Inside Russia’s mysterious robotic sub fleet in the Arctic

0
764

 

BBC Future

The Arctic: the smallest of Earth’s five oceans, with icy waters and dagger-like winds, is home to some of the most unforgiving conditions on the planet.

But far below the skin of sea ice that waxes and wanes with the seasons, this inhospitable ocean is hiding a treasure trove of natural resources – one that’s largely untapped by mankind.

The Arctic Ocean is estimated to hold billions of barrels of oil, and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas – accounting for 16-26% of the Earth’s undiscovered reserves. And there’s a superpower scrambling to beat all others in the race to exploit this chilly mother lode of polar resources: Russia.

Decades after the Soviet Union fell, Russia embarked on a mission to drill deep into the Arctic seabed, sending a fleet of underwater robots and unmanned submarines into the Earth’s harshest waters.

And now, after years of drilling in the area, the country – which saw oil and natural gas account for 68% of its exports in 2013 – plans to use never-before-seen technology to take its mission to the next level.

Russia already extracts around 5.5 million tons of oil annually from its only operating oil field in the Arctic, but much of the sea is covered by a thick sheet of ice year-round, making exploitation by surface vessels impossible. Enter Russia’s Project Iceberg: an ambitious plan to use extreme technology for equally extreme conditions. We talked to experts who shone a light on Russia’s designs on the Arctic.

***

The race for the Arctic’s precious resources isn’t new. The hoard of gas and oil is surrounded by powerful nations – Russia, Denmark, Norway, the US and Canada – and they all want a piece of the pie.

Russia itself has been drilling in the Arctic Circle for decades. In August 2007, it made a dangerous and globally provocative move by sending two Russian mini-submarines 4,200m (14,000ft) below the North Pole to plant a rust-proof titanium flag on the seabed to stake a claim on the territory.

Now, in 2017, the global community is keeping a close eye on Russia as it seeks to expand its grip and influence on Arctic waters – and the valuable resources within. For Russia, oil and natural gas are key sources of both energy and income. Project Iceberg could be the nation’s power play to make sure it keeps a regional monopoly on those two resources.

Russia is already expanding its military might in the Arctic, building more bases in the area after opening several earlier this year. In April, BBC journalists were the first foreign journalists allowed to film Russia’s military brigade stationed in the Arctic, close to the Finnish border. The increased military presence in the region is a sign of Russia’s growing Arctic ambitions at a time when receding ice is making the energy resources it holds more accessible than ever.

In much the same way as extracting oil from the North Sea was considered to be an engineering challenge in the 1970s as nobody had operated drilling platforms so far north in such difficult weather conditions before, the Arctic poses similar barriers today. With water up to 5km (3.1 miles) deep in places and largely covered with ice, the Arctic is arguably the hardest place in the world to drill for oil.

But then, nobody has attempted anything like Project Iceberg before.

The Foundation for Advanced Studies, the Russian equivalent of America’s Darpa, states it is planning “fully autonomous underwater, under-ice, development of hydrocarbon fields in the Arctic seas with severe ice conditions”. In other words: oil-seeking robotic submarines.

But there are some who suggest Iceberg’s stated goals are unrealistic – and that they may be a smokescreen for the development of military systems that can be deployed under the ice.

What is almost certain is that the project will add muscle to Russia’s vast territorial claims in the Arctic, which are currently under consideration by the UN.

***

The centrepiece of Iceberg is the 182m-long (600 ft) Belgorod, the largest nuclear submarine ever built. The Belgorod will carry out underwater surveys and lay communication cables under the ice, but its main role will be to act as a mothership for a flotilla of smaller submarines.

“The Belgorod submarine is a platform for deployment of various systems, including ones that do not yet exist,” says Vadim Kozyulin, a defence analyst at PIR Centre, a thinktank focusing on security issues.

This is the reason for the sub’s enormous size: a new 30m (100 ft) section has been added with docking facilities for both manned and unmanned submarines.

But perhaps the most ambitious part of Project Iceberg are the plans for the word’s first underwater nuclear power plants to act as pitstops for the swarms of submarines that will be deployed.

These underwater power stations will sit on the sea bed and act as recharging points for passing unmanned subs. The current design is for a 24-megawatt reactor with a lifetime of 25 years. Each one will operate almost entirely autonomously with technicians only visiting once a year for routine maintenance.