4. Arctic Force Structure
The development of Russia’s Arctic-related military capabilities and forces is fundamentally linked to military reform undertaken by Defence Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov from 2007. The start of this process pre-dated the wars with Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as the current rise in tensions between Russia and the West. In short, the Arctic build-up should be interpreted as a strategic initiative in its own right, unconnected to recent conflict involving Russian interests in other theatres.
Since the mid-2010s, the Kremlin has deployed substantive force and capabilities along the coast of its northern border in the AZRF. Parts of the armed forces are now Arctic-capable, and have developed concepts of operations tailored to that environment. With the creation of OSK Sever in 2013, the Russian armed forces have been slowly reshaping their Arctic command structure. The Arctic forces are primarily focused on air and naval operations, with the aim of creating an integrated combined-arms force for the region.
As well as seasonal rotations, Russian troops have been deployed permanently in the Arctic since 2013. It should be noted that due to geography and the climate, the size of deployment ranges from that of a battalion (about 600 troops) for the smaller bases to that of a brigade (3,000 troops) for the larger bases.
The Arctic Brigade
The mainstay of Russian troops under OSK Sever is the Arctic Brigade. It was formed in early 2015, in part from two army motorized infantry brigades: the 200th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade in Pechenga, and the 80th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade in Alakurtti. The Arctic Brigade is part of the 14th Army Corps, and is supplemented by Special Forces units from the 61st ‘Red Banner’ Naval Infantry Brigade. The main tasks of the Arctic Brigade are the protection of Russia’s Arctic coastline, facilities and infrastructure (including that of the NSR), as well as escorting ships transiting through the NSR.
The 200th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade is located at the Sputnik base in Pechenga, less than 15 km from the Norwegian border and some 65 km from Finland. Formerly belonging to the ground forces, it was subordinated to the Northern Fleet in late 2002. It was established from forces belonging to the 61st ‘Red Banner’ Naval Infantry Regiment, which itself was expanded into a brigade in 2014. The 200th Brigade mostly serves as a mobile, all-purpose military unit equipped with heavy gear, including three motorized rifle units and a main battle tank (MBT) unit with Arctic-hardened T-80BVM tanks. It employs unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for basic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations. Deployment of an organic airborne battalion for increased mobility and response was long rumoured but has so far failed to materialize – this would have been a relatively new feature for combined-arms brigades.
The 80th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade is deployed close to the village of Alakurtti, south of Murmansk and just 60 km from the Finnish border. Deployment took place in January 2015, ahead of time because of the Ukraine war and subsequent international reactions. Formed from a pre-existing unit, the 80th Brigade is a high-mobility force specifically tailored to operate in Arctic conditions. Several systems were designed with the harsh climate in mind and deployed there, including: the MT-LBV armoured personnel carrier, which has wider tracks than the original MT-LB; the TTM-1901 Berkut snowmobile, which is adapted to Arctic conditions; and the GAZ-3344-20 amphibious articulated personnel carrier.
The 80th is equipped with one battalion of 122-mm 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers based on the MT-LB track. This makes it the first Arctic-capable unit equipped with organic artillery. It is supported by recently deployed Tor-M2DT (NATO: SA-15 Gauntlet) and Pantsir-SA (NATO: SA-22 Greyhound) air defence systems, both adapted to Arctic conditions and based on the all-terrain DP-30PM vehicle. Air support is ensured by a small number of Mi-24 (NATO: Hind) attack helicopters as well as by Mi-8 rescue helicopters. The brigade is further strengthened by two air surveillance regiments: the 331st and the 332nd Radio-Technical Regiments in Severomorsk and Arkhangelsk. The 80th Brigade uses local means of transportation for rapid deployment – namely dog and reindeer sleds.
Like many other units in the Russian armed forces, troops from the Arctic Brigade underwent rotations in Syria in 2015–18 to gain operational combat experience. The commander of the 61st Naval Infantry Brigade, Colonel Valeriy Fedyanin, was killed in September 2017 near Deir ez-Zor. The 61st was also apparently present in Donbass in eastern Ukraine. Arctic Brigade troops have not only been accumulating combat experience but have also been operationally overstretched.
As elsewhere, Russia’s Airborne Assault Troops (VDV) have an important role to play as an early-response spearhead supporting the Arctic Brigade. The 76th Guards Air Assault Division (Pskov) and the 98th (Ivanovo) Guards Airborne Division are assigned to protection of the Kola Peninsula. Alongside the 106th Guards Airborne Division (Tula), both have been practising Arctic-specific missions and exercises since at least 2014, on Arctic islands such as Kotelny, at sea and even close to the North Pole. The majority of air-assault units in Russia have to undergo Arctic training.
Russian Arctic troops have experienced a number of setbacks of late. As part of the Arctic Brigade, the 80th and 200th Separate Motor-rifle Brigades were due to be expanded into a single coastal defence division. Similarly, soon after the creation of the Arctic Brigade, rumours started to circulate about the creation of a second Arctic Brigade. Under the supervision of the Central military district, the 82nd Separate Motor-rifle Brigade was supposed to be sent to the Yamal Peninsula by 2017.
Both plans seem to have been shelved for now, especially since several other units, and particularly the VDV, are now increasingly trained for Arctic conditions. These elements offer an extra edge for advanced deployment and a spearhead force for the Arctic Brigade. Plans to create a coastal defence division in the Chukotka Peninsula (to defend against a potential attack from Alaska) are also unlikely to materialize.
The Northern Fleet
As the mainstay of OSK Sever, the Northern Fleet is responsible for military operations in the European Arctic (see Appendix). It fell into neglect after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the number of patrols substantially decreased, as did the number of operational assets, and the order of battle fell from about 100 combat-ready surface vessels to fewer than 40 today. Only in the late 2000s did the Northern Fleet start to procure new hardware and modernize existing assets. It resumed patrols of the Arctic in the summer of 2008, and by 2015 was demonstrating an increased operational presence consistent with the publication of Russia’s new maritime doctrine in that year.
As in Soviet times, the Northern Fleet is not trying to achieve naval superiority in the Arctic. Its primary task is to maintain strategic forces in a state of constant readiness, and to ensure the survivability both of infrastructure on the Kola Peninsula and of strategic submarine assets. Unhampered access to the North Atlantic through the Barents and Norwegian Seas and further west via the GIUK gap is another priority.
Another key mission is the protection of the NSR and the coastline up to the Bering Sea – beyond which protection falls under the responsibility of the Pacific Fleet. Other Northern Fleet missions include protecting Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from illegal activities and environmental dangers, and ensuring safety of navigation.
Such missions go beyond the traditional roles of a Russian fleet, and are closer to civilian tasks than purely military functions. Naval forces’ involvement in them is explained by the lack of civilian actors able to carry out these missions. Just as building SAR bases is easier using off-the-shelf military infrastructure, it is easier for such functions to be performed by the Northern Fleet.
Reflecting larger procurement trends in the navy under the state armament programmes (GPV) for 2020 and 2027, the Northern Fleet will remain a brown- and green-water force focused on protecting coastal areas and archipelagos along the NSR, and on denying foreign military forces access to the AZRF. Meanwhile, its ocean-going ambitions will increasingly be tempered by the reality of procurement and modernization.
As with the rest of the navy, procurement of surface vessels is carried out both with the modernization of existing assets in mind and in order to provide smaller, more adaptable vessels equipped with stand-off missile systems, notably Kalibr-NK land-attack cruise missiles (NATO: SS-N-Sizzler) and P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles. With the addition of several ice-class ships in the 2020s, the Northern Fleet will be able to conduct sea denial and interdiction missions in light-ice conditions, although at a limited operational tempo (see Appendix).
If the Northern Fleet is supposed to be an ‘Arctic fleet’, the problem is that the majority of its assets are not Arctic-specific, operating beyond the region and in other strategic directions.
The Northern Fleet is ageing and not in particularly good order. As is the case elsewhere in the Russian armed forces, the Northern Fleet lacks air mobility assets, and most importantly transport aircraft for troops, mid-air refuelling tankers for strategic aviation, and patrol aircraft for ASW operations. Unless substantive investment is made to revamp the Northern Fleet, it will become merely a ‘Bastion guardian’ for the strategic submarine fleet – thus limiting its blue-water capabilities and its historic role as a force multiplier for other fleets.
If the Northern Fleet is supposed to be an ‘Arctic fleet’, the problem is that the majority of its assets are not Arctic-specific, operating beyond the region and in other strategic directions. This situation is worsened by the Northern Fleet’s general lack of ice-class surface vessels and its heavy reliance on Rosatomflot civilian icebreakers to ensure passage along the NSR and transit in ice conditions east of the Barents Sea and Novaya Zemlya. This ‘icebreaker gap’ in Russia does not help the range of operations of the Northern Fleet.
The entry into service of the Northern Fleet’s first icebreaker of its own, the Ilya Muromets, in 2018 alleviated this situation somewhat. However, the presence of one ice-class ship does not provide complete operational superiority. The overall dearth of ice-class platforms leaves surface assets vulnerable and exposed, and limits their range of operations. This further underlines the point that the Kremlin will seek to push any hostilities away from the Arctic.
Arctic-specific military technology
The armed forces are developing new technologies to adapt operations to the Arctic environment. Since Russia created its domestic drone industry in the late 2000s, UAVs have been introduced in the Northern Fleet for ISR purposes (SAR, navigation assistance, coastal surveillance, etc.). The Northern Fleet is exploiting a fleet of Gorizont, Forpost and Orlan-10 UAVs. These platforms are hardened for Arctic conditions and tested in extreme weather. A UAV unit was set up in Anady-Ugolny in 2015. Larger drones, when they enter service in the army, will probably be used to resupply the remotest bases in the future.
Arctic-specific land platforms are also being developed. The Arctic Brigade is operating upgraded T-80BVM MBTs and BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers (for assault landing), both adapted to Arctic conditions. Current plans to host some 100 T-80 MBTs at Arctic bases are somewhat unrealistic. The armed forces have procured snow-going all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) such as the Chaborz M-3 combat buggy developed by the Chechnya-based University of Spetsnaz, the TTM-4902PS-10 Ruslan two-link tracked ATV carrier, and the amphibious scouting Trekol ATV. The Arctic Brigade uses snowmobiles equipped with cargo holds, such as the TTM-1901-40 Berkut-2 and the A-1 double snowmobile, for patrol operations.
Another innovative technology relates to deep-sea communication cables. In April 2018, Russia announced the laying of a trans-Arctic fibre-optic cable supposed to link military facilities on the Arctic seabed from Kola to Vladivostok. Interestingly, the Yantar oceanographic research vessel, which entered service in October 2015, is rumoured to be a spy ship gathering information on communication cables.
Because the environment is physically inhospitable, Russia is investing in innovative means of ensuring perimeter control and enforcing border security: underwater drone technology, space-based assets, small satellites to ensure better coverage, and smart conventional weapons to limit the need for troops on the ground. However, these alternative means of securing the Arctic have longer development time horizons, and are unlikely to be in place before the 2030s or 2040s at the earliest.
Finally, experience in the Arctic is influencing military research and development. In 2018, arms manufacturer Kalashnikov unveiled several pieces of tactical gear, including a body suit, for Special Forces soldiers. Military research also presented a blood substitute that can be used in extreme conditions. These are marginal advancements, but they show that Arctic operations are being thought through comprehensively in the Kremlin.
Arctic training and exercises
The operational experience and mobility of Russia’s Arctic forces have been honed through repeated military exercises since 2015, when Arctic training resumed. Drills now encompass a vast array of missions, with capabilities reinforced with Arctic-specific hardware.
Exercises mostly focus on the overall combat readiness of the Northern Fleet and Arctic-capable troops, military logistics over long distances and border defence. During the Vostok-2018 exercise, the Northern Fleet conducted large-scale operations off the Pacific coast, passing twice through the NSR after spending two months at sea. The armed forces emphasize survival and cold-weather training. Most air-assault units in Russia reportedly have to undergo Arctic training. Arctic-specific training is also used on sea mammals, according to reports of recent developments – although it is hard to assess the veracity of these reports or the overall usefulness of such training.
The training of troops focuses on rapid-reaction deployments, coastal assault landings, amphibious assault operations with naval artillery support, fighter aircraft strikes onshore (such as the mock attack on the Vardø radar installations in Norway) and anti-sabotage operations. This essentially means that the Russian armed forces are training to push the fight away from the Arctic as much as possible, and to establish an out-of-area defensive perimeter through sea denial. This is justified by the need to ensure the security of the Kola Peninsula and freedom of navigation for the Northern Fleet.
Since 2014, Russia has been parachuting in troops at 89° north, less than 100 km from the North Pole. Every year, using the temporary Barneo base, some 100 airborne troops operate an outpost for about one month in April. VDV units from Pskov (the 76th Guards Air Assault Division), Ivanovo (the 98th Guards Airborne Division) and Tula (the 106th Guards Airborne Division) rehearse survival techniques and rescue operations. The physical presence of Russian forces close to the North Pole shows there is still a perception, lingering from Soviet times, that attacks from US long-range strategic aviation could come from the North Pole. An increased NATO and US presence in the North Atlantic, Greenland, the North Pacific and the Bering Strait would be assessed as a liability for Russia’s security. This explains why the Arkhangelsk Air Defence Sector remains paramount to North Pole monitoring and early warning.
Russian troops have now been training in Arctic conditions for more than four years, and many troops from the Arctic Brigade have received live combat experience in Syria. However, it is hard to assess the overall level of preparedness for Arctic conditions, especially considering the harsh climate and hostile physical environment. The upcoming military exercise Tsentr-2019, starting in August 2019, will feature an important Arctic component and will provide important lessons for observers in the West.