This Russian ICBM Will Punch Through Arctic Ice

The Arctic makes a great hiding place for submarines. Sailing under the polar ice caps, subs can avoid detection and attack by surface ships and submarines. For Russia in particular, with much of its navy based in the far north, the Arctic offers its ballistic missile subs a sanctuary from Western sub-hunters.

The problem is, what if a ballistic missile sub actually receives the command to launch its nuclear-tipped ICBMs? The missile can’t penetrate the ice, which means the sub must either search for a hole in the ice before it can launch, or sail outside the ice cap. Or, if time is pressing during a nuclear war, the sub can try find a weak spot in the ice cap, attempt to surface, and hope that breaking through the ice sheet doesn’t damage the vessel.

So, the Russian Navy has an idea: use a rocket to punch a hole through the ice, fire the ICBM through the hole, while the sub remains snugly under the ice and can quickly make its escape before the sub-hunters arrive.

“These unguided rocket-propelled projectiles punch a hole through the pack ice at the required location,” says Russian newspaper Izvestia. “These special munitions support the launch of strategic missiles while submerged and also in the surface recovery of floating rescue capsules, which the crews use for evacuation during an accident. The submarines will be able to fire rockets from both the under-ice position and also on the surface.”

The ice-busting rockets, which will be armed with high-explosive warheads, are being developed for the Russian Navy’s new Borei- and Yasen-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The rockets were first tested in 2014.

During the Cold War, Soviet attempts to use regular torpedoes to blast a hole in the ice “were not as effective as expected,” Izvestia admitted.

“All of these nuclear submarines must operate in any situation and not depend on the conditions of the environment,” Rear Admiral Vsevolod Khmyrov, a former nuclear submarine captain, told Izvestia. “Upon receipt of the command to launch, they are obliged to execute it as soon as possible. Ice should not be an impediment. Making ice holes is a tactical technique which permits the missile launch on time. A submarine can use the hull to punch through the ice but, in the process, risks getting damaged. Therefore, if time permits, the missile submarines usually look for already existing ice holes or sail out beyond the edge of the ice.”

Presumably the submarine will have a way to determine whether the rocket successfully punched a hole though the ice before launching an ICBM: a nuclear-tipped missile smashing into a 5-foot-thick ice sheet could have unfortunate consequences for the sub.

But if the concept does work, it could prove advantageous for Russia as it competes with other nations over Arctic resources and shipping routes emerging as the ice cap shrinks. A Russian sub could launch conventional cruise or hypersonic missiles through the ice at enemy ships and installations.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Why Russia Loves “Flying Tank” Helicopters

credit: Creative Commons

Yet another “flying tank” helicopter is entering Russia’s arsenal. The Spetznaz commandos are getting a new flying machine that will combine the troop-carrying capacity of a transport helicopter, the immense firepower of an attack helicopter, and the protection of an armored vehicle.

Except the Mi-8AMTSh-VN, which is scheduled to begin testing in the autumn, is not exactly new. It’s based on the venerable Mi-8 (NATO code name “Hip”) transport helicopter, which first flew in 1961. The ubiquitous Mi-8 has been flown by dozens of nations, from Algeria to Mexico. The 7-ton helicopter has a speed of 150 miles per hour, can carry 24 soldiers, and can be armed with machine guns, unguided rocket pods and anti-tank missiles.

But what Russia has in mind seems closer to the legendary Mi-24 Hind, a 1970s derivative of the Mi-8. The 9-ton Mi-24, flown extensively in the Soviet-Afghan War, was a fearsome beast armed with machine guns, 23mm and 30-mm cannon, rockets, six anti-tank missiles and capacity to haul a dozen soldiers. It was essentially a rotary-wing version of the famed World War II Il-2 Sturmovik, a heavily armored ground attack aircraft designed to survive dense curtains of German low-altitude flak.

The Mi-8AMTSh-VN sounds like a Hind on steroids, capable of hauling troops, hunting tanks and shooting down enemy aircraft. “This innovative machine will transport Spetsnaz and provide them with supporting fire,” claims Russian newspaper Izvestia. “In its most heavily-armed version, it will carry up to four extended-range Hermes missiles, up to eight supersonic Ataka missiles, or up to two tons of aviation bombs. This payload will enable the helicopter to engage ground, maritime, and aerial targets at a range of up to 20 kilometers. Modern avionics, electro-optical systems, radar, and thermal imagers will ensure all-weather day and night operation.”

Why does Russia love these big all-in-one helicopters? The U.S. and other Western militaries specialized machines: the American AH-64 Apache is an attack helicopter that doesn’t haul troops, and the UH-60 Blackhawk is a transport chopper that doesn’t hunt tanks.

But to the Russians, it makes more sense to have the same helicopter capable of performing both missions. For lightly armed Spetznaz commandos, a helicopter that can drop them behind enemy lines and then stay in the area to provide massive fire support is invaluable.

“A multirole helicopter combining a wide range of combat and assault landing capabilities is vital for special operations and Spetsnaz subunits,” said Colonel Valeriy Yuryev, deputy chairman of the Russian Union of Paratroopers. “In Afghanistan, Mi-8s would deliver troops to their destination and depart. Cover would usually be provided by a pair of Mi-24 helicopters flying a race-track pattern. The modern helicopter should have sufficient firepower, plenty of ammunition, and good transportation performance. Desirably, it would land a team and then, while the commandos are approaching their assigned location, start engaging targets. What we need is a kind of flying tank. That is more effective than having infantry fighting vehicles or tanks supporting the commandos. You see the situation better from the air.”

To accomplish all this, the Mi-8 will have to be heavily modified. “With an increased payload, it will be noticeably heavier,” Izvestia noted. “Consequently, it will have a more powerful version of the engine currently on the Mi-8AMTSh.”

Which helps explain why other nations don’t combine such disparate functions in one helicopter. A jack-of-all-trades machine can perform many functions, but less capably at a specific function than a specialized machine. Nothing is free in the marketplace of aerodynamics: combining armor, lots of weapons and troop-carrying capacity means a bigger, heavier – and clumsier – helicopter. Compare the bulky shape of the Mi-24 to lithe attack helicopters like the AH-64 Apache or Russia’s Apache-lookalike the Mi-28 Havoc.

Which approach is better? High-tech Western attack helicopters like the Apache are more like race cars: sleek, highly efficient at a narrow range of tasks, and usually a little more fragile and expensive. Russian helicopters are built to inflict damage and take damage, perhaps not surprising given Russia’s history of massive and bloody battles with everyone from Napoleon to Hitler.

Both types of helicopters reflect the values and expectations of those who design them.

— Michael Peck

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