Three Russian ballistic missile submarines surfaced next to each other from beneath the ice near the North Pole as part of a recent major Arctic exercise. The head of the country’s Navy said that event was a first for his service. It also underscores the growing geopolitical competition in this highly strategic region.
On March 26, 2021, the Russian Ministry of Defense released details, as well as imagery, about the submarine activity that has been a part of the Umka-2021 drills. So far, the Kremlin has not officially confirmed what submarines are taking part in the exercise, which began on March 20, and has also seen an unspecified nuclear submarine fire a torpedo underneath the Arctic ice.
However, official video footage, seen in full later in this story, shows what appears to be at least two sails belonging to Delta IV class submarines, also known as Project 667BDRM Delfins. It’s possible that the third boat could be either a member of the Borei class, or the lone Borei-A class submarine presently in service, the Knyaz Vladimir. The Borei and Borei-A designs are Russia’s most advanced ballistic missile submarines. Both of these types can be loaded with up to 16 RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each one of which can be armed with between 6 and 10 Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRV), depending on the type of nuclear warhead. The Delta IVs can be armed with up to 16 R-29RMU Sineva submarine-launched ballistic missiles, themselves capable of each carrying either 4 or 10 MIRVs, again depending on the warhead type.
A pair of MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors, supported by an Il-78 aerial refueling tanker, also flew over the North Pole and troops have been conducting maneuvers on the ground in extreme cold weather conditions as part of Umka-2021. Average temperatures in the exercise area, at present, are ranging between -13 and -22 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds gusting up to just over 70 miles per hour, according to state-run media outlet TASS.
“As part of the Arctic expedition, three nuclear-powered submarines surfaced from under the ice in a limited space with a radius of 300 meters [approximately 984 feet] for the first time in the history of the Russian Navy,” Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, Command-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, reported to President Vladimir Putin on March 26. “For the first time, a set of combat training, scientific research, and practical diverse measures is underway under the single design and plan in subpolar regions.”
Russian Geographical Society has also been involved in Umka-2021, which has been taking place primarily in and around Alexandra Land Island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, a group of Russian islands in the Arctic Ocean.
It is known that Russian ballistic missile submarines conduct deterrent patrols under the protection of the Arctic ice, where is especially difficult to track their movements. They do, of course, still have to move out from under the ice to unleash their deadly payloads.
It is also hardly the first time a submarine has pushed its way up through that ice as part of an exercise. The U.S. Navy notably conducts Ice Exercises (ICEX) each year in which submarines surface from under the ice, though not with ballistic missile boats.
However, this particular drill is, nevertheless, a significant show of force and general demonstration of the Russian Navy’s strategic capabilities.
Beyond that, submarine operations around the world typically occur with a certain degree of secrecy, and boats sailing on the surface outside of very mundane activities, such as returning to their homeport, often carry a message. For instance, the appearance of Omsk, an Oscar II class guided-missile submarine, also known as a Project 949A, on the surface in the Bering Sea off Alaska in August 2020 sent alarm bells ringing and prompted an unusual public statement from U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) that it was monitoring the situation. That notably followed the equally rare decision on the U.S. Navy’s part to publicize a visit to Norway by the highly-advanced and extremely secretive submarine USS Seawolf earlier that month. Seawolf and her two sister ships, including the larger and uniquely configured spy submarine USS Jimmy Carter, are all known themselves to be particularly capable when it comes to cruising quietly under the Arctic ice.
In December 2020, the Navy also made a very public display of sending the USS Georgia sailing on the surface through the Strait of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf a moment of particularly heightens tensions with Iran. Georgia is one of four Ohio class ballistic missile submarines converted into guided-missile submarines. They also received significant intelligence-gathering and command and control capabilities, something you can read about more in this past feature and that has made them some of the most in-demand boats in the Navy today.
All of this is magnified by the ever-increasing strategic significance of the Arctic and growing geopolitical competition there, as a result. Much of this has been driven by the emergence of new economic opportunities as global climate change has caused ice in the region to recede. This has made the prospect of sending commercial shipping via the Northern Sea Route more viable and offers the possibility of greater access to untapped natural resources, including oil and natural gas.
Just this week, Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom has been promoting the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to traditional routes in light of the very serious situation in the Suez Canal. The container ship Ever Given, the world’s largest, has been preventing any maritime movement through that strategic chokepoint since it ran around on March 23. Rosatom is notably responsible for operating Russia’s unique fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, which includes the Arktika, the largest ship of this type with any kind of propulsion in the world.
With all this in mind, it’s interesting to remember that Russian Tu-142 Bear long-range maritime patrol planes buzzed a temporary camp established on an ice floe in international waters off Alaska as part of a U.S. Navy-led ICEX around this time last year. The Seawolf-class USS Connecticut and the Los Angeles class attack submarine USS Toledo both took part in that training event, which included surfacing through the ice in close proximity to each other.
The Umka-2021 drills come as Russia and the United States, among others, are working to expand their abilities to project military power into the Arctic. Russia has been working particularly hard to build new facilities and expand existing ones, especially air bases, in the region. The U.S. military, in cooperation with Canada, just recently demonstrated its ability to conduct more routine combat aviation operations out of the strategic Thule Air Base in Greenland, as well.
“We’re in competition … and to be competitive with Russia and China, specifically in the Arctic, you have to be on the field,” U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, who presently serves as both head of NORTHCOM and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told members of Congress just last week. “And, so it’s crucial that we do that and we continue producing capabilities that will allow us to be in the Arctic.”
The Russian Navy sending three ballistic missile submarines punching through the Arctic ice together in a row near the North Pole provides a very clear look at this competition and more such displays are likely to come as the geopolitical friction in the region continues to increase.
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