Arctic Expeditionary Forces

PHOTO by Vadim Savitskiy /
Russia reinforces its military presence in the polar region

On April 16, 2016, Sergey Shoigu, Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation, visited the partially-completed military base on Alexandra Land Island (Franz-Joseph Land archipelago), the northernmost military compound not just in Russia, but in the whole world. The base, which already has air defence troops stationed there, is expected to be fully active by the end of 2016.

Several key locations in the Arctic are being rapidly developed, such as the Franz-Joseph Land archipelago, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, Wrangel Island and mainland areas from the Kola Peninsula to the Chukchi Peninsula. In total, 20 compounds, serving various purposes, are planned to be put into action, either built from scratch or reconstructed, all as part of a unified military infrastructure North of the Arctic Circle.

United Command

The most important aspect of this modern military construction in the Arctic is the integrated command of the region. The Joint Strategic Command “North”, also known as Arctic Joint Strategic Command, has been operational since December 1, 2014. Essentially, this is the fifth military district of the Russian Federation, a formation of ground, airborne and navy forces in the Arctic and surrounding territories. The new formation was based on the Northern Fleet Staff and infrastructure, which is reflected in its approach to commanding the armed forces: this is the first time in Russia’s history that regional military command has been led by the Navy, with a vast frozen territory under its watchful eye.

Deploying troops via air and sea quickly and effectively is crucial in these conditions. This has been the cornerstone of most of the war games and drills carried out by the Russian military throughout the last decade. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this aspect of commanding armed forces: all plans to reestablish Russian military presence in the Arctic and the bulk of military activity in the region rely on transport provided by the Navy and the Air Force: trying to navigate the area without these capabilities is simply inconceivable.

Turning this concept into a reality requires the rebuilding of infrastructure in the region and ensuring that it is capable of facilitating troop movement by air or by sea, with low personnel requirements for maintenance, guard duty and day-to-day operations. Another key factor is information: the regional commanders have to be completely aware of what’s going on in the area. This affects the nature of the construction in the Arctic: almost half of the military structures in the region are radar stations, which, in unison with satellite reconnaissance, plus marine and airborne radar, create a ‘zone of total control’ over Russia’s Arctic territories.

This control, given the peculiarities of the region – namely, that it is a vast icy wasteland – must include not only the ground, but airspace above the territory and the sea beneath it, more so than in other locations. The Russian military shipbuilding industry meets this requirement, as it is currently tasked with renewing the country’s fleet of nuclear submarines. Modern technology allows submarines to be supported with hydro-acoustic surveillance and controlled mine barriers, which create defensive positions at critical points and reinforce “home sea” advantage in case the Northern Fleet ever has to demonstrate aerial and maritime domination of the Russian Arctic.

There’s another aspect of the Artic to consider: it’s impossible to deploy a large contingent of troops in the region. In fact, there’s no need for that. Security is ensured by Navy and Air Forces, supported by Air Defence forces and a few ground units (two regiments, to be exact). The first regiment is already stationed in the village Alakurtti near Murmansk, the second one is set to be created in 2016.

The Northern Troops

Rebuilding Russia’s presence in the Arctic is impossible without cooperation between the military and civilians. This helps to achieve several objectives: regional monitoring (including ecological monitoring), cartographical precision, building rapport with the local population, and preparing personnel for stationing in the Arctic (there are not currently enough military instructors with the necessary experience). An example of such successful cooperation is the Northern Troops, a continuous expedition carried out with the support of the Russian Geographical Society, led by the Russian entrepreneur and veteran of the Airborne Forces (VDV), Alexander Peterman.

During an expedition, some issues can be resolved only through technical knowhow, as technology is rendered useless. An excellent example is cartography: the northern landscape differs from temperate regions, as aerial, space and even radar telemetry cannot identify and correctly map the terrain, especially the nature of its surface. Maps of the Arctic are still inconsistent and full of mistakes, which can only be corrected with a hands-on approach. Mapping the region is extremely treacherous. One team almost died, falling in a canyon which was not shown on the available maps. Alexander Peterman himself saved another team once by stopping the group from walking off a cliff during a blizzard.

Conditioning the troops with the help of seasoned expedition veterans is one of the ways to minimize the risk associated with operating in such hazardous conditions. The Northern Troops held a week-long workshop in winter of 2016, before embarking on its 8th season – it was dedicated to factors which the VDV and special ops troops need to consider when deployed to the region.

During the workshop, which was held near Nizhnevartovks, it became clear, that field experience and special training were not enough to prepare personnel for the harsh reality of the Arctic. It was therefore decided that the expedition force would take on an extra member: an officer from one of the special ops units, tasked with gaining experience and then applying it for the military in the area. Next year, the expedition will be joined by a group of experienced military personnel, who will follow the civilians and interact with them throughout the journey.

Apart from cartographical tasks, which include mapping out suitable locations for airfields, coves, the discovery of landfills and abandoned facilities, and training military personnel, the Northern Troops are also charged with building a relationship with locals living outside of urban settlements, and field-testing polar gear, allowing manufacturers to fine-tune and not waste resources when equipping military personnel stationed in the Arctic. Essentially, history repeats itself. The military activity of the Red Army, Air Force and Navy from 1941 to 1945 followed a similar pattern, as they were based on the experience of polar expeditions from the 1930s. Many leaders of such expeditions became commanding officers of recon teams operating in the Arctic during the war.

While the Arctic is a harsh environment, it’s also very fragile. Everything humans bring or do here echoes through the ages. Northern Troops often follow in the footsteps of prior expeditions.

Dmitry Fadeev, a member of a polar expedition, said: “We had two overnight stops between the mainland and Rastorguev Island. It’s a good place to camp. We noticed that we were not the first ones there we found some logs, all green, left in a row. We decided to get to the bottom of it and discovered that the Kolchak (famous Russian polar explorer) expedition stopped here for the winter! We found a bunch of stuff. If the winter huts were cut with axes, then it means they were built in the 19th century. Those cut with saws are 70-80 years old. Those were real heroes. In the old days expeditions would travel 20-30 kilometres a day. Death was just one mistake away. They couldn’t bury the dead properly due to the permafrost, so all the graves are shallow. In time, soil washes away, so the bodies resurface…”

Arctic russia

Treasures of the Land

Moscow’s interest in the Arctic didn’t come out of the blue. The economic potential of the region is virtually untapped. At the same time, its possibilities are impressive: apart from the known hydrocarbon deposits, which will definitely be developed eventually as other resources become depleted, the North has other riches as well. For example, Tomtor is one of the largest rare-earth element deposits in the world, estimated to weigh around two billion tonnes. It’s being developed by TriArc mining, a joint venture between state-owned Rostec and the private mining firm ICT. Along with the large-scale projects launched by gas and oil companies (such as Vankor Field and other deposits), Artic natural resources require a different approach to infrastructural development in the region. Rising up to the challenge is the Northern Sea Route (NSR), supported by the infrastructure of northern ports and the icebreaker fleet.

The NSR is needed for almost all activity in the Arctic. At the same time this activity may push the NSR to become not just Russia’s inter-coastal route, but an international maritime highway, boosting the region’s trade potential. The NSR’s attractiveness is growing, in part due to climate change, which has already extended the seaworthiness period of the Arctic by two weeks. At the same time, these new possibilities also mean new challenges, such as maintaining and controlling the route and ensuring its safety and security.

As the famous British explorer, admiral Sir Walter Raleigh once said, “Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and, consequently, the world itself.” This is especially true for the Arctic. Russia’s aspirations for the region's economic and political success depend on whether it is able to create and maintain an effective system for control and supervision of the Arctic. Military bases under construction north of the Arctic Circle, nuclear icebreakers in Saint Petersburg and Severodvinsk submarines are all merely parts of this system, but they are important parts nonetheless.

Author: Ilya Kramnik