Russian paratroopers leap headlong into the slipstream of a transport aircraft disgorging them over the vast icy wastes of the North Pole. Tumbling head over heel, drogue chutes trailing behind, one by one the soldiers’ main parachutes deploy. They glide down to land on a drifting ice floe next to a research station.
This isn’t a scene from the late 1960s movie Ice Station Zebra, which I saw at the cinema when I was a kid, but actually happened in mid April and was filmed by highly skilled cameramen—and pumped out as the latest example of Russian military propaganda.
Moscow is currently boosting its presence in the Arctic with new nuclear-powered submarines, flights by far-ranging aircraft plus deployments of paratroopers and naval infantry.
The Kremlin is staking a claim to vast natural resources on the under-ice seabed. It’s aiming to dominate the Arctic Ocean just like the Chinese on the other side of the world are laying claim to the entire South China Sea.
It’s yet another illustration of fact uncannily mimicking fiction. For those scenes of Soviet paratroopers raining down on the North Pole in the movie Ice Station Zebra must have implanted themselves as powerfully in the brains of young Russians as much as they did mine.
Now the Russians have turned Hollywood’s iconography back on the West with the spectacular presentation of the paratroopers’ skills.
The story behind Ice Station Zebra, as I explain in my new book Hunter Killers, was even more fantastic than both the Alistair MacLean novel, published in 1963, and the 1968 movie.
In May 1962, the CIA made efforts to counter Soviet listening stations on the Polar ice. Even if he did not know precise details of the CIA mission, MacLean certainly did plenty of research on under-ice operations by submarines—and on the espionage roles of “research stations” on ice floes.
In real life, the USA’s Office of Naval Research, Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA put together Operation Coldfeet. This involved two “intelligence collectors” being parachuted onto the ice close to a drifting, and recently abandoned, Soviet research station.
The Russians had evacuated the stations because they believed the ice would soon crush it. After seven days collecting intelligence, the two Americans were picked up in breath-taking fashion by a specially converted B-17 bomber. Using a so-called “skyhook,” it plucked them and their intelligence goodies from the ice and reeled them in.
The CIA recently revealed that the agents brought home “valuable information” on how the Soviet Union was actually using its scientific research stations. “The team found evidence of advanced acoustical systems research to detect under-ice U.S. submarines and efforts to develop Arctic anti-submarine warfare techniques,” a CIA document reveals.
Never mind the macho exploits of Russian paratroopers, the most interesting game of all in today’s new Cold War will be what transpires beneath the ice, both in terms of Russia exploiting oil and gas reserves and potentially a fresh face-off between the submarines of the West and the Russian navy.
Just a few months ago, the U.S. Navy sent a cutting-edge nuclear-powered attack submarine, USS Seawolf, on a voyage under the North Pole. As War is Boring’s own David Axe explained, Seawolf departed Bremerton, Washington, in August 2013 and then four weeks later suddenly turned up in a Norwegian port.
“It seems Seawolf traveled to Norway along a path rarely taken by any vessel—underneath the Arctic ice,” Axe noted. “The U.S. Navy doesn’t like to talk about its submarines. After all, a sub’s biggest advantage is its stealth.”
And Seawolf’s main mission is intelligence gathering. The Russians can beat their chests and show off as much as they like by parachuting onto an ice floe at the North Pole, but another game is afoot out of sight. And it is far stranger, and more serious, than any fiction.
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