The Arctic makes a great hiding place for submarines. Sailing under the polar ice caps, subs can avoid detection and attack by surface ships and submarines. For Russia in particular, with much of its navy based in the far north, the Arctic offers its ballistic missile subs a sanctuary from Western sub-hunters.
The problem is, what if a ballistic missile sub actually receives the command to launch its nuclear-tipped ICBMs? The missile can’t penetrate the ice, which means the sub must either search for a hole in the ice before it can launch, or sail outside the ice cap. Or, if time is pressing during a nuclear war, the sub can try find a weak spot in the ice cap, attempt to surface, and hope that breaking through the ice sheet doesn’t damage the vessel.
So, the Russian Navy has an idea: use a rocket to punch a hole through the ice, fire the ICBM through the hole, while the sub remains snugly under the ice and can quickly make its escape before the sub-hunters arrive.
“These unguided rocket-propelled projectiles punch a hole through the pack ice at the required location,” says Russian newspaper Izvestia. “These special munitions support the launch of strategic missiles while submerged and also in the surface recovery of floating rescue capsules, which the crews use for evacuation during an accident. The submarines will be able to fire rockets from both the under-ice position and also on the surface.”
The ice-busting rockets, which will be armed with high-explosive warheads, are being developed for the Russian Navy’s new Borei- and Yasen-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The rockets were first tested in 2014.
During the Cold War, Soviet attempts to use regular torpedoes to blast a hole in the ice “were not as effective as expected,” Izvestia admitted.
“All of these nuclear submarines must operate in any situation and not depend on the conditions of the environment,” Rear Admiral Vsevolod Khmyrov, a former nuclear submarine captain, told Izvestia. “Upon receipt of the command to launch, they are obliged to execute it as soon as possible. Ice should not be an impediment. Making ice holes is a tactical technique which permits the missile launch on time. A submarine can use the hull to punch through the ice but, in the process, risks getting damaged. Therefore, if time permits, the missile submarines usually look for already existing ice holes or sail out beyond the edge of the ice.”
Presumably the submarine will have a way to determine whether the rocket successfully punched a hole though the ice before launching an ICBM: a nuclear-tipped missile smashing into a 5-foot-thick ice sheet could have unfortunate consequences for the sub.
But if the concept does work, it could prove advantageous for Russia as it competes with other nations over Arctic resources and shipping routes emerging as the ice cap shrinks. A Russian sub could launch conventional cruise or hypersonic missiles through the ice at enemy ships and installations.