing under a neutral flag.

Literature
  • Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith. The protagonist discovers that the Soviet factory ship he's working on is broadcasting fake submarine signals meant to be picked up by an American spy vessel — one of the trawlers that provide their fish.
  • Tom Clancy's Without Remorse has Russian "fishing trawlers" following a fleet battlegroup on a highly classified and sensitive mission. Fortunately, they're known to be gathering intel and are easily fooled.
  • In The Bible, when Joseph had become vizier of Egypt and his brothers came to buy grain, Joseph pretended he thought they were this. As they had earlier sold him for a slave one can see why.
  • Honor Harrington presented many variations on this:
    • Dedicated spy ships disguised as merchant vessels, sometimes trolling around for suspiciously long periods of time waiting for a cargo to arrive.
    • Actual merchant vessels collecting what information they could for their government, including merchant ships captained by reserve officers from their home navies). These ships would sometimes be fitted out with better communications equipment or engines to help them gather info and run it home, in addition to carrying out their actual freight-hauling business.
    • Fast Courier Boats, either operating in an official diplomatic capacity or simply under the employ of a merchant or journalist agency that would have legitimate need to send messages quickly.
    • Merchant ships trying to shadow a military force on the move is much rarer (as it is very difficult behavior to justify In-Universe). The one time it happens, the Havenite warship being tailed turns around and attacks their follower once it becomes clear there is no legitimate reason for them to be following them. Unfortunately for the destroyer crew, the merchant ship was actually a heavily armed privateer, and the ensuing battle is a short one in the Privateer's favor.
  • At one point in The Thrawn Trilogy, smuggler and information broker Talon Karrde is discreetly informed by an ally that the ally's ships will attack the Imperial shipyard at Bilbringi. In order to spy on the resulting chaos, Karrde arranges for his ships to take on a legitimate shipping contract to deliver parts to Bilbringi (a ruse which he uses several times, equally often for spying or sabotage). While there, they also happen to record a mysterious but trivial detail that ultimately proves highly valuable to the New Republic.

Live-Action TV
  • The Doctor Who story "Remembrance of the Daleks" has a variation. The Seventh Doctor encounters an antenna van that seems to be tracking who's paid their TV license fee, but is actually tracking alien (read: Dalek) energy signatures.

Tabletop Games
  • Free Traders can sometimes do this in Traveller.

Video Games
  • The second mission of Ace Combat 5 has the player character and his squadron investigating a reconnaissance vessel that had launched UAVs near the Osean shoreline. Later in the game, the Andromeda's signal intercept capabilities play a key role in the plot.

Western Animation

Real Life
  • Many navies do it:
    • The USSR had at least ten types of these, such as the "Okean" and "Primorye" classes. Much of their commercial fishing fleet was, according to The Other Wiki, also engaged in spying ops on the side. These "trawlers" frequently were used to spy on US carrier battle groups as that was the greatest threat to the Soviet Navy.
  • Before WWII, a small Japanese fishing boat was actually mapping the coast of Southern California and northern Mexico, and listening to radio signals.
  • USS Pueblo. This was a rather less subtle type, rather than being disguised as a commonplace civilian vessel it was openly a US Navy vessel, but officially a "technical research ship" that was supposedly researching atmospheric phenomena. The lack of a disguise meant that such ships could be equipped with a more extensive array of electronic surveillance devices it also meant their true mission was pretty much an open secret.
    • Another "technical research ship" was the USS Liberty, infamously attacked by the Israeli military in an apparent case of mistaken identity during the Six Day War. Whether Israel actually mistook the Liberty for a much smaller Egyptian ship as claimed remains deeply controversial to this day and quickly became fodder for conspiracy theories.
  • In modern times submarines have largely taken over this role from surface vessels as they are more easily able to escape detection(obviously). This largely happened as a result of the USS Pueblo incident. This is known as ELINT(Electronic Intelligence) and is one of the most useful purposes for submarines today.
  • Ghengis Khan and probably every other ruler in the world used merchants as spies from time to time. As they are among the few people who will be traveling, it makes sense.


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