Russia Resumes Fighter Patrols Over the North Pole

Two squadrons of aging interceptors will fly a route to intercept U.S. bombers in wartime.

Four Mikoyan MiG-31military airplanes fly in formation over Moscow during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade to celebrate the 71st anniversary of the victory in WWII
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Want another sign of the Cold War's return? Russia has announced it will deploy two squadrons of MiG interceptors to fly patrols over the North Pole.

The patrols, which were routine during the Cold War, are largely symbolic. They're meant to be a show of force, and to demonstrate that Russia takes its nuclear defense mission seriously. As relations with the United States continue to deteriorate, they're back on.

, two squadrons of MiG-31BM interceptors will fly regular patrols over the North Pole region. One squadron, part of the 98th Guards Reconnaissance Aviation Regiment stationed in Murmansk region at Monchegorsk airfield, will carry out the patrols from European Russia. Russia’s Izvestia news agency another squadron, part of the 317th Composite Air Regiment stationed in the Kamchatka region out of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Yelizovo airport, will carry out the patrols from the other side of Russia. Both squadrons are assigned to the Russian Navy. The patrols will continue until the end of 2019.

First developed in the 1980s, the MiG-31 is one of the fastest supersonic interceptors ever made. The plane was originally capable of speeds up to Mach 2.83, or 2,171 miles per hour, and was designed to catch and shoot down enemy aircraft over the vastness that was the Soviet Union. In particular, it was built to chase the SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft, B-52 and B-1B strategic bombers, and low-flying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

The MiG-31BM typically carries eight air-to-air missiles, including four R-33 or R-33S radar-guided missiles for long-range interception. Russia, which inherited the old USSR’s Arctic frontier, still maintains approximately 134 MiG-31s, with at least 70 updated to a newer standard.

Although Izvestia brags that the MiG-31s will be able to reach the North Pole in half an hour, that is no longer the case. The age of Russia’s MiG-31 fleet means they are restricted to Mach 1.5, as the cockpit canopy glass can no longer withstand higher speeds.

Even if they could reach those old speeds, the MiG-31s would be playing a largely symbolic role here. The area is so impossibly vast that properly defending it from America’s nuclear-armed bomber force would require many more squadrons—squadrons Russia does not have. These patrols fall in line with other Russian gestures to prepare for nuclear conflict, including the fielding of new ballistic missile submarines, nuclear-powered cruise missiles, and hypersonic weapons.

Much of the Arctic is indeed Russian territory and fighter patrols are a way of enforcing Russian sovereignty. The patrols are also likely meant to remind the U.S. and the West in general that Russia remembers all of the old nuclear defense procedures from the bad old days of the Cold War and is ready to reactivate them if necessary. According to Izvestia the MiGs will also escort Russian bombers during their periodic flights near Alaskan airspace.

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