Russia arms itself for the Arctic

The traditional battle grounds between NATO and Russia are well known: sprawling European plains dissected by rivers and interspersed with population centres. However, in response to NATO’s increased activity in Norway, as well as overtures from Finland and Sweden to join the alliance, Russia has shifted some focus north.

Russia arms itself for the Arctic
T-80 BVM (Picture source: Russian MoD)

The Arctic is estimated to contain 25% of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves, and Russia has expressed plans to control 55% of the Arctic’s reserves by 2030. The Arctic is also the shortest route for most moves against Russia, the quickest course for US intercontinental ballistic missiles, and, as the Arctic ice melts, the shortest shipping route from Northern Europe to Asia. To defend the region, in 2014 Russia established the Northern Fleet Command military district, which primarily consists of naval assets including 38 surface vessels and 42 submarines. It is responsible for all combat operations in the region and is in command of two Arctic infantry brigades.

The first of these units is the 200th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade (SMB): a conventional motorized brigade that includes a main battle tank (MBT) unit that will be equipped with new T-80BVMs, three motorized rifle units in BTR-82As, artillery, and air-defense assets. In many ways the unit is conventional, but its T-80BVMs are adapted for Arctic conditions.

The second unit, the 80th Separate Motor-rifle Brigade (SMB), was established in 2015 and its equipment is customized for its specialist mission. The unit’s primary armored vehicle - a Soviet-era MT-LBV armored personnel carrier (APC) - is well known. The vehicle is fitted with wider tracks than the standard MT-LB, which at 565 mm wide reduce the ground pressure to 0.28 kg/cm², less than a typical person. The APC includes a heater for the dismount compartment, so it remains habitable in cold weather. The 80th SMB also employs the MT-LB-based 2S1 Gvozdika 122 mm self-propelled howitzer, which has a maximum firing range of 15 km using conventional ammunition. The 2S1 makes the unit one of the only Arctic-ready forces in the world with an integral artillery component.

The 80th SMB’s firepower is increased through the Tor-M2DT and the Pantsir-SA air-defense systems, which are based on the DT-30PM articulated vehicle. The Pantsir-SA carries a two-faced S-band target acquisition radar, with an acquisition range of more than 40 km, as well as the 1RS2-1E phased array radar and 1TPP1-T infrared (IR) fire-control sensor that enables the complex to operate in a passive engagement mode. The Pantsir-SA forgoes twin-30 mm 2A38M cannons in favor of 18 9M335 missiles. The missiles have a maximum range of 20 km and 15 km in altitude. The Tor-M2DT is equipped with a C-band target acquisition radar, as well as a K-band phased-array radar and 9Sh319 electro-optical targeting system for fire control. It is equipped with 16 9M338KE missiles which have a maximum range of 16 km and 10 km in altitude, and can engage four targets simultaneously. The Tor-M2DT is capable of operating in a fully automatic mode, engaging targets without human input, and can fire while on the move. The DT-30PM allows the 80th SMB to deploy air defense assets on almost any terrain.

Operational mobility is provided by the TTM-1901 Berkut, a snowmobile from NPO Transport, which has a heated cabin for two personnel, and a third can ride on the rear of the vehicle with the roof-mounted 7.62 mm PKM machine gun (MG). The Berkut can reach speeds of 59 km/h and has an operational range of around 200 km. It can be used to tow loads of 300 kg, and the 80th SBM regularly practices towing a section of infantry on a train of sleds behind the Berkut.

For rapid air transport, the Mi-8AMTSh-VA helicopter was developed and deployed to the region. It is an Arctic version of the Mi-8AMTSh-B that is powered by Klimov BK-2500-03 gas turbine engines. The helicopter has an auxiliary electric generator, a heating system for its power plant and transmission, and Teflon hydraulic, oil, and fuel hoses to enable it to operate at temperatures as low as -60°C. It is designed for landing operations, air support, evacuation, aerial reconnaissance and targeting, and more.

Non-combat mobility is provided by the GAZ-3344-20, an amphibious articulated vehicle consisting of a drive and payload segment. The vehicle weighs 11 tons and carries 3 tons of cargo. It has a range of 450 km, and a maximum speed of 50 km/h on land or 3.8 km/h on water. The vehicle is fitted with an EZ-5347-26 diesel engine developing 240hp, and has a ground pressure of 0.20 kg/cm². These characteristics enable the vehicle to climb slopes of up to 25° fully laden. The GAZ-3344-20 has been shown in use with the 80th SMB and is used primarily in the personnel carrier role. The rear segment is interchangeable, and the vehicle can be configured as a logistics platform, weapon carrier, or ambulance. The front segment can accommodate two crew and three dismounts, while the rear segment can seat 12. The vehicle is insulated and fitted with a Webasto independent heater, enabling it to operate in conditions from -50°C to 40°C. If operational machinery fails, the 80th SMB unit can ski up to 40 km/day in joint maneuvers and is trained to use huskies and reindeer for makeshift transport. The unit also teaches troops to survive in extreme Arctic conditions for long periods of time.

The unit’s personal equipment is also unique. Troops are equipped with a specialized uniform made of multiple layers that can be adjusted to suit the climate. The uniform is claimed to protect version of the Ratnik situational awareness system, including 6B47 helmets and 6B45 body armor. The 80th SMB appears to have retained AKS-74 assault rifles and is not yet equipped with the AK-12 component of Ratnik, which is scheduled to enter service with Russia’s infantry from 2018. Each Ratnik set costs USD5,000 and can weigh as much as 40 kg.

To support the personnel, a series of Arctic bases have been constructed, such as the Arctic Clover on the Franz Joseph archipelago, and the Northern Clover on Kotelny Island in the Laptev Sea. The Arctic Clover base can support 150 personnel and operate independently for 18 months. It includes two runways, one for supply aircraft and one for military aviation, and is equipped with Bastion coastal-defense missiles. Northern Clover can sustain a population of 250, and the base includes a radar station for aerial surveillance and is thought to include a unit of Pantsir-S1s for air defense. The bases will enable Russia to maintain a near-permanent presence in the Arctic, and complicate other forces’ military movements in the area.

The Russian armed forces have been testing the Trekol 39249 6·6 all-terrain vehicle (ATV) as a scout platform for finding safe paths for a column of heavier vehicles in the Arctic. The base vehicle is fully amphibious and weighs 3.5 tons fully laden. The large tires can be pressure-adjusted for greater traction across different terrain. On water, the tires provide flotation and serve as the vehicle’s propulsion system, although current plans are to fit the final model of the Trekol with water jets to provide better propulsion across bodies of water. The army’s trial models have been fitted with an ice-penetrating radar for measuring ice thickness.

Two other articulated ATVs on trial for Arctic missions are the medium-weight DT-10PM and the heavy weight DT-30PM. The DT-30PM weighs 29 tons and can be fitted with up to two articulated payload segments. The first section can be filled with up to 30 tons, and the second with up to 20 tons. This brings the total gross vehicle weight to approximately 80 tons. In addition to being fully amphibious, the DT-30PM and its payload sections are fitted with a hydraulic suspension system, enabling the vehicle to raise the front or rear part of the tracks so logs or hard objects can be inserted in case the vehicle becomes stuck. It can also use its hydraulics to move itself sideways to find more favorable terrain.

Future plans include the use of the DT-30PM as a vehicle for transporting a 122 mm Grad or 300 mm Smerch multiple rocket launch system (MRLS). At present the vehicle is thought to be at the concept stage and will probably enter service during the current 2018-2027 State Armament program, as the DT-30 and rocket components are already proven and need only to be combined. Once in service, it will provide the 80th SMB with a considerable firepower advantage over potential Arctic adversaries, Jane's International Defense Review said.