Russia Is Deploying Anti-Aircraft Missiles to Defend Its Arctic Oil Claims

The surface-to-air system is built for cold and can shoot down cruise missiles in the rapidly warming, potentially oil-rich Far North.

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Jan 3 2018, 5:00pm

Tor-M2DT air-defense system on DT-30PM transporter chassis during Victory Day Parade rehearsal on April 21, 2017. Image: Vitaly Kuzmin

Russia’s army will deploy special air-defense missiles systems to help defend its Arctic territory, the Kremlin announced on January 2.

The new Tor-M2DT surface-to-air missiles system is part of a wider buildup of Russian forces in the rapidly warming, potentially oil-rich Far North. The system includes radars and missile-launchers and can shoot down airplanes, helicopters, drones, and even incoming precision-guided munitions (PGMs) like cruise missiles.

The Tor is the world's first air-defense system "specifically tailored for highly effective use against PGMs," as Russia’s weapons-export agency once boasted. Fitted to a snowcat-style tracked vehicle, the M2DT version of the Tor is "adapted to severe climatic conditions [and] is intended to operate at extremely low temperatures and [on] difficult terrain," the Russian defense ministry stated.

Lt. Gen. Alexander Leonov, Russia's chief of land forces' air defense, said Arctic troops would receive the new Tor-M2DTs in 2018. The Kremlin first revealed the Tor-M2DT alongside other Arctic-optimized weaponry at the May 2017 Victory Day parade in Moscow commemorating the end of World War II.

The new Arctic weaponry sports a distinctive white, black, and gray camouflage scheme. The Vityaz tracked vehicles carrying the weapons have heated cabins and wide tracks, which are "highly successful" in traversing the mud, snow, and ice of Russia's Arctic region, according to Sputnik, a media arm of the Russian government.

Read more: Canada and Russia’s Race for Arctic Oil Is Heating Up

As climate change shrinks year-round Arctic ice and opens up more of the region to oil- and gas-drilling, countries with Far North borders have scrambled to deploy more cold-weather military forces. Canada is building a new Arctic naval flotilla. The United States is setting up squadrons of F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters in Alaska.

Russia's Arctic arms program is perhaps the most ambitious, and includes new nuclear-powered icebreakers and the cold-weather 80th Motor Rifle Arctic Brigade, which formed in 2015. That same year, top general Valery Gerasimov said the Russian army would install a new "air army" in the north: "We have already assigned an air-defense division to the fleet, and we will form a joint air and air-defense army there," Gerasimov said.

The Tor-M2DTs help to fulfill Gerasimov's promise. In the event of war, the Tors could protect the 80th Motor Rifle Arctic Brigade from enemy warplanes firing PGMs. American forces, it's worth noting, possess no equivalent to the Tor-M2DT.

The Arctic is becoming a much more heavily armed place. But that doesn't necessarily mean war is inevitable. Moscow and its rivals prefer to drill in the Arctic rather than fight there, according to Abbie Tingstad, a scientist with the RAND Corporation, a California think-tank.

"Given how hard it is to operate in the Arctic,” Tingstad said in a recent Q+A on policy challenges in the Far North, “any real conflict there would probably quash economic potential."

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