The Ice Curtain: Kola Peninsula Part 1: Slow Modernization of Severomorsk-1 Air Base

Authors from CSIS: Matthew Melino, Heather Conley and Joseph Bermudez
Latest
slow modernization progress
Impact
further upgrades increase ops capacity
Updated
MAR 10
152 Days Ago

Overview

Upgrades at Severomorsk-1 Air base increases Russia's operational readiness, presence, and capabilities in the northwest Arctic region, improving domain awareness and operational capacity around the Kola Peninsula. Further upgrades would expand operational capacity towards the GIUK-N Gap. However, GEOINT analysis shows slow construction progress.

Severomorsk-1 can deepen Russia's strategic reach and propel its forward line of defense further from its coastline, enhancing anti-access/aerial denial capabilities near and around the Kola Peninsula.


Activity

GEOINT analysis shows mostly slow construction and modernization progress at Severomorsk-1 Air base.

Introduction

Russia's western Arctic houses a concentration of advanced conventional capabilities for defensive and potentially offensive purposes centered on the Kola Peninsula and home to its Northern Fleet headquarters, which hosts Russia's most advanced Arctic land, air, and naval assets notably its nuclear arsenal and second-strike capabilities. The Peninsula's location a gateway between the Arctic and the North Atlantic and its extensive military assets make it central to Russia's homeland defense and power projection capabilities.

Russian military modernization efforts and new construction on the Kola Peninsula have centered around the refurbishment of air bases and expansion of naval bases. Severomorsk-1 Air Base, Gadzhiyevo Submarine Base, and Okolnaya Submarine Support Base are particularly important due to their expansion and added depth to Russia's defenses while ensuring Russia's freedom of navigation and air sovereignty. Neighboring sites, such as the Plesetsk Cosmodrome located at the Kura Missile Test Range in Arkhangelsk, enhance Russia's Arctic military capabilities as the recent Grom-2019 exercise demonstrated. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome is a particularly noteworthy site for testing advanced weapons like the RS-24 Yars ICBM.

Military exercises and weapons testing in and around the Kola Peninsula are frequent and reveal Russia's operational readiness to engage its nuclear forces in potential conflict to deter adversaries. Exercises such as Ocean Shield and Grom-2019 also demonstrate Russia's calculation that the Arctic is a critical domain to its national security, power project capabilities, and economic interests. It is assessed that Russia's modernization and expansion efforts will continue on and around the Kola Peninsula well into the future with the ultimate aim of asserting Russian sovereignty across the region.

Modernization of Severomorsk-1 Air Base

Located on the southern outskirts of Severomorsk and approximately 15.5 kilometers northeast of Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula (Murmanskaya Oblast) is the Severomorsk-1 Air Base. Severomorsk-1 dates to World War II when it was known simply as Severomorsk Air Base which protected the Soviet Union's northern flank and provided air protection for both navy facilities on the Kola Peninsula and allied supply convoys destined for the port of Murmansk.1 During the Cold War, Severomorsk-1's strategic importance increased, along with that of its two sister air bases Severomorsk-2 and Severomorsk-3. Strategic bombers (e.g., Tu-16/-95), strike (e.g., Su-24) and patrol aircraft (e.g., Il-38) based or staged were tasked with protecting the Soviet Unions northwestern Arctic flank and providing strategic strike capability against the United States. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the serviceability and capabilities of the Severomorsk air bases declined precipitously.

The strategic importance of Severomorsk-1 reemerged however during late-2011 or early 2012. During that time the Russian military began an extensive multi-year modernization project of the base,2 which was in advance of the Russian Defense Ministry's 2013 announcement that it was reengaging in the Arctic to guard its northern approaches, protect mineral and energy resources, and monitor shipping on the Northern Sea Route.3 Since 2014, the Air Base falls under the command of the Northern Fleet.4

Satellite imagery of the Severomorsk-1 Air Base (69.030776 N, 33.42271 E) from May 14, 2012 shows that the base ceased to be operational as the modernization project was underway. Noticeable developments include:

  • The concrete on the main runway and taxiways has been removed and the sub-surface was being graded
  • All operational aircraft had been moved to other air bases (likely Severomorsk-3)
  • The remaining non-operational retired aircraft awaiting parts recovery and scrapping have been concentrated along the southwest side of the base in abandoned revetments with 18 aircraft visible
  • The helicopter servicing and storage facility (also used for parts removal and scrapping) in the southwest corner remained operational with at least 67 helicopters of several types and in various states of repair.

Severomorsk-01

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, May 14, 2012)

Severomorsk-02

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, May 14, 2012)

Severomorsk-03

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, May 14, 2012)

Severomorsk-04

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, May 14, 2012)

Five years later, on July 30, 2017, satellite imagery shows that considerable -- albeit very slow progress was made:

  • While the base was still not operational, the paving of the 3,500-meter-long runway appears to have been finished
  • Several new taxiways were under construction
  • The revetments and parking aprons for operational aircraft, at the north end of the runway had been completed
  • The infrastructure for the instrument landing system (ILS) was under construction
  • The 18 retired aircraft awaiting parts recovery and scrapping that were previously in abandoned revetments on the southwest perimeter had been repositioned to an unimproved taxiway in the center of the air base
  • The number of helicopters at the helicopter servicing and storage facility declined to approximately 53 of several types and in various states of repair
  • Many of the previously abandoned aircraft revetments have been razed

Severomorsk-06

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, July 30, 2017)

Severomorsk-07

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, July 30, 2017)

Severomorsk-08

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, July 30, 2017)

Severomorsk-09

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, July 30, 2017)

Severomorsk-10

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, July 30, 2017)

More recently, a September 4, 2019 satellite image, shows that while the air base had once again become operational, the modernization project was not complete as much of the work on some infrastructure (e.g., completion of taxiways and aprons) remained to be completed. Among the indications that the base had become operational were:

  • Patrol and transport aircraft and helicopters are deployed on aprons and in revetments at the north end of the runway
  • The presence of a transport aircraft on a taxiway leading to the runway
  • Tire tracks from landings are visible on either end of the runway
  • The taxiways and aprons continue to be slowly expanded
  • The number of helicopters at the helicopter servicing and storage facility continued to decline with approximately 36 of several types and in various states of repair being present
  • Only 12 of the approximately 18 retired aircraft awaiting parts recovery and scrapping remain. Several of which show recent signs (e.g., wings sections laying on the ground, etc.) of being disassembled

Severomorsk-12

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, September 4, 2019)

Severomorsk-13

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, September 4, 2019)

Severomorsk-14

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, September 4, 2019)

Severomorsk-15

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, September 4, 2019)

Severomorsk-16

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, September 4, 2019)

Severomorsk-18

(Severomorsk-1 Air Base, September 4, 2019)

Throughout this modernization, minor improvements have been undertaken among the air bases supporting infrastructure including housing, warehouse, machines shops and support areas on the north side of the base. However, the modern Murmansk-BN electronic warfare system, which had been reported as being deployed in the Severomorsk area, was not readily identified in the area immediately around the Severomorsk-1 Air Base in the most recent satellite image.5 Given the relatively slow pace of construction observed during the past eight years, it is unclear when the entire modernization project will finally be complete.

Analysis

Upgrades to Severomorsk-1 Air base increases Russian operational readiness, presence, and capabilities in the northwest Arctic region. Construction suggest the Air base will primarily support patrol and search-and-rescue aircraft. This will improve domain awareness and operational capacity around the Kola Peninsula. Increased numbers of patrol aircraft tasked for search-and-rescue operations improve the viability of the NSR as a maritime commercial route. With further upgrades to the base, operational capacity could expand further into the Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, North Atlantic, and an increasingly ice free Arctic Ocean. In anticipation of receding ice and increased human activity in the far north, Severomorsk-1 can deepen Russia's strategic reach and propel its forward line of defense further from its coastline, enhancing anti-access/aerial denial capabilities near the Kola Peninsula.

References and Notes

  1. "Kola Area Airfields Follow Railroad," Air Intelligence Digest, August 1957, pp. 18-20, [Declassified]
  2. Atle Staalesen, Russia establishes new Arctic air squadron to protect its Northern Sea Route, The Barents Observer, July 19, 2019, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2019/07/russia-establishes-new-arctic-air-squadron-protect-its-northern-sea-route; and Atle Staalesen, Upgrade for Northern Fleet air base, The Barents Observer, July 3, 2018, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2018/07/upgrade-northern-fleet-air-base.
  3. A Northern Fleet Exercise in Protecting Russia's Island Zone and Sea Coast Has Taken Place in the Arctic, Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, September 17, 2016, https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12096325@egNews; Dmitry Boltenkov, A Cold Hotspot, VPK Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kuryer, June 27, 2016, https://vpk-news.ru/articles/31210; Sneak Peak at Russia's Under Renovation Arctic Base, RT.com, September 18, 2014, https://www.rt.com/news/188712-arctic-russia-military-base/ and Jones, Bruce. Russia Sets Up New Arctic Base, Jane's Defence Weekly, September 19, 2013.
  4. During December 2014 the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had established a new Joint Strategic Command, dubbed North, based on the Northern Fleet with operational responsibility for the Russian Arctic. Russia's Defense Ministry establishes Arctic Strategic Command, TASS, December 1, 2014, http://tass.com/russia/764428.
  5. Atle Staalesen, Russia establishes new Arctic air squadron to protect its Northern Sea Route, The Barents Observer, July 19, 2019, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2019/07/russia-establishes-new-arctic-air-squadron-protect-its-northern-sea-route.

Google Earth Overview

Severomorsk-1 Air base in relation to Okolnaya Submarine Support Base and Gadzhiyevo Submarine Base.

Gadzhiyevo (top)
Okolnaya (middle)
Severomorsk (bottom)

Source: Goolge Earth

Google Earth View

Severomorsk-1 Air base KML annotations.

Looking Ahead

Part 2 of Kola Peninsula analysis will discuss expanded maritime assets around the Kola Peninsula, specifically a new missile storage facility at Okolnaya Submarine Support Base and Gadzhiyevo Submarine Base.

Things To Watch

  • Storage construction progress or lack thereof
  • Is the construction on-time and on-schedule or delayed?

Data Sources

kml Severomorsk-1 Airbase Annotations
shp Severomorsk-1 Airbase Annotations

About the Authors

Matthew Melino

Associate Fellow

Heather Conley

Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program

Joseph Bermudez

Senior Fellow for Imagery Analysis, CSIS

Tearline
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Methodologies Reviewed by NGA


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