MILAN, Italy — Unmanned technologies could offer the West an opening to catch up with Russia, bogged down in Ukraine, in establishing a foothold in the warming Arctic, according to issue experts.
The sea ice covering the Arctic ocean is melting at an alarming rate of 13% per decade due to climate change, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This has created for Arctic states – the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden – as well as non-Arctic countries a renewed land of opportunity to assert military and commercial control over this recently accessible territory as greater natural resource extraction and new shipping lanes have emerged.
The only issue? The West is fairly late to the game against Russia’s long-standing presence in the region, where experts agree it has succeeded in maintaining military superiority over the last decade.
“Moscow considers the Arctic key to its national security and economic development – this was enshrined in its government statements, policies and especially in its Maritime Doctrines since the early 1990s,” said Samuel Bendett, research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russian Studies Program. “Its overall approach to the development of the region today builds on its Cold War legacy, when the country inherited massive technical and knowledge base after 1992 and extended it.”
The Kremlin has secured its Arctic military capability primarily by banking on a “superior number of ice-breakers, its pioneering of Arctic-capable military drones, upgrading off-shore bases, missiles, runways and radar systems,” says James Rogers, associate professor in war studies at the Danish Institute for Advanced Study. It is important to note that the region is also an integral part of Russia’s Northern Fleet operational environment, which houses the country’s most powerful nuclear submarines.
According to data from the American Security Project, in 2020 the number of Russian military bases in use or being modernized in the Arctic was at least 16, of which 12 are air bases, three submarine bases and one drone-aerial reconnaissance base.
Jussi Kangasoja, unmanned aircraft specialist at the Arctic Drone Labs collective in Finland, explains that Moscow has been known to have several operational Arctic-capable drones for years.
“In 2018, Kalashnikov presented the dual-purpose Zala Arctic drone series [including the Zala 421-08M and Zala 421-16E] suited for the region’s conditions,” he said. “In 2019, state sources announced the existence of another UAV able to remain in-flight for four days in the Arctic without the need to rely on jammable satellite-based navigation. In 2021, Radar MMS introduced a heavy lift cargo drone capable of working at -70 degree celsius. It is also documented that Russia is using underwater unmanned drones (UUVs), with some, such as the nuclear-powered Poseidon, developed particularly for Arctic waters.”
To this list, Bendett adds that the following are reported to be in development for the region: tiltrotor and helicopter type drones (VRT-300), the Sarma deep-water autonomous UUV undergoing final tests, and the Shadow-2 UUV. Russia has also initiated its “Project Iceberg” consisting of deep-water drilling and maintenance stations that involve robotic and autonomous UUVs, which he says is “likely the country’s largest and most ambitious project of its kind.”
War in Ukraine
Experts have mixed reviews about whether Russia’s war on Ukraine is detracting attention from Arctic expansion. While Rogers and Kangasoja are of the similar view that Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine “has taken a toll on both Russian Arctic readiness and its deployable assets,” Bendett states that he has not necessarily seen it lessen the pace of its regional development.
On the contrary, he says, “the Russian government kept announcing more resources for the Arctic in 2022, such as the construction of more icebreakers and military submarines, as well as calling for greater attention there in 2023.”
Nonetheless, specialists warn that although the Kremlin appears to have highly advanced Arctic technology, the equipment has yet to see much real use. Kangasoja said that “Russia’s military capabilities, including the performance of its equipment, have been quite generally overestimated prior to the war.” In his opinion, it is clear that the conflict has pulled plenty, if not the majority, of Russian resources in terms of manpower and weapons from Arctic bases, leaving behind minimum crew. “It is also a fact that its production has slowed down because of international sanctions and that the war is consuming its supplies heavily,” he said.
Rogers concurs that in the past Moscow has been known to embellish and overstate the capacity and readiness of its military weapons. However, he emphasizes that he would not “conclude in any way that Russia is weak when it comes to Arctic defense.” In fact, Moscow could very well “be holding back some of its more high-tech systems or Arctic ready drones.”
Where the West stands
The U.S. and Western allies have a number of operational Arctic capabilities gaps to close if they want to catch up or outpace Russian development in the region. Washington currently struggles with many of its drones losing network and communication capabilities when operating above the 77th parallel north, which U.S. Northern Command chief Gen. Glen VanHerck has said hinders the military’s “day-to-day” competitiveness in the region. Additionally, the country lacks sufficient functional infrastructure to support the operation of such systems. Its primary Arctic territory is concentrated along Alaska’s 34,000 miles coastline, where it has five military bases with only one other, Thule Air Base, located in Greenland.
Kangasoja is optimistic that the current state of Russian forces in Ukraine is giving “an almost unprecedented opportunity for the West to not only catch up but also take a strong lead with unmanned technologies within the Arctic context.”
Several Western countries seem to be prioritizing the development of Arctic-capable drones. An example of this is the IDG consortium, a multinational cooperation project among six Arctic-Antarctic nations consisting of Andøya Space Center (Norway), Boeing’s drone company Insitu, C-Core (Canada), Karl Osen (Switzerland), MDSI (Denmark), Scott Polar Research Institute (UK), Viasat (US) and VTT (Finland). Together they have created the Integrated Remote Sensing for the Arctic (IRSA) architecture, a system for monitoring and reconnaissance with four different types of drones, satellites, aircraft and underwater vehicles. The system was first showcased in 2021 in Denmark.
The U.S. possesses the Arctic Shark, designed for beyond-line-of-sight operations in polar regions, which can carry a payload up to 70 pounds (32kg). The U.S. Navy has also been developing a wide-area underwater surveillance system including UUVs, while General Atomics successfully tested the MQ-9A Reaper in the Canadian Arctic in 2021.
“We demonstrated a new capability for effective ISR operations by performing a loiter at 78.31° North (using Inmarsat’s L-band Airborne ISR Service) during a 25.5 hours flight that covered 4,550 miles and reached temperatures at times below -50 degrees Celsius,” General Atomics spokesman Mark Brinkley wrote in an email to Defense News. He added that in recent months, the company has been operating the MQ-9B from snow-covered runways in northern Japan in significantly cold conditions as well.
Among the European countries leading the way is Denmark with its political prioritization of the region, realizing in 2021 an Arctic capability package. Within this, the country has pledged to spend $108 million on fielding several long-endurance surveillance drones, in line with a NATO request for the Faroe Islands, and $8.6 million on ship-based tactical drones.
Another state making strides is Finland, where Arctic Drone Labs is based.
Kangasoja, the UAS Specialist there, explains “we operate a fleet of 20-plus drones and various sensors in the North and are as we speak in the middle of planning new investments. As we are based just below the Arctic circle, our systems are tested in highly challenging conditions.” He says the fleet acts as a training platform for pilots and researchers and they help manufacturers to trial their vehicles in specific test areas throughout Finland.
For his part, Bendett is not as optimistic that the West can match Russian superiority in the region. He emphasizes that Russia has in its possession a dedicated number of financial, technical and human resources for the continuation of Arctic exploration, which include of developing more uncrewed technologies.
“Even if the West develops more uncrewed systems, that is not enough to have a significant presence in the Arctic, which requires [more] icebreakers and manned stations,” Bendett argues.
One thing is clear, says Rogers: Regardless of the conflict in Ukraine, Moscow’s robust rhetoric about the high-priority defense of the Russian Arctic remains unchanged.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.