‘Military Icebreakers’—Russia’s Trump Card in the Battle for the Arctic?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 94

Illustration of Project 23550 Arctic Patrol Ship (Source: Russian defense ministry)

The United States Department of Defense released its new Arctic Strategy in early June (Defense.gov, June 6), and Russia’s leading information outlets responded by “reminding” that, by 2020, Moscow is planning to deploy a complex multi-branch force “capable of reacting to existing threats and protecting [Russian] national interests in the Arctic zone in the military, economic and transportation spheres” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 21). This description highlights Russia’s determination to secure complete (if necessary) control over the Northern Sea Route (NSR), the Russian portion of the longer Northeast Passage that links East Asia and Northern Europe across Arctic waters off Russia’s north coast. The NSR, “along with the Transsib [Trans-Siberian Railway], is a uniting vise [obyedinitelnaya skrepa] of Russia’s geopolitical space” (Cyberleninka.ru, 2015).

As argued by Russian analysts, “to be able to control the Arctic region, one needs to have a sufficient number of icebreakers. Currently, the US has only the Polar Star (built in 1976) and the Healy (2000). Another three vessels capable of operating in the Arctic region are to be completed by 2023… Canada has also announced it is building 18 large military vessels that will cost $11.7 billion” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 23). Yet, the Russian side seems not particularly preoccupied with these initiatives, which may be due to Moscow’s confidence in its own plans concerned with expanding Russian military might in the region. Aside from constructing new non-military icebreakers (see EDM, June 12)—an essential element of Russia’s Arctic strategy—Moscow is planning to boost its capabilities with so-called “military icebreakers,” officially designated as Project 23550 heavily-armed icebreaking patrol ships. This practice—equipping icebreakers with weaponry—is by no means new to Russia. The first such episode occurred during the Soviet era, in 1941, when the icebreaker Stalin was equipped with ten artillery pieces and machine guns. And from the late 1960s onward, Ivan Susanin–class patrol ships (eight vessels in total, produced between 1973 and 1981) were primarily designed for use by KGB units of the Soviet coast guard (Rusvesna.su, May 3).

And yet, Russia’s latest undertaking—the heavily-armed Project 23550 icebreaking patrol ships Ivan Papanin (to be formally commissioned in 2023) and Nikolay Zubov (2024)—represents a qualitatively new type of “military icebreaker” technology, which combines the functions of a tugboat, an icebreaker and a patrol ship. As noted two years ago by one anonymous source close to the Russian military shipbuilding industry, “This patrol ship will have all the necessary weaponry and other equipment to allow it to perform all necessary tasks in the Arctic region” (Vpk.name, April 20, 2017). At the same time, the former commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Admiral Vladimir Korolyov, stated, “I would like to specifically highlight that we really need this ship [a Project 23550 military icebreaker]… We need a battleship capable of operating in the Arctic both autonomously and as a part of a group of vessels.” The director of the Almaz Central Marine Design Bureau, Aleksandr Shlyakhtenko, in turn, described the vessel as “unique for the global shipbuilding industry,” due to a combination of “a very high level of ice penetration and an excellent weaponry-related complex” (Korabel.ru, April 24, 2017).

Incidentally, in 2016, Russia produced the Ilya Muromets, a Project 21180 military icebreaker. However, the excessively high cost of production and inferior technical characteristics of this vessel (primarily, the lack of powerful weaponry onboard and the inability to permanently carry a helicopter) urged the Russian Ministry of Defense and domestic shipbuilders (who were not excited about this model from the beginning) to start considering other options. This led to the elaboration of the Project 23550, the first one of which (the Ivan Papanin) was laid down in 2017 and launched in 2019. The most distinctive feature of the new military icebreaker class is said to be its “universality,” allowing the ship to carry out the following tasks (Comp-pro.ru, May 24, 2018):

  • Protection and monitoring of Russian continental waters in the Arctic region;
  • Convoying and towing vessels;
  • Participation in search-and-rescue missions in the Arctic;
  • Convoying and support for auxiliary and support naval vessels;
  • Transportation of cargoes;
  • Extinguishing fires that break out on coastal and sea-based objects.

However, the vessel’s most important attribute is the types of weaponry and munitions it can be equipped with (simultaneously):

  • Two Project 03160 (Raptor) patrol boats;
  • A Kamov Ka-27 military helicopter, designed for anti-ship protection;
  • One air-cushion vehicle (the Manul Project);
  • A 100-millimeter universal A-190 artillery gun;
  • An AK-176 naval gun (mounted in an enclosed turret) designed to target sea-, coastal- and aerial-based targets (including low-flying anti-ship missiles), which is said to have more advanced characteristics than its previous versions (Izvestia, March 17, 2017);
  • The Club-K container-housed missile complex, designed to defeat sea surface and ground targets at a range of up to 300 kilometers. As modified versions of the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, missiles of this type are capable of flying at extra-low altitudes, making them difficult to spot and target.

In terms of existing analogues, it is tempting to compare the Project 23550 military icebreakers to the Norwegian Coast Guard icebreaker and offshore patrol vessel NoCGV Svalbard (W303), which became fully operational in 2001. Yet, a simple comparison demonstrates the apparent superiority of the Russian model. The Project 23550s are said to be bigger and more powerful in terms of the displacement tonnage (6,500 against 8,500 tons); the Russian vessels will be capable of going through 1.5-meter ice, while the Norwegian ship—only 1 meter. Moreover, the Project 23550s can carry up to 50 more personnel on board than the Svalbard. Most importantly, the weaponry and munitions mounted on the Russian vessels are much more formidable: the Svalbard carries one 57-mm or 70-mm gun, while the Project 23550 ships can even be armed with tactical missile weaponry. On the other hand, the Norwegian vessel can travel as much as 18,500 miles (against 6,000 miles) before having to be restocked—the only known advantage compared with the Russian military icebreakers (Comp-pro.ru, May 24, 2018).

In the late 1880s, the vice admiral and commander of the Russian Imperial Navy, Stepan Makarov, called for the construction of icebreakers for military purposes as a means to secure the country’s position in the Arctic region (Naspravdi.info, December 9, 2015). And today, taking Makarov’s thesis to heart, Moscow seems to be combining both military and non-military measures in the High North to preserve and expand its regional posture.