MOSCOW, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Russia's weekend announcement of a permanent military presence in the arctic is partly a response to NATO sea-based missile defenses, a Russian expert says.
Anatoly Tsyganok, a retired colonel and head of the Center for Military Forecasting in Moscow, told the InfoRos online newspaper Saturday's announcement that the Russian Northern Fleet had returned to the arctic on a permanent basis is likely a move to counter the U.S. Aegis ballistic missile defense system.
The ability of the Northern Fleet to patrol the territory east of the Barents Sea will greatly enhance the strategic potential of the Russian Navy, Tsyganok told the publication.
If NATO ships equipped with missile defense systems are sent to the Arctic Ocean, the capabilities of the Russian strategic nuclear forces will be put at risk, and therefore the task has fallen to the Northern Fleet to counter foreign sea-based missile defense systems, the analyst told InfoRos.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency says that of July 2013, there were 28 Aegis ballistic missile defense-equipped ships in deployment, including five cruisers and 23 destroyers -- of those, 16 are assigned to the Pacific Fleet and 12 to the Atlantic Fleet.
The Atlantic elements were first deployed in 2011 as part of the first phase of the United States' European missile defense shield efforts, which have long been viewed by Moscow as a potential threat to its nuclear deterrent.
Washington insists the anti-missile shield is not targeted at Russia but to protect Europe from attacks from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.
Another advantage of establishing a permanent arctic military presence will be to allow combat ships to traverse a northern sea route "from the west of the continent to the east and vice versa," Tsyganok said.
Russian Navy Commander Viktor Chirkov said Saturday that an arctic expedition of troop ships led by the heavy nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great had plowed through 2,000 nautical miles of ice to make a landing on the northernmost point of the island archipelago of Franz Josef Land.
"The expedition is performing the task of gathering information about changing the navigation and hydrographic conditions, proof of maps and nautical sailing directions, hydro-meteorological observations and geodetic survey points in the archipelago, as well as studying the possibilities of sailing ships in the high latitudes," Chirkov said.
First Deputy Minister of Defense Arkady Bahini hailed the achievement as a signature moment for Russia's military history.
"We have come here -- or rather come back here -- forever because it is a native Russian land, and the tasks that are performed today ships of the Northern Fleet is the first part of a mission set by the president of Russia (Vladimir Putin) and minister of defense (Sergei Shoigu) for the development of and improvement of the entire Northern Sea Route and the adjacent arctic zone," Bahini said.
Also part of the Arctic plans is the improvement of a Russian airfield on the New Siberian Islands archipelago in the country's Far East. Bahini said Shoigu has set a target of expanding and lengthening the runway airfield there to accommodate heavy military transport aircraft such as the An-72 and An-74.
"Construction of the airport will be conducted using the latest technology," he told Interfax. "This relates directly to runway surface, which must meet the rigorous climatic conditions in the arctic. During installation coating materials will be used to withstand the extremely low temperatures. This will be a permanent airfield."