Russia is investing quite a lot in supporting operations off its northern coast, especially the ice-free (part of the year) shipping channel from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Maintaining this channel makes it easier to resupply the growing number of military bases and oil/natural gas facilities up there. One of the best examples of this support are the two Elbrus class multifunction logistics support ships now in service. The first one entered service in 2018 and the second one, “Vsevolod Bobrov” did so in late 2020.
Both Elbrus class ships, a third one under construction, are built for arctic conditions but can operate worldwide. The Elbrus demonstrated this when it accompanied a naval task force on a 175-day round-world-cruise. These 9,500-ton ships are designed to carry supplies; largely in up to 40 shipping containers on the 700 square meter deck or in the hold. An Elbrus can also tow disabled ships, carry out submarine rescue operations and perform as an icebreaker in ice up to half meter-thick. Two collapsible cranes are aboard, each capable of lifting up to 50 tons. These make it easy for the ships to transfer, or take on, supplies and heavy equipment at sea. There is also a decompression chamber and equipment to support deep-sea divers during search and recovery. This includes rescuing crew from a disabled sub on the sea floor. Using internal fuel and supplies the Elbrus ships can stay at sea for up to sixty days.
All that functionality requires a crew of only 27, mainly because of a high degree of automation. There is also space on board for 43 more passengers who can be technical specialists or survivors of a maritime mishap. Top speed of the 95-meter (295 foot) ship is 32 kilometers an hour and max range on internal fuel is 9,000 kilometers. Power is supplied by six diesel generators supplying 42,000 KW of power for the two 8,160 electric motors that propel the ship and all the electric-powered equipment onboard. This includes thrusters to enable precise movement and maintain position for diving and recovery operations.
The design of the Elbrus was influenced by the loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk off the north coast in mid-2000. Russia did not have the submarine rescue equipment available to deal with it and was slow to call on other nations that did. In the last two decades Russia has built or imported dozens of items needed for submarine rescue and signed an agreement with NATO to cooperate on undersea rescue. That agreement has member nations prepared to respond quickly to any such underwater disaster. If Russia had been a member in 2000, or had a ship like the Elbrus, the 23 sailors who survived the explosion that sent the Kursk to the bottom could have been saved. The Elbrus class was also designed to handle a wide variety of mishaps Russian warships suffer from, including breakdowns at sea. An Elbrus can tow ships to a port.
The three Elbrus class ships are all for the Northern Fleet, which is the largest, as well as the Pacific fleet, which is stationed at ports north of the Korean peninsula and guards the Pacific end of the arctic shipping channel. Russia is building land bases along that channel. In 2015 Russia completed a new military base off its arctic coast in the Franz Josef Land archipelago. This collection of 191 ice- and snow-covered islands lies astride the new ice-free channel that has formed off the north coast. Other countries are depending on Russia to provide accurate information about the new shipping channels off the north coast. The Franz Josef Land base is stocked with enough supplies to allow its 150 personnel to survive 18 months without resupply. Russia has long maintained some small bases up there but had closed all of them in the 1990s.The Elbrus class ships, and their new nuclear-powered ice-breakers can supply these bases year-round. Russia hopes that eventually the maritime insurance companies will certify the arctic passage safe for ordinary (without strengthened, ice resistant) hulls and the Russians can charge a fee for merchant ships using the “safe route” maintained by Russia and cheaper to use for ships moving between Europe and East Asia than the current route that uses the Suez Canal.