Early on Saturday morning the peace and tranquility of the Arctic, hundreds of miles from the nearest signs of human activity, was shattered. A Russian submarine punched through the ice near the North Pole and fired a Sineva type intercontinental ballistic missile. Meanwhile, around 1,000 miles further south, yet still within the Arctic Circle, another Russian submarine launched a Bulava type intercontinental ballistic missile from beneath the surface of the Barents Sea. The timing and location of these tests may be intended to send messages both internally and to the rest of the world.
Russia announced the two launches on August 24. The near-simultaneous launches were conducted by two submarines; a Delta-IV class boat named Tula firing from the North Pole and the newer Borei-I class boat Yuri Dolgoruky firing the frigid waters of the Barents Sea. One of the missiles flew a couple of thousand miles to impact in a remote corner of Russia’s Pacific Coast, and the other landed in the Chizh range on the Kanin Peninsula in the Arctic north.
The missile tests come less than three weeks after an accident at the Nyonoksa naval test range left five dead and several injured. That incident, reportedly resulting from an explosion of a liquid-fueled engine, raised radiation levels in the area. Also, recently Russia has suffered a massive ammunition depot explosion in Siberia and a serious accident aboard the nuclear-powered submarine Losharik which left 14 elite hydronauts dead. The new tests may be intended to place a positive bookend to this tragic series of events.
More significantly, conducting missile tests from the North Pole underscores Russia’s attitude to the Arctic. They can be contextualized with Russia's territorial claims, economic interests and ongoing moves to militarize the region. In 2007 Russia used a deep-diving minisub to place a Russian flag on the seabed beneath the geographical North Pole. Back then, ironically, they needed a Finnish built submersible to plant the flag. Today, the submarines breaking the icy tranquility are truly Russian.
On the economic front Russia continues to drill for oil and gas on the Arctic Shelf, and has sponsored projects that may one day be able to harvest hard-to-get hydrocarbons from under the ice cap. Meanwhile the receding ice has permitted an ever-greater flow of merchant vessels across the Northern Route, with 18 million tons of cargo travelling via Russia’s once impassable arctic coastline in 2018. On the military front Russia has built new outposts and reinforced military units in the region, exemplified by the Arctic Trefoil base on Franz Josef Land, a desolate ice-covered archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.
The submarines used in the tests may provide analysts with further insights into Russia’s naval modernization. The submarine which took the wear-and-tear of breaking through the ice is nearing the end of her service life. On the other hand the boat which fired from the highly defended 'Bastion' in the Barents Sea was one of the latest Borei Class. Russia already operates three Borei Class ballistic missile submarines and the first of the next generation Borei-II class, Knyaz Vladimir, was launched in 2017. My analysis of Open Sources suggests that she has been conducting sonar tests over the summer and is likely to enter service next year. Eventually Russia is expected to operate a fleet of 8-10 Borei Class submarines, forming the backbone of its rejuvenated at-sea nuclear arsenal. At the same time Russia continues to test multiple completely new submarine launched weapons including the gigantic Poseidon Intercontinental Nuclear-Powered Nuclear-Armed Autonomous Torpedo. These weapons will also be based in the Arctic, underlining its importance to Russia both economically and militarily
Date: Aug 25, 2019