Much has been made about America's so-called "icebreaker gap"—Russia has roughly 40 with many more in production while the US has one that is operational—and we have talked extensively about how the frigid arctic is likely to be a contested territory and battlefield of the future. But Russia isn't just building more icebreakers or ice-capable logistics ships—they are also building fighting ships that can go independently where few other surface combatant can, and carry much heavier firepower while doing so.
Russia has ordered two of the 6,800 ton displacement, 374 foot-long Project 23550 Ice class patrol ships, which are more like polar Corvettes than anything else. Russia's Ministry of Defense claims the ships will have the fighting capabilities of a Navy surface combatant, as well as those of an ice breaker and tug, and that there are "no analogues in the world" for the unique concept.
Supposedly, these ships will sport reenforced hulls that will allow them to break through ice up to five feet thick. Armament will include a medium caliber deck gun and two payload bays on the ship's stern capable of carrying containerized missile systems such as Club-K and Kalibr-NK cruise missiles. The ships also feature a flight deck and hangar for a Ka-27 anti-submarine or utility helicopter. The ship can quickly deploy small boats, too. Other armaments may also be included, such as anti-air point defense system and small defensive arms.
The ships are being built by Russia's Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg and will supposedly enter into service in 2020. The vessels are being built as part of a larger naval procurement strategy that will help fortify Moscow's designs on the Arctic region. This strategy includes Russia's new Project 21900 icebreakers and planned Project 22600 diesel electric and 2220 nuclear powered icebreakers, as well as Project 03182 multi-purpose tanker and Project 20180 armament support and logistics ships.
The truth is that Russia's Ice class patrol vessels do have peer competitors that accomplish similar missions: Most notably the ice-capable Svalbard operated by the Norwegian Coast Guard—the same design that Canada's upcoming Harry DeWolf class—and even the smaller Knud Rasmussen class that belongs to the Denmark. But where Project 22550 ships differ is that they are capable of carrying heavy missiles that can strike targets hundreds of miles away, whereas these other ships are used more for localized security and ice navigation missions.
The inclusion of long-range anti-ship and land attack missile capability in the Ice class design is intriguing. Considering that even the most powerful ships are slow-moving sitting ducks in many parts of the Arctic operating environment, and that bases in the region are small and highly localized in configuration, this makes both very susceptible to cruise missile attacks.
With this in mind, Russia's plug-and-play canister missile system is definitely a niche capability aimed at threatening any vessel or land station within its missiles' reach. Targeting over very long ranges against fixed targets in the region is not as challenging an issue as doing so against moving vessels, but maritime patrol aircraft or even satellite surveillance could provide good enough targeting information to get an anti-ship missile into the general area of a target. At closer ranges, the Project 23550 own Ka-27 helicopter could provide real-time targeting telemetry against other vessels.
But like everything in the Arctic, it just isn't that simple. Changing sea ice and well-known navigational issues associated with the poles would make successful strikes on surface or land targets more challenging in certain aspects than when doing so in the the open ocean or other littoral environments.
If anything else, Moscow's Ice class patrol ships are just another reminder of the country's designs on the Arctic and just how far the US is behind when it comes to fielding any sort of a credible counterforce. The USCG was hoping to build three new icebreakers for service in the coming decade. The Trump administration is making the first down payment in the form of $150 million on this $1 billion project in its current budget request. But more resources will likely be needed, as will hard diplomacy and coalition building to construct a capable allied Arctic force.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com