Russian Navy pilots arrive at Rogachevo. Photo by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.
KYIV, Ukraine — It’s a cold, cold war.
With US Air Force B-1B bombers heading to Norway, a squadron of Russian Navy MiG-31BM “Foxhound” supersonic interceptors has deployed to a remote Arctic air base to assume “combat” alert duties. According to a release by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the upgraded Soviet-era interceptors are deployed to Russia’s Novaya Zemlya archipelago to conduct an “experimental combat duty to protect the state border of the Russian Federation in the Arctic airspace.”
Composed of two islands extending into the Arctic Ocean, Novaya Zemlya is a truly godawful place to be in winter. Roughly 600 miles from Norway across the Barents Sea, Russia’s Soviet-era Rogachevo air base is located on the archipelago’s southern island of Yuzhny. Rogachevo sees temperatures dipping down to minus 40 Fahrenheit in the dead of winter. There’s also frequent and substantial wind, fog, and snowstorms.
Nevertheless, at a latitude above the Arctic Circle roughly equivalent with the northernmost extremity of Alaska, the Rogachevo base is conveniently located to launch warplanes outbound to intercept any American bombers or spy planes flying over the top of the world to penetrate Russian airspace.
Moscow insists its MiG-31BM deployment to Rogachevo is for “only defensive purposes.” Yet, the timing of the move coincides with a US Air Force announcement last week that four B-1B bombers are headed to Norway for a series of exercises.
The Soviet Union maintained strategic bombers and interceptors at Rogachevo — including older variants of the MiG-31. Until January, however, the Russian Federation’s Northern Fleet had not sent fighters to the remote Arctic airfield.
“The experimental combat duty of fighter-interceptors of the Northern Fleet on Novaya Zemlya marks the first time in the modern history of Russia,” said the Russian defense ministry release. “In the course of [the deployment], the combat capabilities of using fighter aircraft in the high latitudes of the Arctic are being assessed. Naval aviators are gaining experience in operations at all-season airfields on the islands of the Arctic Ocean, where severe weather conditions have a significant impact on the use of aircraft and helicopters.”
The Northern Fleet’s 45th Air Defense Division was formally established in December 2015. It includes a number of airfields and air defense bases across the Russian Arctic — from the airfield of Temp in the New Siberian Islands to the Nagurskoye base in Franz Josef Land. The headquarters of Russia’s Northern Fleet in the port city of Severomorsk is situated along the Murmansk Fjord less than 70 miles from Norway’s border.
During the Rogachevo deployment’s first month, the Russian interceptors were not scrambled to intercept any adversarial aircraft, the Russian defense ministry reported.
Russia deployed advanced S-400 Triumph air defense systems to Novaya Zemlya several years ago. Those systems “took up combat duty to protect the airspace of the Russian Arctic,” according to the Russian defense ministry release. The deployment was part of a broader Russian gambit to exert military control over its so-called Northern Sea Route — an Arctic seaway that has, due to the effects of a changing climate, recently become a viable year-round trade artery.
The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reports that Arctic sea ice coverage in July 2020 was some 27% less than the average amount, dating back to 1981. “The Northern Sea Route, along Siberia’s northern coast was mostly ice free,” the EU agency reported.
With easier access to the Arctic, Russia stood up a new Arctic Command and is building or refurbishing dozens of airfields across the Arctic. Today, Russia has at least 34 military installations in or near the Arctic, according to news reports. Moreover, Russia has recently modernized its ballistic submarine fleet and added new nuclear-powered icebreakers.
Developed by the Soviets in the 1970s to shoot down US bombers, the SR-71 spy plane, and even cruise missiles, the Mikoyan MiG-31 is an interceptor capable of flying at a speed of Mach 2.83.
The MiG-31BM upgrade is a supersonic, multifunctional, long-range warplane that can destroy both air and ground targets. This upgraded variant of the original Soviet interceptor features improved avionics, a more powerful computer, digital data links, and a phased array radar. The MiG-31BM can intercept 24 targets simultaneously.
Translating to “New Land” in Russian, Novaya Zemlya is home to a little over 2,000 people. Severny, the northern island, is carved by glaciers and covered in ice. The southern island, Yuzhny, is mostly barren tundra.
During the cold war, this remote, barren stretch of land was home to a Soviet interceptor and bomber base at Rogachevo, the purpose of which was to scramble warplanes to shoot down American SR-71 spy planes scorching over the top of the world at more than Mach 3, as well as strategic bombers inbound to carry out nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union.
Novaya Zemlya was also a prolific Soviet weapons testing area. The world’s most powerful nuclear weapon, the 50-megaton “Tsar Bomba,” was detonated over the archipelago’s northern island in 1961. This monster bomb was so powerful that its shock wave shattered windows 560 miles away. The ensuing heat was so intense that an observer some 62 miles from ground zero would have received third-degree burns.
The Soviets ultimately detonated some 224 nuclear weapons over Novaya Zemlya, punishing the frozen spit of land with a combined explosive yield some 130 times more powerful than all the weapons dropped during World War II (including the two American atomic bombs dropped on Japan). Today, the archipelago’s glaciers are some 65 to 130 times more radioactive than normal, according to Russian media reports.
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Zelenskyy said on his Telegram channel the weapon was produced by Ukraine’s Ministry of Strategic Industries but gave no other details.