Russia pioneered the construction and use of nuclear-powered icebreakers, but its most recent effort is running into a lot of problems. Currently Russia has five nuclear icebreakers. Four of them entered service between 1989 and 2007. In September 2020 the first of a new Artika class nuclear icebreaker conducted sea trials, in preparation for commissioning in October. That has been delayed because there have been problems with the electric motors. This was not unexpected because Artika, which as designed in 2009 and began construction in 2013, was originally supposed to have turbogenerators and other major electrical systems from factories in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 to seize Crimea (successful) and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (stalled). That invasion triggered economic sanctions from the West and a halt to components from Ukrainian manufacturers. The only alternative source was the United States, but the sanctions blocked that.
Finding a Russian manufacturer that could replace the other delayed construction of Artika by three years. The Russian built replacements were not as reliable or effective as the original Ukrainian gear. When the Soviet Union existed, Russia found it convenient to concentrate most of aircraft and maritime power plant design and manufacturing firms in Ukraine. The Ukrainians had a talent and enthusiasm for this sort of thing but once the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 all those Soviet era firms now belonged to Ukraine, which proceeded to run them profitably, selling to a growing number of export customers, including Russia and China. Russia has been building replacement plants to replace what Ukraine used to supply but this proved to be a slow process that resulted in second-rate products compared to what the veteran Ukrainian firms turned out. Many Russian warship construction or refurbishment projects were delayed or cancelled as a result. Russia wants to get the first new Artika into service in 2020 but it is uncertain if all the problems discovered during sea trials can be fixed in time.
Russia is building four more Artika class ships and expects to get all of them into service by the late 2020s. The next four will benefit from the problems of the first one, and there may be more problems that have not yet emerged. Since the Soviet Union dissolved and its communist police-state form of government was abandoned, Russian defense industries have been in trouble. Many of its best engineers and craftsmen were now free to leave for better paying jobs and many did. The loss of those personnel has crippled Russian warship construction ever since.
These five new Artikas are much larger (173 meters long and 33,500 tons) vessels that can handle ice three meters thick. With a crew of 75, Artika class ships can stay at sea for up to six months at a time. Currently Russia has the largest icebreaker fleet (40 ships), followed by Finland (seven), Sweden and Canada (six each) and the United States (five). Half of the Russian icebreakers are of the large variety, capable of breaking the thickest ice. But only four of the current icebreakers are nuclear-powered. Two are from the first Artika class, consisting of six 24,000-ton ships. The last two these entered service in 1992 and 2007 and the success of the first Artika class ships led to decision to produce a second, larger and more effective Artika class.
Russia has always had the largest fleet of icebreakers. That’s because it has a 5,600-kilometer northern border from Murmansk, near Norway, to the Bering Strait, near Alaska. There was not a lot shipbuilding in Russia after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and many of the pre-1991 icebreakers are in need of replacement. Then there is the need to protect the growing number of oil and natural gas fields being developed off the northern coasts along with the need to more precisely chart the safest routes for ships to use along the coast. This includes finding and precisely locating rocks and reefs that ships could run aground on. With the north coast more frequently ice free in warm weather, Russia sees a need for surface ships patrolling the area. Nuclear subs continue to run underwater patrols during Winter, when the coastline is iced in.
In mid-2016 Russia launched its first new icebreaker since the 1970s. The new Okean class non-nuclear ship is a 6,000 ton (deadweight), 85 meter (180 foot) long vessel that can handle ice up to a meter thick. This ship is one of 14 non-nuclear icebreakers. Another new development in 2016 was the construction of the first Russian arctic patrol ship that combined the capabilities of a Krivak III class frigate and a light icebreaker. This ship, the Okean, is a 2,700-ton vessel that can handle thin, as in about 80mm (three inches) ice and survive heavier ice. This is less than the older militarized Susanin class icebreakers they were replacing. It was found that during patrol operations Susanin rarely faced the heavier ice that they were built to handle.
The Okean was designed with that in mind. This ship has a top speed of 39 kilometers an hour and a crew of 44 that can stay out for 60 days. Armament is one 76mm gun and two heavy (14.5mm) machine-guns. There is a helicopter pad and a hanger for a Ka-27 helicopter. The first Okean was assigned to the northern Russian coast, where most Russia naval bases are located. The second one, which entered service at the end of 2019 was sent to the Pacific Coast, where is actually more smuggling and other coastal criminal activity during ice season. A third Okean is supposed to enter service soon and two more are planned.
Previously the only ships Russia had for patrolling ice infested waters were eight Ivan Susanin class arctic patrol ships that were basically militarized versions of the eight Dobrynya Nikitich/Susanin class icebreakers built in the 1960s. In the 1970s eight more of these were built but modified to serve as arctic patrol ships. Most of these have been retired. The resulting Nikitich class were 3,000 tons displacement and sturdy enough to break up the 200mm (eight inch) thick ice found around many arctic ports. Larger icebreakers handled thicker ice in areas where the coast guard was not likely to find any illegal afloat activities. Russia also built eight Krivak III frigates as coast guard patrol ships in the 1980s and early 1990s. These could not handle ice at all and were used to supplement the Susanins in northern areas when the coast was ice-free. All these patrol ships were operated by the secret police (KGB then, now the FSB) where ice was a problem along Russia’s northern coast (east of Norway) and in the Pacific (north of North Korea). In both areas there was and is some criminal activity along the coast which continues into the ice season when experienced local mariners would, for a high enough fee, assist in smuggling operations when the coastal waters were full of ice. These older arctic patrol ships were armed with one or two 76mm guns, one or two 20-30mm autocannon and some heavy machine-guns. Crew size was about 80, top speed was 25 kilometers an hour and endurance a month or two. There was a helicopter pad but no hangar, so the Susanins could not carry a helicopter with them while on patrol.
The U.S. Navy noted the increased Russian activity in the arctic and became publicly alarmed at the fact that the U.S. Navy was no longer prepared to operate in the arctic. Actually, the U.S. Navy was never big on operating in the arctic. The navy used to have seven Wind class icebreakers, built near the end of World War II. But these were mainly to maintain access to polar shipping lanes that were only needed in wartime. These icebreakers were turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard after World War II and all were retired by the 1980s. The navy saw no compelling reason to maintain a fleet of icebreakers any longer. The U.S. Coast Guard currently has two icebreakers and a new class is being built. The Coast Guard is building three new icebreakers, with the first is to enter service in 2023. There are plans to build three smaller icebreakers.