What Are US Strategic Bombers Doing Snooping Around Russia’s Arctic Borders?

US B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber

 

In early August, US Strategic Command confirmed that several USAF B-52 bombers had performed long-range drills over the North Pole and Alaska into the North Sea, from where they skimmed along Russia’s maritime Arctic borders. For their part, Russian military analysts have been pondering exactly what to make of the US moves.

On August 1, Stratcom announced that five US strategic bombers had recently carried out long-range exercises, several of the planes flying over Russia’s Artic borders.

According to the US military, two B-52s flew from the US mainland to the North Pole, after which they turned in the direction of the Norwegian archipelago at Svalbard, before going on to skirt along the border area of Russian Artic territories, including the Franz Josef Land archipelago, Severnaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, and Wrangel Island. Commenting on the exercises, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency pointed out that the US bombers’ trajectory coincided with areas where the Russian military has been engaged in a defensive buildup recently.

Another B-52 taking part in the exercise took off from the Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and flew flying to the Baltic Sea to take part in a NATO exercise simulating the interception of enemy bombers. Meanwhile, two B-2 Spirit ‘stealth’ bombers, taking off from the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, flew over the Pacific Ocean, conducting simulated bombing exercises at a coastal range in Alaska before returning to their bases.RIA Novosti defense analyst Alexander Khrolenko confirmed that the bombers operating in the Arctic flew within 70-150 km of the Russian border, “that is, within the air space over the Russian economic zone in the Artic.”

At the same time, the journalist noted, “the US did not exactly advertise” their moves, “officially informing Moscow only of the flight of the B-52s from North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base to the North Pole, and then to Alaska and then back to base.” In fact, he pointed out, the bombers spent up to 20 hours in the air, refueling 26 times, using fifteen KC-135 and ten KC-10 tankers to do so.

Pondering the strategic implications of this quiet “global demonstration” of US capabilities in the Russian Arctic, Khrolenko began by making clear that the move wasn’t exactly target practice. “For its long-distance global strike, the B-52 does not need to come within 150 km of the Russian border. After all, the launch distance of the cruise missiles onboard the planes allow them to remain at least 800 km away from the Russian border.”

An airman secures an Air Launch Cruise Missile (ALCM) during a maintenance inspection aboard a B-52H Stratofortress, at RAF Fairford, UK. File photo.
© AFP 2016/ Jim HOWARD/HO
An airman secures an Air Launch Cruise Missile (ALCM) during a maintenance inspection aboard a B-52H Stratofortress, at RAF Fairford, UK. File photo.

Accordingly, the journalist suggested, “it’s likely that this was a move meant to study the capabilities of the new military bases in the Russian Arctic. However, that too was not the only reason.”

The expert recalled that during the Cold War, US military strategists had developed a plan called ‘Giant Spear’, according to which B-52 bombers were meant to fly up to Russia’s Artic borders and launch nuclear-tipped cruise-missiles at targets from Murmansk to Moscow. “In response, our General Staff proposed to place a defensive echelon of frontline fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft missile systems on Franz Josef Land.” Now, three decades later, “history is repeating itself,” but not quite in the same way.Today, Khrolenko noted, “the views of the US military leadership regarding the role of strategic bombers in modern warfare are changing. While continuing to serve as one of the main elements of US nuclear deterrence, strategists are also looking at the B-52s capabilities in conflicts of a more limited scale.”

In US planners’ minds, “the benefits of strategic aviation include high combat readiness, the ability to hit targets anywhere in the world from bases in the continental United States, a large and multivariate combat load, the possibility to correct combat missions inflight, and the ability to operate in all weather conditions.”

As for the bombers’ targets, these “include groups of enemy troops, command posts, air defense points, ammunition depots, industrial facilities, energy and transportation hubs. In addition to attacking the enemy, strategic aviation also handles the tasks of anti-electronic warfare, aerial reconnaissance and setting minefields at sea.”

At present, Khrolenko recalled, the US has a fleet of 70 B-52H Stratofortresses at its disposal, four of them engaged in testing and R&D, and 13 in storage. Switching the planes’ armament from conventional to nuclear “does not require modifications or design changes…B-52s can carry up to 20 air-launched long-distance cruise missiles, both nuclear and non-nuclear.”In the analyst’s view, in a situation where Ukrainian, German and Swedish military observers are flying over Russia in accordance with the Open Skies Treaty, “the Europeans [nonetheless] continue to prepare for war with Russia.” Against this background, Khrolenko warned, “US preparations, with the flights of their B-52s, look much more noticeable.”

In his own commentary, Zvezda contributor Viktor Sokyrko took note of the fact that Moscow, for its part, has reacted with remarkable calm to the US planes’ presence near Russia’s Arctic borders. The journalist sarcastically noted that “not only did Russia not destroy these planes – they didn’t even ‘express concern’, as Washington so fondly does whenever Russian military aircraft conduct flights outside Russian territory.”

Nevertheless, the military analyst noted, the US strategic bombers’ flight remains significant, precisely because “this is the first move of this kind by US aviation near Russia’s Arctic borders” in recent history.

“Previously, the US Air Force did not allow themselves to take such liberties. Or perhaps they simply did not see the need to do so; after all, after 1991 they did not have any specific strategic interests in the area, while the military facilities of the Soviet and then Russian army gradually withdrew from the area. Now, the situation has changed dramatically, and the [renewed] US interest is understandable.”

According to Sokyrko, it is notable that the US planes entered Russia’s exclusive economic zone, the existence of which the US has refused to recognize. “Today, Western countries also do not recognize Russia’s claim to much of the Artic shelf, and are trying to mark their presence in the region in every way possible — if only by flybys using long-range aircraft.”

Commenting on the presence of US bomber aircraft in the region last week, the Russian General Staff made it no secret that the appearance of any foreign aircraft over the skies of the Arctic, whether civilian or military, is being monitored by Russia’s air defense forces.

It goes beyond monitoring, Sokyrko noted. “In this area, we have enough forces and resources to monitor the entirety of the airspace in the region. Last year, two separate anti-aircraft missile regiments, equipped with the S-400 Triumf, were deployed in the area, headquartered at Novaya Zemlya and in the Tiksi settlement in Yatukia.”

S-400 Triumph (SA-21 Growler) air defense system setting up for launch. File photo.
© Sputnik/ Valeriy Melnikov
S-400 Triumph (SA-21 Growler) air defense system setting up for launch. File photo.

And there are other air defense systems in place, including the Pantsir-S1 combined SAM and anti-aircraft artillery system and the Bastion coastal missile system. “Missile-based coastal defenses, SAMs and rocket-artillery units and subunits are on combat duty in other Artic islands, as well as in some continental areas of the Russian Arctic,” the journalist emphasized.

Speaking to Zvezda, military aviation expert Yuri Gavrilov pointed out that “the entire coast of the Russian Arctic…from the Kola Peninsula to Anadyr, is equipped with aviation control points, radio, radar and space reconnaissance units. Artic airbases are equipped with MiG-31 fighter-interceptors, which remain the most high-speed and high-altitude capable aircraft in their class. Now, these are being replaced by the new MiG-31BM, which has no problems against US B-52 strategic bombers, and even the more modern B-2s.”

A MiG-31 from the Primorye Air Regiment lands at the Centralnaya Uglovaya airfield near Vladivostok.
© Sputnik/ Vitaliy Ankov
A MiG-31 from the Primorye Air Regiment lands at the Centralnaya Uglovaya airfield near Vladivostok.

Accordingly, with US planners well-aware of the Russian military’s ability to rebuff them in the Arctic, Sokyrko suggested that it was only logical to ask just what it was they were doing there.

Speaking to Zvezda, respected military analyst Leonid Ivashov offered a simple answer to this question. “The United States, traditionally considering virtually the entire planet to be within its zone of interest, has looked at the Artic in exactly the same way. After [the Russian military] left the area in the 1990s – abandoning airfields, navigation and radar systems, the Americans were not particularly concerned over these areas, considering that they could come in and enjoy the area’s wealth of natural resources at any moment. The US divided the Artic into zones of responsibility of its military commands, and formed the Arctic Council, which included Canada, Denmark, Norway and the UK.”

As for Russia, “they rashly dropped them from their calculations. And here it suddenly turns out that the Artic has a real owner, and one who is well-armed, and ready to defend its territory. The US can’t just send an aircraft carrier to the Barents Sea without icebreakers, which the US does not have – the carrier will just freeze into the ice. And the Navy SEALS aren’t going to have an easy time swimming there. What’s left is to somehow demonstrate themselves in the skies.”Ultimately, Sokyrko suggested, the US strategic bombers flying over the Arctic near the Russian border are something akin to “flies that, sensing something sweet, flock to the area in a swarm. And they will continue to do so so long as they do not feel the force of a flyswatter, capable of convincing them to lose their appetite and go look for their ‘food’ in more familiar surroundings.”

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Russia’s ‘Polar Bear Spetznas’ Step Up Defense of Country’s Arсtic Borders

Cadets at the Russian Far East Higher Command School (DVVKU) during training exercises on a range in the Amur Region. Like their counterparts in northwestern Russia, forces in the country's Far East are also honing their capabilities for defense of the north.

 

Amid NATO’s buildup along Russia’s borders, including in the Arctic region, Moscow is stepping up efforts to strengthen its northern defense. Moreover, in addition to the Navy and Aerospace Defense Forces, the Arctic’s defense is increasingly coming to depend on troops from the ground forces – serving under extremely harsh climactic conditions.

Analyzing the Russian military efforts to defend its vast Arctic expanse in a piece for the independent news and analysis website PolitRussia, journalist Oleg Polevoy recalled that “while Arctic motorized rifle units appear from time to time in the Russian media, the general public knows little about them; collecting information from television and newspapers is a painstaking process.”

For a long time, the journalist recalled, “the only infantry unit in the entire Russian North was the 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade at Pechenga, Murmansk Region. That unit was established in 1997 on the basis of the old Soviet 131st Motorized Rifle Division…It’s obvious that a single brigade for the defense of territory including the entire Kola Peninsula and Chukotka was, to put it mildly, insufficient, but it’s good that it was least was preserved in the 90s,” a very difficult period for the country and its defense capabilities.

Today, Polevoy explained, “times have changed. The country began to revive, and our foreign partners, having already buried Russia mentally, got nervous and started increasing their military activity.”Most recently, the government of NATO member Norway announced a defense spending bonanza, aimed at heavily modernizing all three branches of their military. Meanwhile, earlier this year, the US mulled placing a powerful new radar complex in the country, on top of the one they already have, and aimed primarily at spying on Russia.

In light of the changing conditions, Moscow found it necessary not only to ensure coastal defense, but to create a mobile force capable of reacting anywhere in the Russian Arctic.

“In 2012, the creation of a [new] separate Arctic brigade was announced. In 2014, the government signed a corresponding decree. And on January 17, 2015, the 80th Motorized Arctic Brigade (stationed in the locality of Alakurtti on the Kola Peninsula) received its colors.”

The new unit’s tasks aren’t easy, the journalist noted. “Not only do they have to operate in extreme climactic conditions, but their ‘sworn friends’ [among foreign militaries] have already set the bar very high.”

Polevoy recalled that for its part, the US military, in addition to Navy and Air Force units, “fields three ‘Arctic’ brigades in Alaska. Moreover, military tasks in the north can be handled by rapidly deployed special purpose Marines.””The Canadian Army too on the whole is also well-trained for action in the Arctic. Recently, Ottawa set about reorganizing and reequipping its ranger units responsible for security in the Arctic region, which for many years before looked more like volunteer militia than regular army (or even reserve) units. In addition, Joint Task Force 2, an elite special operations unit of the Canadian Forces, is also prepared to conduct tasks in the Arctic.”

The Norwegian Special Force ‘Rangers’, meanwhile, have been specially honed for action in the Arctic. “Recently, Oslo announced the creation of a new unit of special forces practically on the border with Russia. Against the background of a total re-equipment and modernization of the Norwegian Armed Forces, this does not sound very promising,” the journalist suggested.

Effectively, according to Polevoy, these ‘restless neighbors’ mean new demands for the defense of the Russian Arctic. Therefore, “although they are nominally listed as motorized infantry, given the conditions of service and the potential threats they face, they perform specialized tasks” normally given to elite Spetsnaz (Special Purpose Military Units) forces.

“Even judging by the publications available in the media, the eye catches the fact that both the 200th and 80th brigades feature non-standard reconnaissance formations, but recon battalions. The troops carry out airborne and mountain (alpine) training. The material provisions for Arctic brigades are also special; new two-tiered tractors, snowmobiles and hovercraft are currently being developed for them.”

Arctic mechanised infantry company of the Far Eastern Command College (DVOKU) during a range exercise in the Amur region.
Arctic mechanised infantry company of the Far Eastern Command College (DVOKU) during a range exercise in the Amur region.

Last year, the Arctic units were provided with new articulated tracked snow and marsh buggies, military ATVs, quads and snowmobiles. “The new equipment and weapons are being ‘run-in’ in combat-like conditions, including via large-scale exercises taking place recently on the Tymyr Peninsula.”

“And it looks like the protection of the Arctic from the ground will rest not only on the Arctic motorized infantry,” the journalist added. “In 2014, the Novosibirsk archipelago was used for training exercises by Russia’s Airborne Forces; 350 troops of the 98th Airborne Division conducted airdrop training, becoming the largest mass landing in the Arctic’s history. And it seems setting records was not their only goal. Airborne Forces Commander Vladimir Shamanov stated recently that ‘the establishment of an Arctic Airborne force is only a matter of time.'”

Ultimately, Polevoy suggested, in the current situation, “our military has no time for relaxation. Arctic exercises by NATO countries and their partners have followed one after another. In 2015, the Canadian military conducted maneuvers in the Far North. The same year, joint US, UK, Canadian and Norwegian drills in the Arctic lasted five weeks. In the spring and summer the Scandinavians, including Sweden, Norway and Finland also ‘trained to fight against Russia’ in the region. Finally, in the spring of 2016, the US military staged the ICEX 2016 drills.””The Arctic is one of the most economically promising regions in the world. The Arctic Circle holds enormous reserves of hydrocarbons and other minerals; the region also provides the shortest path for transporting goods from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. According to the norms of international law, a substantial part of the territory in Arctic waters belongs to Russia, thanks to the large extent of our continental shelf.”

At the same time, Polevoy warned, “we know that international law has little meaning for certain powers when it comes to confronting someone from whom it is possible to take something away by force. We do not need lands belonging to others, but to prevent anyone from even thinking of ‘reaching into our pocket’ in the North, it’s necessary to keep the gunpowder dry. And an important role in doing so will be played by the guys with the image of a polar bear on their sleeve.”

Russia to develop subsea robots for drilling operations in Arctic

Russia plans to tap Arctic fields using marine robots, which will be part of under-ice and subsea drilling system

© Rubin Design Bureau/TASS

MOSCOW, June 8. /TASS/. Russia’s Rubin Design Bureau is developing a preliminary design of unmanned submersibles to support construction and operation of drilling facilities in the Arctic Region, General Designer of Rubin Igor Vilnit told TASS on Wednesday.

These vehicles will be part of under-ice and subsea drilling system, Vilnit said.

“Subsea vehicles developed as part of the project are planned to perform exploration and survey work on the soil and in depth of the ocean as required during the drilling facility construction and will support safety during its operation,” he added.

A subsea robotized system for security of the Arctic sea and offshore areas is under development in Russia, Vilnit said

“An integrated robotized system intended for security of lengthy sea areas and continental shelf areas is at the proactive development phase,” Vilnit said.

Russia plans to tap Arctic fields using marine robots, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said earlier.

 

Russian deputy PM: Restoring military infrastructure in Arctic not aimed at militarization of the Arctic

According to Dmitry Rogozin, the aim is to create favorable and calm conditions for life and work of people

 

 

ST.PETERSBURG, December 7. /TASS/. The restoration of military infrastructure in the Arctic is intended to ensure security and create calm conditions for people, and is not aimed at militarization, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said on Monday.

“Restoring military infrastructure on the territory of the Arctic macroregion is not aimed at militarization of the Arctic, but at creating favorable and I would say calm conditions for life and work of people,” Rogozin told a plenary meeting of the international forum: “Arctic: Today And The Future.”