Russia wants to bring back a weird Soviet-era 'flying boat' to gain an edge in the Arctic, but it may never take off

Orlyonok ekranoplan Russia seaplane boat planeSimm/Wikimedia CommonsThe A-90 Orlyonok.
  • Russia has been building up its military, adding more sophisticated weaponry and expanding its presence.
  • Moscow has put emphasis on the Arctic, where receding ice is opening access to sea lanes and natural resources.
  • Russia’s plan to bolster its Arctic presence now includes a strange half-plane, half-boat the Soviet Union flirted with during the Cold War.

Russia’s navy is a fraction of the size of its Soviet predecessor, but it is increasingly active, especially in the Arctic, where it is vying with rivals like the US and China for control of lucrative shipping lanes and resources.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has reopened Soviet-era military, air, and radar bases in the region and reinvigorated its presence in the high north to back up its expansive claims there to potentially trillions of dollars in oil and gas deposits.

Part of the plan to secure control to these vast, untapped resources is an odd-looking half-boat, half-plane designed to skim the waves to guard northern sea routes and patrol the Caspian and Black seas.

“The state armament program for 2018-2027 includes the Orlan [research and development] work, which stipulates the construction of the wing-in-ground-effect craft. The prototype will be created as part of this armament program and it will carry missile armament,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said on Monday, according to Russian state outlet TASS.

The new Orlan may draw on the design of the Lun-class wing-in-ground-effect craft, known as an ekranoplan, that briefly saw service with Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s.

Similar to a seaplane, wing-in-ground-effect craft are designed to fly right along the surface of the water, giving them the advantage of flying at incredibly low altitude while travelling at many times faster than the fastest ships.

The Soviet-era Lun could supposedly fly at speeds of about 340 mph but no higher than 16 feet – a sea-skimming profile that may allow it to evade some radar systems.

The new Orlan-class craft would be armed to protect infrastructure on Russia’s northern approaches, where defences are weak, Borisov said. “It can hover and monitor these areas, as well as the internal seas: the Caspian and the Black Seas,” he added, saying that it could carry out patrols and rescue missions.

Russian officials have mentioned plans for such craft before. In August 2017, a Russian defence industry official said work was being done on a medium-size ekranoplan, called the A-050 Seagull and displacing 54 tons, for use in the Caspian and Baltic seas transporting people and cargo.

In October last year, media reports indicated Russia’s navy had its eyes on a 600-ton ekranoplan, called Rescuer, for search-and-rescue operations, looking to develop it between 2018 and 2025 with plans to perform flight tests in 2022 or 2023. Previous versions of the ekranoplan have been designed with a “flying boat” style fuselage that allow it to land in the water.

While Borisov did not mention design specifications for the new craft, the Soviet Union’s Project 904, nicknamed Orlyonok, or “eaglet” in Russian, may provide a jumping-off point, paired with elements of the Lun-class craft to support armaments, like anti-ship missiles, according to The War Zone. (The Orlyonok was called the Orlan by NATO at the time.)

Russia Arctic TroopsMinistry of Defence of the Russian FederationRussian troops take part in an Arctic airmobile assault at Kotelny Island, in the New Siberian Islands.

An ekranoplan carrying anti-ship missiles could prevent ships from moving freely. Several armed ekranoplans could overwhelm the defence systems of surface warships. Their operational range could also allow them to reach otherwise inaccessible areas and deny foes the ability to operate there.

Ekranoplans operating above the water but at low altitudes may also be harder to detect and engage.

Such uses are still hypothetical, however. Previous ekranoplan projects struggled with operational and maintenance issues. In 1993, Russia decided to abandon Project 904-type craft. Nor is it certain Moscow will follow through on the latest iteration. Some recent military programs have been delayed in favour of other high-profile projects, according to The War Zone.

The ekranoplan’s design may be unique, but its not the only asset Russia has sent to or has said it wants to deploy to the high north.

Arctic TrefoilRussian Defence MinistryRussia’s Arctic Trefoil, a base in the Arctic region.

These include early-warning radars, drones for surveillance and combat training, fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles systems like the S-400, manned and unmanned underwater vehicles, and several military facilities that will be set up or reopened. Russia’s Northern Fleet, based in the Arctic on the Kola Peninsula, has also grown.

This spring, Russia’s first floating nuclear power plant, called the “Akademik Lomonsov,” arrived at the Arctic port of Murmansk, where it was to be loaded with fuel before heading east to power an isolated Russian town on the Bering Strait.

Russia, which has the world’s longest Arctic coastline, also plans to augment its fleet of about 40 icebreakers, adding three nuclear-powered ones on top of the six it already has. No other country has nuclear-powered icebreakers, though China has begun the process of building one.

“The modernisation of Arctic forces and of Arctic military infrastructure is taking place at an unprecedented pace not seen even in Soviet times,” Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of Moscow Defence Brief, told Reuters in early 2017.

Western officials have expressed concern at this buildup, which has been mirrored in other places, like Russia’s Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad.

The US in particular has looked for ways to respond, including expanded training for Arctic operations and the addition of specialised vessels like icebreakers, though those plans have foundered.

“Certainly America’s got to up its game in the Arctic. There’s no doubt about that,” Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said during a trip to Alaska in June.

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