Undersea Warfare The Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force Fall 2003 U.S. Submarines… Because Stealth Matters Cover of Fall 2003 Issue
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Life On An Eggshell Arctic Ice Camps Support Testing Onboard Connecticut by Jeff Gossett

In 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.

Why 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.

Establishing APLIS-03

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.

Photo caption follows Just after 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

Establishing 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 ice.

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.

In practice, 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 flight.

Life at the Camp

APLIS-03 was 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 fellow “townspeople.”