Russia Supposedly Bringing Back Giant Ekranoplans For Arctic Missions

Are Moscow's Arctic ambitions going to result in a rebirth of the Soviet-era Caspian Sea Monster?

2016 Gidroaviasalon international exhibition of hydroaviation kicks off in Gelendzhik, Russia
Valery Matytsin—Valery Matytsin/TASS

The Soviet era's enigmatic wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) "ekranoplans" are set to make a comeback according to various Russian media reports. In particular, a massive 600 ton design that is intended to carry out resupply and search and rescue missions in the Arctic is said to be in development, with flight testing planned for sometime in 2022 or 2023. 

The design, dubbed "Rescuer" is described as being be 305 feet long with a wingspan of 233 feet. Supposedly the craft's large size was decided upon due to its ability to operate in rougher sea states than smaller alternatives and because it can fly over long distances, described by Russian sources as "several thousand kilometers." 

Naval expert Alexander Mozgovoy told the Russian news paper Izvestia that "ekranoplans are much more economical than airplanes, it will be possible to quickly move more cargo for a longer distance... If they manage to equip their air-cushioned landing gear, they will be able to land even on snow ridges."

According to these claimed metrics, we are talking about a remake of the largest ekranoplan ever created, known commonly as the Caspian Sea Monster. That craft got its name from startled CIA image intelligence analysts who spotted the huge and mysterious craft in satellite imagery during the depth of the Cold War. Due to its strange configuration and the KM painted on its wings, it was first dubbed the "Kaspian Monster." This later morphed into "Caspian Sea Monster," a reference to the mythical Loch Ness Monster. In reality the KM stood for "Prototype Ship" in Russian. 

The Caspian Sea Monster flew in testing for 15 years, starting in 1965 until it crashed in 1980. Fast forward to today, and the once shadowy Soviet-era program has captured the imagination of the public, with the charismatic ekranoplans being fairly popular topics seen in everything from documentaries to technology blogs. But even with all the hype, the fact is that large wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) aircraft never caught on, albeit much smaller models have been produced for certain applications. Iran in particular has a pocket armada of small WIG aircraft. 

VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images

This undated photo released on September 28, 2010, by the Iranian Defense Ministry, allegedly shows the Bavar-2, or Confidence-2, radar-evading flying boats. Iran's state TV says the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard has received its first three squadrons of radar-evading flying boats.

Supposedly the giant "Rescuer" will feature a wingspan more than 100 feet wider than the one found on Caspian Sea Monster, which actually makes sense considering it's planned for the type to include traditional landing gear as well as its boat-shaped hull. This amphibian format would theoretically allow the aircraft to fly at higher altitudes, outside of ground effect, but with far less efficiency, while also giving it access to traditional airstrips. Many Soviet-era ekranoplans also had the goal of flying at higher altitudes as well as in their standard WIG mode. 

TASS reports that Central Design Bureau for SEC Alekseev will be executing the design part of the project on behalf of the Russian Navy. 

The image of a "Rescuer" model (top of post) shown to Russian officials and industry personnel at an arms expo looks more like the smaller but similar Lun class Ekranoplan than the Caspian Sea Monster. It's possible that the Lun class design was sized up to meet certain requirements, and it's not like the Lun class wasn't a massive machine in its own right. Unlike its larger progenitor, the more modern Lun class actually saw limited served in the active fleet during the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Lun class has the anti-ship missile tubes along its spine, it can be seen throughout this video, along with other Russian ekranoplans:

Russia is said to also be actively developing a medium-sized ekranoplan for use in the Caspian and Baltic seas. Dubbed the A-050 "Seagull," this WIG flying boat will have a displacement of approximately one tenth of the "Rescuer" design, or around 54 tons, and is slated to can carry 100 passengers. The interior of the 115 foot hybrid aircraft will look like an airliner and in total it can carry 18,000lbs. 

Its intended uses include passenger service, cargo hauling, environmental monitoring, and working for the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations. Most ekranoplans have the ability to access unimproved beach areas, which along with their high speed and heavy lifting ability, makes them pretty useful for disaster response.

The roughly 737-sized Seagull is in development now according to the Russian government, with a flight test scheduled for 2022.

The Seagull is one thing, but many readers will have their doubts about Russia anteing up for a massive ekranoplan and the costs that go along with developing it. A high degree of skepticism is understandable, especially since Moscow is having troubling paying for updates on some of its existing ships and in funding other high-profile defense programs

But we do know that one place Russia seems willing to spend big money is in the Arctic—a place Moscow views as a strategic stronghold that can be dominated early on for control of the region's energy reserves and emerging shipping routes. In fact, the Russian Navy is building a specialized fleet just for this region, along with a massive Arctic "research" submarine. In addition, Russia is developing elaborate outposts and surveillance sites in the Arctic, and these are far from temporary emplacements. Constant Russian military drills have also occurred in the area since 2014.

With an expanding footprint in the frigid arctic, logistics are likely a major hurdle, and a craft like an ekranoplan may be an ideal long-term solution worth investing in. Outside of its stated humanitarian and support missions, the "Rescuer" is a fast ski-skimming target (around 300mph) that is impervious to submarine torpedoes or mine warfare. In essence, this is an access weapon as much as anything else. 

Also keep in mind that literally decades of research, testing, and operations have already been accumulated on very similar designs. Add in modern engine and airframe manufacturing technology and such an endeavor would be far less expensive than starting from scratch. Russia may see opportunity in this fact alone. And it's not like other major military powers haven't procured "unique" transport capabilities to help satisfy their own extra territorial ambitions as of late.

Whatever the case, it seems as if the ekranoplan is about to experience some sort of a renaissance in Russia in the coming years, even if ends up being of a smaller scale than that of the historic Caspian Sea Monster. It will be interesting to see if the concept finally pays off, or if this revival of sorts ends up being short lived. 

One thing that we do know for sure is that the world would be a more exciting place with ekranoplans skimming the seas.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com