Russia’s military icebreakers and the race for the Polar ‘silk road’
As Russia demonstrates its growing interest in the Artic, Robin Ashby, director general of the UK Defence Forum, explores technology and weapons system developments supporting the country’s military activity in the region.
Arkitka is the first of a new class of Russian nuclear icebreakers, designed to smash through Arctic ice up to 3m thick. But her long-delayed maiden voyage followed on a series of failed trials and was marred by an inability to find thick enough ice to demonstrate her full potential, as well as equipment failures.
Instead of sailing the Northern Sea Route in splendour, last November the Arkitka was back in her home port of Murmansk for more repairs. Like much equipment in modern Russia, she has over-promised, under-delivered, and finding out what really happened is difficult.
But the icebreaker programme, known as Project 22220, is an important example of unique Russian capabilities which have been world-leading in their time, such as the AK47 rifle and the T34 tank. It is a clear statement of the country’s investment in both defending its own Arctic interests and positioning itself to benefit from the consequences and opportunities of climate change. These consequences have changed the security perspectives of other players as well.
// Project 22220 icebreakers Arktika (left) and Sibir under construction at Baltic Shipyard in August 2018. Credit: Alekc2m / Wikipedia
Military interest in the Arctic grows
Military build-up, exercises and activities in the Arctic region have increased. Russia has announced exercise Zapad-2021 this September, following on from Zapad-2017, which included substantial all-domain manoeuvres in the Arctic. And, significantly, on 1 January, the Northern Fleet was declared to be Russia’s 5th military district.
Military power projection in the region is already serious, as further evidenced by the landing of a US B-1 bomber north of the Arctic Circle, at Bodo in Northern Norway, in early March.
Despite its impoverishment, with an economy that falls between those of Italy and Spain in size, Russia seeks to simultaneously collaborate in civilian and security dimensions, modernise its defence forces, and secure its large territory from potential threats.
Any analysis of military-strategic policy would quickly conclude that what is underway now meets at least three principal aims: homeland defence, securing currently exploited and potentially emerging economic opportunities, and dominating the space for possible three-ocean power projection against its two principal rivals.
The technological developments that will give it advanced capabilities to do so include military icebreakers, air and missile defence, aviation, precision missiles and infantry fighting vehicle. In a race in a changing environment, Russia is certainly first out of the starting blocks.
Russia’s protective dome
Strategically speaking, the Arctic Ocean is the Silk Road of the 21st century. Given Russia’s historic preoccupation with ice-free routes, it is extremely aware of what it means to have its Northern Fleet astride – and in control of – the emerging shortcut from the Far East joining the North Atlantic and its route towards the Baltic Sea, the home of the Russian Baltic Fleet to the west, to Asia and Vladivostok the home of its Pacific Fleet in the east.
In 2015 it was reported that Russia had plans to build 13 aerodromes and six cantonments along a 20,000 km coastline in the Arctic. The string of new and refurbished bases was described by then Northern Fleet commander Admiral Nikolay Yevmenov as a ‘protective dome’, and sums up the Russian approach now being implemented.
Many of the installations, with radar detachments and 2,500m runways, can receive Russian fighter aircraft. During the Cold War, forward deployment and staging of strategic bombers was often practiced, even in winter. Such an experience will not have been forgotten.
The radars improve domain awareness in Arctic airspace, and many bases are already equipped with modern, sophisticated weaponry including the Rubezh coastal missile systems and the Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft weapon systems.
// Map of Russian military installations along the Arctic coast.
Military dual-use icebreakers: a unique capability
For many years, Russia has owned more icebreakers than a multiple of the rest of the world combined. The idea of using ‘military’ icebreakers to secure Russian strategic dominance in the Arctic region has been seen before in Moscow’s military-strategic calculations. But the scale and speed of the current investment in greater capabilities is very significant.
As well as Project 22220, Russia is moving forward on its Project 10510 Lider-class nuclear-powered icebreakers, under contract by Rosatom and due for completion in 2027. Steel was cut for the massive 67,000 tonne Russiya in the Zvezda shipyard north of Vladivostok last year.
According to Russian sources, icebreakers of this type “should raise transportation capabilities [in the Arctic] to a qualitatively new level”. This type of icebreaker, primarily intended to transport hydrocarbons, will also facilitate the navigation of both civilian and military vessels.
This will be possible due to technical characteristics which, according to Topwar.ru, include year-round operational capabilities and the ability to operate for up to eight months with 130 people on board, the ability to overcome various types of ice up to 2m thick, spaces for helicopters and “special munition as well as weaponry”, and the latest in radio-electronic equipment, which will secure steady navigation under even the most challenging geographic and climactic conditions.
This icebreaker class could be equipped with the 3M22 Tsirkon (Zirkon) scramjet anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile with a reported striking distance of up to 1,000km.
Russia made further progress with its icebreakers in October 2019 with the launch of the Ivan Papanin (Project 23550) military icebreaker. According to Russian sources, it will be equipped with a new missile-defence system, radio-electronic defence, and Poliment-Redut ship-borne anti-aircraft weapons systems.
This icebreaker class could be equipped with the 3M22 Tsirkon (Zirkon) scramjet anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile with a reported striking distance of up to 1,000km. The prospect is a little way off, however, as the missile is still undergoing tests and will not become fully operable for at least “a couple of years”, according to a Sputnik Radio report in January 2020.
By introducing the Ivan Papanin, Russia has demonstrated its ability to produce vessels combining civilian and military functions – a capability Western naval forces currently do not have and may be unable to acquire.
Trials are also underway of modular weapons for different missions, based on the Poliment-Redut ship-borne anti-aircraft weapons system. This includes the 9M69 with a 1200km range and the 9M100 for short-range use against aircraft, missiles and drones. They can be ‘quad packed’ with four types in a single silo cell.
Commissioning is now expected in 2023 and 2024. The Purga (‘blizzard’), a slightly modified design, is under construction for the FSB Border Service at the Vyborg Yard for commissioning in 2024, and a further one is planned.
Other Arctic capabilities in development
In February 2020, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that by the end of the year the Northern Fleet would “receive more than 180 pieces of military equipment specifically tailored for the harsh conditions of the Arctic region”, which will include, among others, “the K-549 Knyaz Vladimir, a Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, and the Admiral Flota Kasatonov frigate” as well as “four capital ships, submarines and motor ships”.
In air and missile defence developments, Moscow announced it would be deploying two Resonance-N radar complexes to the Kola Peninsula by the end of 2020. Resonance-N can detect ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, hypersonic targets and stealth aircraft. According to one source, it “will allow Russia to increase the military potential of the Northern Fleet and secure uninterrupted monitoring of the most missile-dangerous directions controlled by the fleet”.
Russian military expert and commentator Igor Korotchenko said: “We have created […] the TOR-M2DT, which is specifically designed for Arctic conditions. It is capable of targeting almost all flying objects”. This navalised Gauntlet is said to be the first air defence system in the world designed from the start to shoot down precision guided weapons day and night, in bad weather and jamming situations.
Russia is signalling the military capability to potentially project power over the Arctic ‘avenues of approach’ to the United States and shape the future of this increasingly vital and contentious region.
Aviation developments include the upgraded Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack supersonic strategic bomber) being deployed to Alexandra Land island, according to Russian sources. It can carry Kh-101/Kh-102 air-launched cruise missiles, with either conventional or nuclear payloads. If these missiles are used, they “will make it impossible [for the US] to ward off a potential strike against their Thule Air Base in Greenland”, military commentator Aleksandr Frolov has argued.
Developments are also underway in infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). Russian Deputy Minister of Defence Aleksey Krivoruchko says that IFVs are one of the main priorities for the Russian Armed Forces in general and the Arctic region in particular.
He has mentioned a new-generation IFV under development, the Ritsar ‘Arctic Knight’, based on the proven M-15 chassis. It was specifically designed for operations in the High North which some Russian sources have claimed will soon become “the main ground-based means of military operations in the Arctic”, especially in the hands of the crack 61st Naval Infantry Brigade.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies provides a pithy summary of Russia’s military strategy in the Arctic region: “Russia’s renewed military presence in the Arctic secures its territory and guarantees its freedom of operation. This increase in investment and capacity also restricts the movement and access of NATO and potentially China through interdiction capabilities in both the maritime and air domains.
“Most critically, Russia is signalling the military capability to potentially project power over the Arctic ‘avenues of approach’ to the United States and shape the future of this increasingly vital and contentious region.”
// Robin Ashby is director general of the UK Defence Forum, curator of defence blog www.defenceviewpoints.co.uk and rapporteur for the EuroDefense Arctic Observatory. With thanks to and additional material by Dr Sergei Sukhankin, fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, and Dr Mike Mihajlovic.