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by Lt. j.g Megan Isaac

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While information gathered by ICEX will benefit the entire Navy, it is uniquely important to the submarine force. The stated goal of ICEX was for the USS Helena (SSN-725) and USS Annapolis (SSN-760) to evaluate tactics, techniques, and procedures specifically developed for operations in the Arctic. However, it was the experience of being there that mattered the most to the Sailors.

“Not too many platforms can go where we can go,” said Chief Petty Officer Phillip Adams, navigation chief onboard Annapolis. “The awareness we accumulate is shared so other military forces can learn from what we have done. Every time we come up here, we get better at operating up here.”

“The only two types of boats that can operate in the arctic right now are ice crushers and submarines,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Amalio Gamboa, from Helena.

“It’s about assured access,” said Cmdr. Daniel Brunk, Helena’s commanding officer. “We can go anywhere we want.”

Helena surfaced March 27 in an open channel in an ice field, within a few miles of the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station camp. The camp was set up on a small piece of the Arctic pack ice and supported all of the evolutions during ICEX. After mooring on the ice, Brunk, along with a few members of Helena’s crew, were able to disembark the submarine and spent some time at the camp and the 50 degrees below zero temperatures.

Before arriving on station to participate in ICEX, Helena transited through the Bering Strait. “The Bering Strait is tough because there [is] only 25 feet of water below you, and at times, ice keels hang down low enough to force you to maneuver the submarine,” said Brunk.

“For a sonar technician, ICEX is very intense as far as ice keel avoidance and using sonar is concerned,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew Reyes, stationed onboard Annapolis. When under the ice, the submarines must use upward-looking sonar to create a picture of what the ice looks like. This picture is necessary in the Arctic as ice keels can extend deep below the surface of the ocean and create an obstacle for the submarine. Reyes, along with the rest of the Annapolis sonar team, trained with new equipment and then had their skills tested in this challenging environment.

“Operating in the Arctic makes everyone work at 100%,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Bong, onboard Helena. Even small, unexpected buoyancy changes can have significant effect when operating in an environment where ice keels are common and the ceiling is covered by several feet of ice. Sailors on Annapolis and Helena, or any submarine operating under the ice, must be incredibly precise in under-ice maneuvering to avoid the ice keels.

image caption follows
The camp’s helicopter removes a torpedo from below the ice.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffini Jones.

For Master Chief Petty Officer Christopher Gillen, operating in the Arctic is an exciting but difficult experience. “Surfacing the ship is totally different; we have to do a vertical surfacing as opposed to our usual surfacing,” said Gillen. “Also, you can really feel the difference in how the water holds the sub; the salinity makes it hard to maintain a depth, and you have to be on it all the time.”

ICEX was the first time in the Arctic for many of the Sailors. “Only a handful of people compared to the population of the planet can actually say they have been to the Arctic Circle,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Scharf, a member of the engineering department onboard Annapolis. “Even fewer can say they’ve been underneath it and broken through the ice on a submarine. That is something very cool that we get to do.”

Unlike other areas where experience brings mastery of the operating environment, the Arctic is continuously full of new challenges. “Something that really surprised me about the Arctic Ocean is how it’s constantly changing,” said Brunk. “A lot of people think it’s just a static chunk of ice, but the ice is always moving. One day something will be solid ice and the next it’s open water.”

For the Sailors of Helena and Annapolis, ICEX offered training in a new type of undersea warfare. “I enjoy being in an environment that’s so different,” said Annapolis Chief Petty Officer Tomas Garcia, Chief of the Boat, “It’s challenging, it shows off my crew and what we’re capable of, how we can handle the ship with precision and demonstrate our expertise.”

Let there be no doubt, the strategic significance of submarine operations in the Arctic is not lost on the crews of these two boats. “The biggest take-away is that we truly are a global navy,” said Garcia, “Our Navy has the globe covered, operating on the sea, air, or land in all parts of the globe, even in as extreme environments as the North Pole.”

Lt. j.g. Megan Isaac is a public affairs office for the Commander, Submarine Force.