The Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika in the Baltic Sea. Credit: Baltic Shipyard.

It’s large and imposing, nuclear powered and it tears through seven-foot thick Arctic ice like a knife — but it has issues, technical issues.

We’re talking, of course, about the Arktika, the first of Russia’s new nuclear-powered Project 22220 icebreakers.

The largest and most powerful such ship in the world at present, it has set sail for its future homeport in Murmansk with plans to plow through ice in the Arctic before it arrives there.

However, only two of the ship’s three engines are presently working, raising questions about just how close it really is to fully entering operational service.

The icebreaker, which is set to be delivered soon to the state-run company FSUE Atomflot, part of Russia’s central nuclear corporation Rosatom, left the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg on Sept. 22, 2020. This follows the completion of initial sea trials in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland earlier this month.

Rosatom says that Arktika will sail in the Arctic north of Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and test out its ability to break through ice before turning south and heading to Murmansk.

According to the CBC, the ship is seen as crucial to Moscow’s efforts to develop the Northern Sea Route, which runs from Murmansk to the Bering Strait near Alaska.

The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, equaling 30% of the world’’s undiscovered gas and 13% of undiscovered oil.

President Vladimir Putin said last year that the country’s Arctic fleet would operate at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers, the majority of which would be powered by nuclear reactors.

Arktika displaces around 33,000 tons and is 570 feet long and is around 168 feet tall at its highest point, giving the crew good visibility of the ice below and the rest of their surroundings. This makes them bigger than the previous largest icebreakers, Russia’s nuclear-powered Project 10520s, which displace around 25,000 tons.

Russia is the only country, at present, to operate nuclear-powered icebreakers and Project 22220s are powered by two RITM-200 pressurized water reactors, each rated at 175 megawatts, which supply electricity to three electric motors, each driving a single propeller.

Russia operates dozens of other smaller conventionally powered icebreakers and other ice capable ships, as well. The country is looking to further expand these fleets, including buying missile-armed corvettes with reinforced hulls capable of punching through ice.

China’s ‘Snow Dragon’ icebreaker is shown here in 2012 in Shanghai after an 85-day scientific mission across the Arctic. Credit: Xinhua.

Arktika, the design of which was finalized in 2009 and construction of which began in 2012, has suffered a number of significant delays over the years.

One particularly major issue was that the original design for the ship’s powerplant included turbogenerators from Ukrainian firm Turboatom. Needless to say, after the Kremlin’s illegal seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, this was no longer an option.

Subsequent US government sanctions also blocked the delivery of components from General Electric that were necessary for the ship’s electric propulsion system. 

New domestic sources had to be found, leading to schedule slips in Arktika‘s delivery, first from 2017 to 2019, and then from 2019 to this year.

Further problems with the propulsion system had led to the ship only beginning sea trials in December 2019 using an auxiliary diesel powerplant. Then, in February 2020, one of the ship’s three main electric motors suffered a complete failure, leaving it with only two working propellers.

At present, this motor has not yet been replaced, limiting Arktika‘s capabilities. Russia plans to accept delivery of the ship in this state and does not expect to conduct the necessary repairs until around this time next year, at the earliest. 

Of the Arctic nations, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, it is Russia by far that has been developing its Arctic presence, the CBC reported.

Canada’s fleet of icebreakers currently consists of seven, with only two considered “heavy” with 38,000 hp. 

The US has only the Polar Star dating from the 1970s at 78,000 hp and the Healy built in 2000, but has plans for three heavy and three medium ships to come.

China has been no less purposeful in its Arctic pursuits: garnering observer status to the Arctic Council, navigating warships through US territorial waters, operating research stations in Norway and Iceland, fielding two icebreakers (Snow Dragon and Snow Dragon 2) to further Arctic “research,” and initiating the Polar Silk Road.

China is also in the process of building a nuclear-powered ship bigger than the Arktika, and capable of breaking 3-metre ice.

Rising interest and activity in the Arctic largely coincide with the ongoing retreat of sea ice, Defense News reported.

Russia, eager to exploit these opportunities and lacking sufficient warm water ports, has been quick to take advantage of the evolving conditions.

Moscow has invested heavily in its Arctic military posture, establishing an Arctic-focused Joint Strategic Command, refurbishing 50 regional sites to include airfields, radars and rescue stations, and opening 16 deep-water ports.

Even more alarmingly, last year Russia deployed a Bastion coastal defense cruise missile unit directly across the Bering Sea from Alaska.

According to the previous commander of US Northern Command, this system could enable Moscow to “control access to the Arctic through the Bering Strait, but also to strike land targets in parts of Alaska with little to no warning.”

Last year, the Pentagon submitted an Arctic strategy to Congress. But without urgent action to match desired ends, Washington risks strategic insolvency in the north.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft told Defense News: “We are lagging a couple decades behind where we need to be” in the Arctic.