As the United States continue to mull over ways to fund a single capable icebreaker to allow America’s military access to the Arctic, Russia rang in the new year by acknowledging it had conducted more than 100 military reconnaissance and maritime patrol flights over the region using bases it already established during 2018. Moscow claims that operational tempo will likely increase in the coming year, shining a light on just how far behind America has fallen in the frigid North.

“During 2018, the crews of Tu-142 and Il-38 anti-submarine aircraft, as well as reconnaissance Su-24MR, conducted more than 100 patrols in various areas of the Arctic Ocean, both in the near and in the far zone in international airspace,” Moscow claimed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t minced words regarding his approach to the Arctic, calling it the future of his nation’s economy on more than one occasion. He’s not wrong: Russia’s massive icebreaker fleet and the region’s melting ice shelves can result in the nation dominating newly opened shipping lanes, providing them with a strategic foothold at the top of the world that offers not only economic and diplomatic leverage, but also a military advantage America is not currently in a position to mitigate.

“The Arctic is the only theater of operations where the U.S. Navy is outclassed by a peer competitor. Russian surface warships have demonstrated the ability to carry out complex combined operations in the High North, while the American Navy maintains a policy that only submarines operate above the Bering Strait,” explained Andrew Holland, chief operating officer at the American Security Project.

It’s not just the Russian Navy that is setting the pace in the Arctic. Russia’s flights of Tu-142 Bear bombers, Su-24MR Fencer tactical reconnaissance jets and others from established bases in the Arctic Circle may well offer the Kremlin air superiority throughout the region as well. While the United States has many airstrips within striking distance of the Arctic, maintaining a permanent presence within the region offers Russia faster response times and a potentially greater degree of operational autonomy, thanks to closer proximity to established supply lines. In effect, having bases in the region offers Russia more options and time to respond to threats than America currently boasts in the same portion of the world.

Russia's foothold in the Arctic: Moscow admits to flying more than 100 patrol and recon flights from Arctic bases
Central administrative and residential complex of the “Arkticheskiy Trilistnik” or Arctic Trefoil base (Photo: Courtesy of Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation)

“In 2019, naval pilots of the Northern Fleet plan to use winter and all-season airfields, which are being created and are already operating in the Arctic on the islands of the Arctic Ocean and on the mainland,” Moscow said in its January 1 statement.

To date, Russia maintains more than 40 operational icebreakers with 11 more in production. The United States does not currently have a single icebreaker that’s reliable enough for military operations in the region, with funding for a planned vessel now potentially on the chopping block in favor of ending the ongoing partial government shutdown by re-allocating a large portion of the icebreaker funds to the Southern border wall President Trump championed during his election campaign.

The White House has separately stated, however, that it would like to see the icebreaker funded, though exactly how remains unclear.