Russian Navy Increasing Its Arctic Presence

The powerful Northern Fleet and two Arctic-warfare brigades—including the famous 200thIndependent Motor Rifle Brigade (attached to the Northern Fleet)—will form the newly appointed Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN). What kind of force are we talking about, and will it threatens Arctic security?

The new Russian Arctic strategy was adopted in September 2008 under the name of: “Russian Federation’s Policy for the Arctic to 2020.”

The new Russian Arctic command has been created to strengthen the vast border’s security and protect the growing Russian interests in the Arctic.  “In the sphere of military security, defense and protection of the state border of the Russian Federation lying in the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation – maintenance of a favorable operative regime in the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation, including maintenance of a necessary fighting potential of groupings of general purpose armies (forces) of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, other armies, military formations and organs in this region;” (Russian Federation’s Policy for the Arctic to 2020 III. b)

The transfer of the Northern Fleet from OSK West to JSCN was the first major move towards the creation of the new Arctic command. The Northern Fleet Headquarter will remain based in Severomorsk where it was stationed with OSK West. The Fleet contains approximately the two-thirds of the Russian Navy’s nuclear-powered ships.

Nuclear power a great asset for the lengthy sea sorties of their submarines, especially for the new state-of-the-art Yasen-class Multipurpose Attack Submarine (SSN) and the Delta IV-class Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN). However, the Delta-class and Typhoon-class submarines are scheduled to be replaced by the new Borei-class Ballistic Missile submarine. The ability to surface through thick ice is also invaluable for the submarines of the Northern Fleet since they can launch nuclear warheads. Having said that, the Northern Fleet will need to undergo a massive upgrade program so its ships can withstand that harsh winter and the thick ice along the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

Russian Kirov-class Battlecruiser
Russian Kirov-class Battlecruiser
Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov
Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov
Borei-class Ballistic Missile submarine
Borei-class Ballistic Missile submarine

According to the website of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, the main tasks of the Northern Fleet are as follows:

Maintenance of naval strategic nuclear forces in constant readiness for nuclear deterrence.
Protection of the economic zone and areas of productive activities, suppression of illegal productive activities.
Ensuring safety of navigation.
Implementation of foreign policy actions of the Government in economically important areas of the oceans (visits, routine entries, joint exercises, activities as a part of peacekeeping forces, etc.).

Ground operations—actual soldiers on the ground serving as a permanent military force in the Arctic— is also vital to the newly-established Russian Arctic command. The two Arctic-warfare brigades will have a lot of ground to cover. It is expected that they will be stationed near key installations and operate remote outpost, mostly for electronic warfare (EW) and communication relays. The 200th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade (200th IMRB)—under the command of the Northern Fleet and based at Pechanga, Murmansk Oblast—will most likely spearhead the ground operations in the Arctic.

S300 Anti-Aircraft
S300 Anti-Aircraft

In 2011, the 200th became the first Arctic brigade. Pechenga is approximately ten kilometers away from the Norwegian border, making it a rapid deployable force in the Scandinavian region. The 200th IMRB can deliver a solid punch. Mainly comprised of T-80 tanks and 2S19 Msta self-propelled howitzers, its infantry has great fire support. Arctic warfare is about fire and manoeuver due to the vast open areas, making it ideal for a Motor Rifle Brigade.

T-80 Main Battle Tank
T-80 Main Battle Tank
2S19 Msta self-propelled howitzers
2S19 Msta self-propelled howitzers

Another important asset of Arctic warfare is airborne operations. The Russian airborne—Vozdushno-desantnye voyska, or VDV—will likely operate as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF). The rapid deployment operational tempo of Russian airborne troops gives them the ability to be parachuted anywhere within their area of operation on a short notice to counter a threat, whether its terrorism or an invasion. The use of air assault elements—also under the VDV command—could also be used to counter piracy and terrorism.

Russian BMD-4
Russian BMD-4
Russian Infantry
Russian Infantry
Russian Army Soldier in the Arctic
Russian Army Soldier in the Arctic

Russian Special Operations Forces (SOF) will probably have a limited role in the Arctic. In fact, Russian SOF could be engaged in Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) activities against suspicious ships and piracy. However, most of the ground operations should be conducted through conventional forces. Russian SOF could also be employed to intervene on hostage taking situations, critical installation security, VIP protection, and special reconnaissance (airborne, heliported, and ground).

Ground operations will also include the deployment of the RT-2PM2 «Topol-M» Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Mobile Launcher. The single 800 kt warhead has an operational range of 11,000 km. However, a new type of warhead—the RS-24 Yars—is slowly replacing the RT-2PM2 «Topol-M», giving an additional 1,000 km in range and providing better accuracy.

RT-2PM2 «Topol-M» Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Mobile Launcher
RT-2PM2 «Topol-M» Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Mobile Launcher
RS-24 Yars Mobile Launcher
RS-24 Yars Mobile Launcher

The Russian Air Force will also play a vital role in the newly established JSCN, and will have a wide range of fighter aircrafts. However, the Sukhoi Su-27 and the MIG-29 should be the two main fighter aircrafts until they are retired from the Russian Air Force. In the near future, some of the new fifth-generation fighter PAK FA and 4++ generation MIG-35 will likely be included in the operational fleet, giving the Russian a stealth fighter to counter the American Lockheed Martin F-35 and the Chinese Chengu J-20—which is almost an exact copy of the F-35.

Russian Mig-35
Russian Mig-35
Russian Sukhoi PAK FA
Russian Sukhoi PAK FA

Depending on the future airfields—mainly due to the length of the take-off strip—the Tupolev Tu-95 will also have a critical role in the Arctic. In fact, it is possible they will fly long-range patrols around the Arctic Circle and provide a permanent presence. The PAK DA—Russia’s next generation of strategic bomber—are scheduled to be delivered in 2023 and enter service in 2025. With its stealth capacity, the PAK DA will be ideal to slowly replace the Tu-95—which should remain in service until 2040 through upgrades— and assume long-range patrols.

Tupolev Tu-95
Tupolev Tu-95

Helicopters such as the Ka-52, Mi-8, and the Mi-24 should also have a very important role within both the Russian Air Force and ground operations. Helicopters will most likely provide the Close Air Support required by combat troops on the ground. The Ka-52 and the Mi-24 will be used as armed escorts and could very well work with ground forward air controllers to provide close air support. Transport helicopters such as the Mi-8 will probably be used for airborne and air assault operations. Medical evacuations will most probably be assumed by helicopters due to the vast area of operations.

Russian Kamov Ka-52
Russian Kamov Ka-52

The Russian Coast Guard and the Search and Rescue elements will presumably be deployed together to provide emergency services to civilian vessels. There is no doubt that the coast Guard will also assume a part of the littoral security with its frigates and patrol boats, giving the Northern Fleet a better long-range deployment capacity. It is also very important to note that the Russian Coast Guard will take care of the thick ice in the waterways with their icebreakers. The Russian Coast Guard will likely engage in anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations to prevent attacks on civilian ships passing through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Russian waterways.

Russian Maritime Border Guard Rubin-class Patrol Craft Zhemchug
Russian Maritime Border Guard Rubin-class Patrol Craft Zhemchug
Russian Icebreaker 50 let Pobedy
Russian Icebreaker 50 let Pobedy

 

While the Russian Federation is quickly militarizing their part of the Arctic, the threat posed by the JSCN remains a viable one. It is very unlikely that future dispute regarding Arctic claims and waterways end up in a military confrontation.

Voronezh Early Warning Radar
Voronezh Early Warning Radar

The remaining “Arctic Five” countries still have to bolster their military presence in the much coveted Arctic to protect both their borders and their interests. Terrorism and piracy remains a strong possibility against civilian vessels—the Coast Guard will most likely have to deal with these type of operations—and assets in the Arctic.

A strong military cooperation alongside the Arctic Council will prove valuable and could even keep the Arctic safe and secure for the population living in far-flung regions.

 

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Jonathan Wade, CD

Jonathan Wade is the director of the ‘The Sentinel Analytical Group’ and a decorated veteran of the Canadian Forces. Specialized in tactical, strategic, intelligence and geopolitics analysis, Jonathan has a fondness for technical details. His military experience brought him valuable insight on the realities of conflicts and war. A combat veteran of Afghanistan, Jonathan brings in in-theatre experience. Jonathan writes about Russia, Canada and Arctic.