The June exercise in the Northern Fleet: A show of force?
On June 13, the Russian Northern Fleet set sail for an exercise unusual both for its timing and for the numbers of ships and units that participated. The exercise began less than a fortnight after the summer training period started-a time of the year when major exercises are almost never carried out. Moreover, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, it was the largest Northern Fleet exercise in the last ten years (Mil.ru, June 13).
As one spokesperson remarked, “This is the first time in the summer training session the large anti-submarine warfare ship Severomorsk has gone to sea” (Express, June 14; The Barents Observer, June 13). The exercise was also said to be one of the most comprehensive and important drills during the summer training period (Redstar.ru, June 18). Seemingly, as part of the preparations, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoy Flot-VMF), Admiral Vladimir Korolyov, visited Murmansk on June 9. There, the commander of the Northern Fleet, Vice Admiral Nikolay Yevmenov, presented him with a report on organization for the summer training period, which presumably covered the forthcoming June 13 drills (Nord-news.ru, June 9).
The Arctic naval exercise officially concluded on July 25 (Mil.ru, July 25). Although it is possible that this may have been a snap exercise, generally those tend to be shorter. Moreover, unlike in this case, snap exercises are generally overseen by representatives from the General Staff or the VMF Staff.
In total, 36 combat ships-among them the missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov, nuclear and diesel submarines, landing ships, approximately 20 aircraft, and 150 pieces of equipment from costal defense units, naval infantry, air-defense and Ground Forces participated (Mil.ru, June 13). More potent ships, including the missile cruiser Petr Velikiy and the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, were absent as they are undergoing repair and modernization (Tsargrad.tv, June 14). Command and control was exercised from a command post onboard the Marshal Ustinov, headed by the deputy commander of the Northern Fleet, Vice Admiral Viktor Soklov (Redstar.ru, June 18). Based on the available information, neither the 80th Arctic Brigade nor the 200th Mechanized Brigade appear to have participated in the exercise.
The exercise consisted of three phases: deployment, combat preparations and actual combat. During the first phase, minesweepers from the Kola flotilla swept for mines in order to safeguard the deployment of surface ships to the Barents Sea. The latter then divided into two groups and searched for enemy submarines. Thereafter, in the second phase, landing ships laid mines to hinder the movement of enemy submarines and then continued to land Naval Infantry on the Kola Peninsula. These latter forces were tasked with preventing an enemy landing. The third phase comprised of extensive live-fire exercises against targets at sea, on the coast and in the air. Additionally, coastal-defense forces deployed the missile system Bastion on the Kola Peninsula, but it is unclear during which phase that took place. All in all, the Russian military executed more than 70 tactical episodes and 19 live-fire exercises between June 13 and 25 (Redstar.ru, June 18). Official reports all suggest the exercise was carried out successfully and according to plan (Vpk.name, June 26).
According to Vice Admiral Yevmenov, the objective of last month’s naval drills in the Russian High North was to test the capabilities of the participating ships and other forces to protect the interests of the Russian Federation in the Northern Fleet’s area of responsibility (Redstar.ru, June 18). However, that explanation may not be sufficient, as the exercise in the Northern Fleet has to be seen within the context of the activities of Russia’s other main naval fleets. Indeed, on June 7, a similar exercise began in the Pacific Fleet; and on June 14, it was reported that the Black Sea Fleet had been put at a higher state of readiness, purportedly in anticipation of a Ukrainian provocation along the coast of the Crimean Peninsula (Flot.com, June 8; Reuters-Russian service, June 14).
The Russian Ministry of Defense characterized the Black Sea Fleet reports as “fake news” (RIA Novosti, June 14). However, there were in fact some minor naval and air exercises in the Black Sea Fleet at the beginning of June-though not on the same scale as the exercises in the Northern or the Pacific fleets (Izvestia, June 4; Aif.ru, June 5; Redstar.ru, June 8).
Similarly, in the Baltic Fleet, the corvettes Boykiy and Stoykiy, a naval tanker, as well as a tugboat left the Baltic Sea, on June 18, for an exercise in the North Sea (Izvestia, June 18; Mil.ru, June 25). These drills clearly aimed to “show the flag” in the Atlantic. It is difficult to establish, based on open-source intelligence, if these were in any way linked to the concurrent Northern Fleet exercise, but that cannot be entirely be ruled out. And the same may be true of the exercise in the Pacific Fleet.
In fact, rather than a routine exercise, the Northern Fleet war games in the Arctic (due to their timing and force composition) should be seen as a show of force motivated by any or all of the following:
- Norway’s intention to more than double the number of United States Marines stationed in the country (Reuters, June 12)
- The reestablishment of the US 2nd Fleet (Capitalfm.co.ke, 6 May), and/or
- The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) exercise Dynamic Mongoose (June 25–July 6) in the North Atlantic (Nato.int, June 2018).
In addition to the official and presumed objectives mentioned above, another goal during last month’s Northern Fleet exercise was to test new naval weapons systems (Mil.ru, June 13). The actual weaponry tested remains unclear. But it may have involved unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms that were reportedly employed to monitor the situation out at sea and to provide target acquisition for the participating ships (Mil.ru, June 21). Modern UAV models, Forpost and Orlan-10, were introduced in the Northern Fleet in 2017; and the Russian navy is expected to field 100 new shipborne Ka-135 unmanned helicopters by 2020 (Riafan.ru, March 28, 2017; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 2, 2017).
The massive Arctic naval exercise involving the Northern Fleet was in many ways unprecedented, and it remains to be seen if it was a singular event or whether it heralds a new training pattern for the Russian VMF. That may become clearer later in the year, if similar such drills continue to take place during the summer training period as well as based on the outcome of the upcoming Vostok 2018 strategic-level exercise.
This report was initially published on www.jamestown.org.