Last week, two Russian engineering companies announced that they were building a 1.7-ton "heavy drone" for use in the Arctic. They claim it will be able to fly for 35 hours straight in harsh conditions, and traverse 2,485 miles (4,000 km) in a single outing. That, as the state-run news agency RT reports, is "enough to fly from the Russian shore to the North pole and back again twice." It's the latest sign that as climate change thaws the Arctic, Russia is rushing to assert itself in the region—most recently, by flooding it with drones.
The new, as-of-yet unnamed drone, whose maiden voyage is scheduled for 2017, is reportedly "designed for providing effective control over the Russia's Arctic shelf borders as well as for finding vessels in distress and environmental monitoring," according to RT. Further details are scarce, including those regarding its specific size and weight. By way of reference, the US military's Predator drone has a maximum takeoff weight of just over one ton.
According to Sputnik, another one of Russia's state-run news agencies, the announcement was made at RAE-2015, the country's international arms expo, and it follows a flurry of drone activity in the Arctic.
In December of last year, Russia announced it would be testing Orlan-10 surveillance drones in the Arctic. After tests in early 2015, the military officially deployed the drones in May.
"The drones' task is to maintain impartial control of the situation in the Russian sector of the Arctic, including the ecological and ice situation in the adjoining sea areas and along the Northern Sea Route," Colonel Aleksandr Gordeev said at the time. The drones were tasked with "managing objective control over the situation in the Russian Arctic," he said.
In June, Russia announced it had begun flying other small reconnaissance drones into the region.
"Takhion and Eleron-3 unmanned aerial vehicles have been taking off into the skies of Murmansk region," Vadim Serga, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Northern Fleet press service, said at the time. Both have a range of about 95 miles.
According to the state, "Takhion drones can fly at an altitude of up to 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) and conduct missions even in adverse weather conditions. The vehicle, which can be used as a radio repeater, can operate at temperatures ranging from -30C to +40C (-22F to +104F)." The Eleron-3 is similar—both can transmit video, day or night.
RTI Systems, one of the companies collaborating on the heavy Arctic drone, says it's building a $93 million "integrated system to monitor the Arctic. It will comprise remote-controlled drones, radars, and various sorts of transport and communications equipment."
#Арктика: Подразделения #ВВО проводят тестовые полеты #БЛА #Орлан10 в Заполярье, в районах о.Врангеля и м.Отто Шмидта pic.twitter.com/pgoTMnka4I
— Минобороны России (@mod_russia) March 25, 2015
All of the above will presumably help augment Russia's proclaimed drive to have a "self-sufficient military" stationed in the Arctic by 2018. In total, Russia says it expects to have "several hundred" military drones in operation by 2025, a good number of which will be hovering over the Arctic.
Much has been made of Russia's "aggression" in the planet's melting frozen north. It has recently run military training exercises there, and doubled down on claims that it is the rightful owner of the territory that covers the North Pole. (Notably, the Russian flag it planted there was done so by drone.)
As climate change thaws the region, opening valuable trade routes and oil exploration opportunities, geopolitical pressures there are intensifying; the US and Canada are also vying for space and territory in the unsettled north. But, as the New York Times recently reported, the US is far behind, at least in terms of military presence. Both Canada and the US have tested drones in the Arctic—Canada's was military, the US's have been scientific and commercial—but neither have announced military recon or monitoring missions.
Much like the US embraces drones as a means to exert a military presence in regions where it is not officially at war, Russia is using UAVs to assert its dominance in a region without making official hostile overtures. Russia's fleet, which will now perhaps be militarily equipped, can adventure in the Arctic to "provide effective control" of its borders.