Russia’s Northern Fleet Deploys Long-Range Interceptors to Remote Arctic Base

Russia has increased and upgraded its Arctic military presence since 2013, in part by refurbishing and modernizing Soviet-era bases and airfields. One base that has received particular attention is Rogachevo Airbase on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where Russia has recently begun deploying MiG-31BM interceptors—supersonic, long-range aircraft capable of destroying air and ground targets. Satellite imagery captured on March 19 shows evidence of the interceptors’ stationing at Rogachevo, as well as a Mi-17 search-and-rescue helicopter (NATO designation: Hip) and an Il-76 transport aircraft (NATO designation: Candid).

In early January, Russia’s Northern Fleet deployed MiG-31BMs to Rogachevo. One month later, it cycled out those aircraft and their crews for a new deployment. It is believed the Russian Defense Ministry is testing the MiG-31’s capabilities and use in the harsh Arctic environment and assessing the feasibility of extended, cold-weather deployments to remote airbases and airstrips, which has not yet been proven. Although the Russian Ministry of Defense claims the MiG-31 functions “excellently” in the cold weather, they also describe this deployment as experimental.

Present in the March 19 image are four melted positions on the snow- and ice-covered aircraft apron, which appear to be caused by the presence of small jet aircraft, likely the MiG-31BMs. There is evidence, however, that Rogachevo has not yet been optimized to host these aircraft for extended periods. The hangar positioned next to the apron, which we estimate to be roughly 46 by 25 meters, is barely big enough to hold four MiG-31s. Moreover, Rogachevo’s fuel storage facilities would likely require further development to be able to support the aircraft for any kind of extended deployment. Permanent basing, in other words, will likely require an expansion of hangar space and additional fuel storage and distribution capacity.

If deployments of this nature can be eventually proven to be practical, they would increase Russian capabilities in the Arctic, with important security implications for the United States and NATO. When paired with range-extending aerial refueling, sustainable forward deployments of these aircraft can reach the U.S. airbase in Thule, Greenland, as well as allow Russia to extend its power projection capabilities. Russia’s enhanced presence at Rogachevo, which already houses an S-400 missile defense system, also expands its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities at a time when Moscow has submitted additional scientific data to the United Nations to support more expansive outer continental shelf claims. It also occurs after Russia recently contemplated—but ultimately declined—extending the Northern Sea Route into the Barents Sea. The U.S. Department of Defense is well aware of the threat of Russian buildup in the region and has recently said they are “monitoring it very closely.”

The impetus for Russia’s militarization of the region stems primarily from Moscow’s desire to both protect its Arctic-based second-strike nuclear capability and to take advantage of an increasingly accessible and economically vital region. But the uptick in Russian military activities and exercises in the western Arctic, as well as the testing of new hypersonic missile capabilities in the White Sea, suggest that its posture may not be strictly defensive. In fact, rarely a week goes by without a new deployment, exercise, missile test, air operation, or naval patrol, as CSIS has recently begun to capture in our new Arctic Military Activity Tracker. By rebuilding bases and airfields, bolstering its regional missile defense capabilities, increasing the number of complex and combined exercises, and demonstrating more extended air operations—as the MiG-31 interceptors at Rogachevo represent—Russia’s increased military capabilities in the Arctic begin to have strategic effect over time.

Special thanks to Jennifer Jun for her research support. Imagery markups by William Taylor.

Matthew P. Funaiole is a senior fellow for data analysis with the iDeas Lab and senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., is a senior fellow for imagery analysis (non-resident) with the CSIS iDeas Lab and Korea Chair. Colin Wall is a research associate with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Matthew P. Funaiole
Vice President, iDeas Lab, Andreas C. Dracopoulos Chair in Innovation and Senior Fellow, China Power Project
Colin Wall

Colin Wall

Former Associate Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program