In a video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense, three Russian submarines can be seen breaking through the polar ice nearly simultaneously.
The three sub’s sails or the tower-like structure on the top of their hulls breakthrough first, followed by the long dark body of the submarines. Later in the video, one of the submarine’s officers is seen opening a hatch on the top of the sail and saluting.
Of particular note in the video is the noise that the three giant submarines made when breaking through the ice. Deep rumbling and cracking can be heard during the video.
The Russian news agency TASS quoted Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov that the three submarines “surfaced from under the ice in a limited space with a radius of 300 meters for the first time in the history of the Russian Navy.”
The subs surfaced near Franz Josef Land archipelago, a collection of Russian islands just 560 miles from the North Pole, and burst through ice over 1.5 meters or nearly 5 feet thick. Tass also stated that the temperature ranged from minus 25 to minus 30 degrees Celsius, or -13 to -22 Fahrenheit.
One of the submarines appear to be a Delta IV-class submarine, a Soviet Cold War-era nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine design that has 16 missile silos for nuclear ballistic missiles. The Delta IVs are the final iteration of the Soviet Delta design and feature improvements to the class’s hull geometry to reduce its acoustic signature. Though the class has two hydroplanes mated to the sail, these can rotate to the vertical in order to allow the submarine to break through Arctic ice sheets.
One naval expert identified one of the other submarines as a specialized and elongated Delta-IV sub that has had its 16 missile silos removed to free up onboard space, and is though to be a specialized underwater intelligence gathering submarine.
Though speculative, the third submarine could be one of the Borei-class, another nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, though it was also identified as the Knyaz Vladimir, a so far one-off specialized Borei-class variant that features a reduced acoustic signature and has a higher missile capacity than the original Borei-class — making it overall quieter and better armed.
Russian media reported that the Russian Geographical Society also took part in the exercise, possibly with support from the aforementioned longer Delta-IV submarine. “For the first time, a set of combat training, scientific research and practical diverse measures in underway under the single design and plan in subpolar regions,” Tass wrote, quoting a Russian Admiral.
Though we won’t know what exactly those three submarines were up to that far north in the Arctic, they weren’t alone.
The exercise included more than 600 Russian service members and were joined by several Russian MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor jets and refueling tankers. Regardless, impressive though the recent surfacing was, it was rather more of a publicity spectacle opportunity. Still, it underscores Russia’s resolve — despite decades of retreat and Arctic neglect — that Moscow can still assert their presence in the far north if need be.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.