For the first time since the Cold War, Russia has announced plans to begin flying regular fighter patrols over the North Pole with an eye toward intercepting American military aircraft.
According to sources within the Russian Ministry of Defense, two squadrons of MiG-31BM intercept fighters will be tasked with conducting routine patrol operations over the North Pole. In a previous era, these flights were meant to provide Russia with the means to intercept and shoot down nuclear-capable bombers launched by the United States, but despite degrading tensions between the U.S. and Russia in recent years, it’s unlikely that preventing a nuclear strike is what Russia has in mind with these flights. Instead, the patrols will be launched from both eastern (European Arctic region) and western (Siberia) Arctic airstrips to enable Russia to control the airspace spanning north from mainland Siberia to the North Pole.
One squadron, hailing from Russia’s 317th Composite Air Regiment, will be stationed at the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Yelizovo airport in northwestern Siberia. The other, part of the 98th Guards Reconnaissance Aviation Regiment, will fly out of Monchegorsk Airfield in the Murmansk region of Russia near Finland.
The aircraft tasked with these patrols, MiG-31BM interceptors, are among the fastest fighters ever to take to the sky. They were originally built to not only engage America’s slow and steady heavy-payload bombers, but to also chase down the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft (the fastest military aircraft in history). As a result of these very specific goals, the MiG-31 developed into a Mach 2.83-capable platform (approximately 2,171 miles per hour). At top speed, the MiG could theoretically reach the North Pole from the Monchegorsk airfield in just about half an hour (as is widely being reported in Russian media). But theory doesn’t count for much above the Arctic Circle.
In truth, Russia’s aging fleet of MiG-31s are limited to Mach 1.5 by physical restrictions caused by things like the structural rigidity of cockpit canopy glass these jets have been equipped with since the 1970s. Still, that doesn’t mean their strategic value has been neutered. MiG-31s boast an incredibly long operational range. According to the Kremlin, the MiG-31 can fly more than 3,000 kilometers (more than 1,860 miles) without refueling while carrying a complement of eight air-to-air missiles, usually including at least four R-33 or R-33S radar-guided missiles.
These patrols, it’s worth noting, don’t actually offer much in the way of strategic value. If the goal was truly to counter any American bombers headed toward Russia, it would undoubtedly take far more aircraft to maintain a sufficient presence. Instead, these patrols are likely largely symbolic. Given that Russia continues to expand its military footprint throughout the Arctic and the U.S. still lacks the means to mount any sustainable presence in the region, these patrols are another way of establishing and enforcing their sovereignty over what promises to be a heavily trafficked waterway as Arctic sea ice continues to melt.