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By Alexei Anpilogov, Moscow*

A unique icebreaker will create a new geopolitical reality for Russia.
Russia has large-scale plans in the Arctic – and the world’s most powerful nuclear icebreakers will ensure Russia’s presence in this crucial region. Three icebreakers of the LK-120YA Leader project will be built according to the strategy for the development of the Arctic zone until 2035 approved by the President of the Russian Federation. What is unique about this ship and what tasks will it solve?

A comprehensive document has been signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin whose title is “The Strategy for the development of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation and ensuring national security for the period up to 2035”. The document describes the tasks which the country should implement in this region. They are related both to improving the quality of life of the local population, and to the development of the Arctic as such. The focus is on the extraction of hydrocarbons, security, and, most importantly, the transit role of the Northern Sea Route (in Russian Severniy Morskoi Put, SevMorPut).

All this should be provided by appropriate equipment, mainly icebreakers. The strategy provides for an extensive shipbuilding program, including the construction of three of the world’s most powerful icebreakers; this is known as the LK-120YA Leader project.

Why do we need nuclear icebreakers in the Arctic, and especially with such a large capacity – after all, the number “120” in the name of the LK-120YA means the power on the icebreaker’s shaft in megawatts (MW)?

The fact is that the main quality of any icebreaker directly depends on the power on the shaft – its ice penetration, the ability to break and push the ice to the sides. The old icebreakers of the Soviet project “Arctic”, of which only the two newest ones – “Yamal” and “50 Years of Victory” —  remain in service today, had a capacity of 55 MW.

The Russian Arctic-class nuclear-powered icebreaker “Yamal”, first commissioned in 1992.

The “50 Years of Victory” was first commissioned in 2007.   It has been operating tourist expeditions to the North Pole although this season’s cruise was cancelled because of Covid-19.  

The new icebreakers of the LK-60YA project, which are currently being completed in St. Petersburg, are already more powerful: they have as much as 60 MW “spinning” on the shaft.

But here the relationship is non-linear: the icebreaker’s power itself is not directly related to its ice permeability, which, in addition, is affected by a lot of other factors. In particular, with an increase in the power of the LK-60YA class compared to the Arctic class only by 9%, their ice penetration increased by as much as 15% – from 2.25 to 2.8 metres.

It is quite difficult to produce such power in constant mode on an icebreaker with a mineral fuel engine (diesel, fuel oil or natural gas), and not only because of fuel consumption restrictions. The fact is that conventional ship engines (whether ship diesel engines or gas turbines) have a certain optimal mode, in which they try to run for most of the ship’s time. In this mode, the engine is most economical; however, while at reduced running speed and low power, the fuel and resource consumption is usually very far from optimal.

But an icebreaker cannot be expected to operate in a normal and stable mode – every time it gets into new ice conditions, then it must  break many metres of ice, before moving into almost clear water.  Therefore, for an icebreaker, the power of the propulsion system is usually adopted in excess of the immediate operating requirement; but this immediately makes it very  uneconomical in clear water.

Design mock-ups of the LK-120YA Leader class icebreaker now under development.

To resolve this contradiction has been attempted many times:  for example, the last remaining US linear icebreaker “Polar Star” installed additional gas turbines which could provide the vessel  with up to 56 MW of power for a short time. This made it possible, when they have been turned on, to escape from the cramped ice conditions, where the vessel’s usual, economical diesel-electric engine with a capacity of 13 MW was unavailing. For this reason the “Polar Star” could not go long even in two-metre ice; normally it was capable of breaking ice only 1.7 metres thick.

But the resourcefulness of gas turbines was short-lived. Today, “Polar Star” remains in proud isolation in the linear icebreaker fleet of the United States, and the “Polar Sea” of the same type has been turned into a spare parts warehouse for its sister ship. So now, instead of such a concept, the new American icebreakers of the Polar Security Cutter program plan to be equipped with only a diesel-electric installation with maximum capacity of 33.7 MW. This, by the way, means that the US,  even with the construction of new icebreakers, will lose some of its existing capabilities in the Arctic,  and will fall even further behind the level of the Russian nuclear icebreaker fleet.

USCGC “Polar Star” (WAGB-10) is a US Coast Guard heavy-icebreaker cutter. Commissioned in 1976, the ship was built by Lockheed in Seattle.

From the icebreakers of the Russian Leader class a significant increase in ice penetration can now be expected. According to the design calculations, the new icebreakers will be able to go freely in solid ice up to 4.3 metres thick. In fact, this means anywhere, any time, all over the Arctic.

According to recent satellite observations, most of the Arctic Ocean is covered in winter with ice only about two metres thick, and in the most difficult areas, off the coasts of Greenland, Alaska and Chukotka, the ice thickness can reach 3.5 metres. Therefore, the main purpose of the Leader icebreakers  is to provide year-round navigation along the eastern section  of the Northern Sea Route, bypassing Chukotka and through the Bering Strait. Until now, this part of the Northern Sea Route was only available seasonally, usually from May to October; after that navigation was closed.

However, the meaning of 120 MW is also qualitatively different. If in ice thickness of three or four meters “Leader” will “crawl” at a speed of one or two knots, then in two-meter ice, which was close to the limit of ice penetration of the old Arctic class vessels,  it will simply “fly” at a speed of 12 knots. This corresponds to the normal speed of large surface ships in a convoy.

In other words, ice-class vessels will be able to travel in the Leader’s convoy in heavy ice conditions at almost the same speed as in clear water. And this has a direct impact on the economic attractiveness of the Northern Sea Route. Until now, this Russian route often could not compete with the southern routes precisely because of the low speed of ships, which offset in cost the savings in distance.

In fact, the Arctic Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Yamal LNG projects, which are aimed at providing year-round supplies of liquefied gas to the markets of Europe and Asia, have become hostages to the process of preserving and developing the icebreaker fleet. Without modern icebreakers, even ice-class gas tankers such as the “Christophe de Margerie”, which is a miracle of technology in itself, might simply be unable to make it to the loading terminals on the Arctic coast of Russia in winter. And this winter period is precisely the premium pricing period in the spot market for natural gas, when the demand and price for the gas are traditionally high. If gas tankers can run all year round on the eastern section of the Northern Sea Route, this will radically change the LNG market. And it is this task which the icebreakers of the LK-120YA Leader project are designed to solve.

The “Christophe de Margerie” ice-class gas tanker, which made a maiden summer season voyage through the eastern section in May-June 2020.

The new icebreakers will be specially built to meet the requirements of escorting such large gas carriers: their width will be 40 metres.

This trend has already been laid down in the last new type of icebreaker – the LK-60YA, which is now being completed in St. Petersburg and will be four metres wider than the old Arctic-class vessels (their width was raised from 30 to 34 metres). This will also allow the LK-60YA and LK-120YA to provide a higher speed for convoying ice-class gas tankers. Today, the “Christophe de Margerie” and similar vessels, with a width of 50 metres, must literally “squeeze” along the ice route after the Arctic-class  icebreakers.

Almost all countries which have their own interests in the Arctic follow a similar path of increasing the capacity of icebreakers. In particular, at the end of December 2019, it became known that China is going to build a new heavy icebreaker “Xue Long 3” (“Snow Dragon-3”), in addition to the already available heavy icebreakers “Xue Long” and “Xue Long 2”, built in 1994 and 2019. The new addition to the fleet of “Snow Dragons” should leave far behind the capabilities of future American icebreakers – the third Chinese icebreaker also plans to install the same peak gas turbines as on the American “Polar Star” series of icebreakers; this will give the “Snow Dragon” capacity of up to 50 MW to break through two-metre ice.

Left: Xue Long-2; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Xue_Long_2   right, model of Xue Long-3.

China’s aim is very clear — Beijing is also interested in the Northern Sea Route as an alternative for delivering its goods to Europe.

Creating the lead icebreaker of the LK-120 Leader project will be a complex and time-consuming undertaking. Until now, no one in the world has built such powerful vessels that can carry out unconditional year-round navigation in the Arctic, including its most severe, eastern part. Therefore, the deadline for the first “Leader” was initially announced for 2027 – it is simply unrealistic to build such a specific and complex vessel in a few months. But the developers want to extend the experience of building and operating the prototype icebreaker to a whole series of vessels: by 2033, Rosatomflot plans to have a fleet of three icebreakers of this project at its disposal.

The construction of the heavy–duty icebreaker will be carried out by a completely new shipyard — the Zvezda shipbuilding enterprise in the city of Bolshoy Kamen, Primorsky Krai. The unique feature of Zvezda is that it is possible to build and repair large vessels at the shipyard. Until recently, our Far East was deprived of this opportunity, and after their construction our large ships had to be worked on at European shipyards.

The Zvezda shipbuilding complex.   For the archive of Russian shipbuilding stories, start here.

Already the first stage of shipbuilding at Zvezda has radically changed the position for the country: the shipyard is now able to produce vessels with a deadweight (full displacement) of up to 145,000 tonnes at its facilities. It is in that class that the Leader icebreaker is located.

The second stage of construction for Zvezda, which is currently in development, is even more ambitious – after its completion, the shipyard will be able to build ice-class vessels, oil platforms, gas carriers,  and tankers with a displacement of 350,000 tonnes,  up to 300 metres long and 75 metres wide. This corresponds to the level of capabilities at the world’s largest shipbuilding companies.

A significant addition to the Russian icebreaker fleet in the form of the “Leaders” will create a completely different geo-economic and geopolitical reality. The Northern Sea Route will become a permanent transport artery competing with the routes through the Suez Canal, around the Cape of Good Hope,  and the land corridors of Eurasia.

NOTE:[*] this report by Alexei Anpilogov was first published in Vzglyad in Moscow on October 27.  

Alexei Bezborodov, editor in chief of Infranews.ru, the bible of the Russian maritime industry, adds this comment: “First of all, the Leader-class icebreaker is still only in blueprint. It won't create a new geopolitical situation but it will develop an existing one. For about forty years Russia has been the leader in construction and operation of Arctic icebreakers,and it remains so still. Neither the US nor Canada has such vessels, and they aren't planning to construct them.  People talk about the global warming which will melt the Arctic icecap, but nobody knows when exactly that will happen or whether it will happen at all. So Russia is going to use this opportunity and become the dominant  operator in this region for about another forty years. China in this case is not a competitor but a potential partner or client -- China's shipping companies have enough ice-class vessels. So, they are interested in decreasing the time of shipping to Europe, Canada and the East coast of the US. Nowadays the Northern Sea Route is acceptable for shipping only for two to three summer months. With Leader-class icebreakers the route can be used all year round.

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