Nuclear submarines to protect the Northern Sea Route | Polarjournal
With an increased presence with nuclear submarines, the Russian government intends to defend its dominance of the Northern Sea Route against possible intruders. (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Russian Defense Ministry told Izvestiya newspaper that the Russian Pacific Fleet has been conducting exercises with nuclear submarines in the area of the Northern Sea Route. The movements took place in spring and early summer. The exercises were conducted to assess the capabilities of Project 949 submarines in the Arctic region. During the exercises, the submarines operated in the waters of the Northern Sea Route and occasionally surfaced in ice under difficult conditions.

For the first time, three Russian nuclear submarines simultaneously broke through the 1.5-meter-thick ice cover in the Arctic Ocean within a few 100 meters of each other in March 2021. Moscow wants to demonstrate its presence in the Arctic with the maneuver. (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Project 949 submarines are one of the latest developments in former Soviet shipbuilding. The series was built between the 1980s – 90s and is one of the last submarines of the Soviet shipbuilding industry. Today, three of its representatives, the “Tver”, “Omsk” and “Tomsk” belong to the Russian Pacific Fleet. Two more submarines “Smolensk” and “Orel”, serve in the Northern Fleet. Project 949 submarines were originally designed to engage naval forces, carrying torpedoes and 24 Granite missiles on board.

Project 949 submarines can not only fight aircraft carriers, but also destroy enemy amphibious assault forces and counter transport convoys. According to Izvestiya, the submarines began training missile attacks against ground targets not long ago.

The nuclear submarine “Smolensk” at the berth in the city of Severomorsk during the naval exercises of the Armed Forces of the Northern Fleet of the Russian Federation. (Photo: Pavel Lvov)

During the exercises, anti-submarine and anti-ship operations were conducted in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. The task was most likely to prevent the fleets of so-called “unfriendly countries” from entering the maritime area. Project 949 submarines are equipped with Granite missiles, which are supposed to be quite powerful and accurate. It is possible that they will be modernized in the future, after which the arsenal would be replenished with Caliber and Onyx missiles.

Exercises to protect the Northern Sea Route are taking place in part because of global climate change. The ice area in the Arctic Ocean will shrink in the near future, releasing huge sea areas. The threat of enemy forces entering the region is expected to increase as a result, according to Russian assessments.

The Northern Sea Route (red dots) is likely to become more important as the climate warms. In order to navigate it year-round and keep it open for shipping, even stronger icebreakers are being built. Nuclear submarines are increasingly being deployed to defend the sea route and Russian territory (yellow dots). (Graphic: Heiner Kubny)

Armament in the Arctic

Control over the waterways of the Northern Sea Route is Russia’s most important strategic advantage, Izvestiya experts believe.

Since the middle of the last decade, Russia has been building military infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route (Northeast Passage) and in polar latitudes. The joint strategic command “Northern Fleet” received the status of a military district last year.

Units of the missile systems “Bal” and “Bastion”, as well as anti-aircraft missile systems are stationed on the Russian islands in the Arctic. In recent years, about 20 airfields built during the Soviet era have been repaired or reconstructed.

Year-round all-weather airfields have been built on Alexandra Island in Franz Josef Land and Kotelny Island in the New Siberian Islands. Interceptors are in constant use at the northern airfields. In November 2021, TASS reported that improved MiG-31 fighters would be stationed at the reconstructed airfields.

The deployment of various forces to the Arctic region has been a regular practice in recent times. In November 2021, crews of the Iskander-M tactical missile systems were put on alert and flown to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago to practice firing missiles. In 2021, Northern Fleet ships trained amphibious assaults along the Northern Sea Route.

Moscow also created a base for the Ministry of Disaster Management that can be used to rescue people on the water or protect the environment. According to a government spokesman, with climate change and the commissioning of the latest icebreakers, navigation along the Northern Sea Route will be possible all year round.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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