the gloom of the early polar spring, hundreds of miles north of
Alaska, a group of Navy and civilian personnel assembled a small
village on the ice to help improve the performance of our submarines
in Arctic climates. Named after the research center at the University
of Washington that helped build it, this camp was called The Applied
Physics Laboratory Ice Station, or APLIS. Nothing about the installation
was luxurious, but for five weeks this spring, it hosted a submarine
tracking range, a science laboratory, a small airport, and the only
source of hot meals for 200 miles in any direction.
an Ice Camp?
Over the past
several decades, the Navy has fielded several ice camps in support
of submarine Arctic research and development. The last such camp
– considerably smaller – was built in support of Science
Ice Exercise (SCICEX) 99 with USS Hawkbill (SSN-666). That
1999 expedition was Hawkbill’s second cruise in support
of a five-year, collaborative research and data-collection program
sponsored by the submarine community, the Office of Naval Research
(ONR), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). ICEX-03 provided
USS Connecticut (SSN-22) her second opportunity to visit
the Arctic as a follow-up to earlier operations in the summer of
2001, when the under-ice capabilities of the USS Seawolf
(SSN-21) class were exercised for the first time. [Ed. Note: See
“A New Era in the Arctic,” in the Summer 2001 issue
of UNDERSEA WARFARE.] The primary purpose for Connecticut’s
participation this year was to test Mk 48 ADCAP torpedoes in an
Arctic environment, but they couldn’t have done it without
support on the surface.
A key advantage
of establishing a camp on the ice itself is the stable venue it
provides for deploying a tracking range and sensors for testing
underwater weapons under the ice cover. Such installations have
been used frequently in the past to support the recovery of exercise
torpedoes during similar weapons evaluations.
To support this
year’s exercise, the Navy needed a large and very stable ice
floe to install a tracking range, build a runway, and support surface
travel by personnel with relative safety over a radius of several
miles. Given all of the logistical alternatives – icebreakers,
aircraft, and building on the ice – the last was clearly the
only option for this exercise.
Connecticut surfaced during ICEX-03, this young polar
bear was attracted by the tip of the ship’s rudder protruding
through the ice. After investigating Connecticut for
approximately 40 minutes, the animal left the area, with no
damage to the boat or the bear. These images were seen through
the ship’s periscope and captured by projecting them on
a flat panel display.
Photo by Mark Barnoff
an ice camp is as much art as science. APLIS-03 started out about
180 nautical miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the southern
Beaufort Sea. To get that far from land requires fixed-wing aircraft
because of their greater range, carrying capacity, and speed in
comparison to a helicopter. To land an airplane on sea ice requires
two things – a smooth surface thick enough to support the
weight of the aircraft, and daylight. These two constraints, along
with the required longevity required of the ice floe, limited the
available timeframe for the ice camp to the months of March and
April. Before March, there is insufficient sunlight for pilot visibility.
After the end of April, the ice pack becomes unstable, increasing
the risk to both aircraft operations and personnel living on the
Finding a suitable
location for an ice camp requires a fine understanding of the Arctic
Ocean and sea ice. For this, we called upon decades of experience
at the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory (ASL) in San Diego
and the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington
(APL/UW). Early in March, APL/UW’s Fred Karig (the APLIS Camp
Manager) and ASL’s Dan Steele (the APLIS Officer-in-Charge)
visually surveyed several candidate ice floes from the air. Together,
they provided the expertise needed to recognize stable ice, the
conditions required for landing aircraft, and the kind of floe able
to support ice camp operations.
having found a spot that appears suitable, the pilot first attempts
a touch-and-go landing to confirm the strength of the ice. If that
proves sufficient, he makes a full landing to allow the others on
the aircraft to debark and confirm the suitability of the site for
setting up a camp. Once this initial investigation is complete and
everyone is back onboard, the party continues the search and evaluation
process at other potential locations.
After the best
site was selected, support aircraft initiated several flights each
day to ferry the tons of equipment needed to construct a small encampment.
First the living huts and the all-important mess tent were constructed.
Bit by bit, a small village appeared on the frozen sea ice, emerging
as a fully-functioning camp only three weeks after the first reconnaissance
at the Camp
the first large camp established by the Navy since 1993. During
most of the tests with Connecticut, it was home for 50
to 60 men and women, with the population peaking at 70 on one particularly
busy day. Keeping that many people fed that far from civilization
was a real accomplishment; keeping them fed each day with three
delicious, high-calorie, hot meals was phenomenal.
Some of the
camp’s features were similar to those found in primitive villages
anywhere. There were six-man bunkhouses – more affectionately
known as “hooches” – home to the shifting population
of APLIS residents. There were unpaved streets running through the
village that became roads leading to outlying areas. There was a
small electrical plant with power lines supplying all of the buildings.
There was a small doctor’s office. And, like all proper villages,
there was a vigorous social life centered around a small diner –
the “mess hall” – where residents could always
pick up a meal or just a cup of coffee while meeting with their