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The photo sequence at left shows USS Annapolis(SSN-760) breaking through the ice during ICEX 2009 to disembark Sailors and embark VIP visitors. Photos by Petty Officer 1st ClassTiffini Jones.

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By Lt. j.g. Megan Isaac

In 1958, USS Nautilus (SSN-571) made history when it completed the first submerged trans-polar crossing and forever changed the nature of submarine operations in the Arctic Ocean. U.S. Navy diesel submarines had been conducting short excursions into the marginal ice zone (MIZ) since the early 1940s, but with the advent of unlimited range and endurance offered by nuclear propulsion, a new era began.

The Arctic Ocean is one of the most strategically important areas for current and future military leaders and policy makers. The ocean borders on multiple nations and serves as an important waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The capability to operate in the Arctic Ocean at any time of year and under any environmental conditions is vital to our national interests and provides the United States with assured access to all the world’s maritime operating areas.

“The Arctic is important to the nation and the Navy because it really is a maritime domain,” said Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations [CNO]. “We have some very fundamental security interests in the Arctic regions.”

Operating in the Arctic is unlike any other maritime operation due to the extreme, harsh, and unforgiving conditions of the environment. The majority of the Arctic Ocean is covered in thick pack ice during most of the year, making it inaccessible to surface ships. As such, the U.S. Submarine Force has taken the responsibility to maintain proficiency in Arctic operations.

In addition to extremely low temperatures, the constant freezing, melting and re-freezing of the ice make salinity and density of Arctic water drastically different from that of any other ocean. Every aspect of the Arctic Ocean presents a different challenge for submarines operating under the ice, and maintaining a high degree of skill requires constant training and testing in the environment.

“Routine” operations are much more complex under the ice. Varying water density makes it difficult to maintain neutral buoyancy under the ocean and requires the ship control teams to be vigilant in maintaining the trim and ballast of the submarine. The overhead ice canopy, with ice keels that can reach as deep as 200-feet, adds another layer of operational complexity that submarines do not routinely encounter. Additionally, salinity differences throughout the Arctic Ocean present challenges to even the most experienced sonar operators. Underwater mapping, torpedo exercises, contact tracking, and almost all other sonar functions are affected by the unique and varied sound velocity profiles encountered in this unpredictable environment.

In 2009, the Submarine Force and the Arctic Submarine Lab (ASL) conducted the most recent Ice Exercise (ICEX). ASL is the Navy command that specializes in Arctic operations for submarines. Every two years ASL and Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington (APL-UW), under the command of Commander, Submarine Force (COMSUBFOR), set up an ice camp on the pack ice to support ICEX. APL-UW provides field engineers to support every aspect of logistics at the camp—from building the camp, to providing and cooking food, to the recovery of any torpedoes fired by the submarines.

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Pictured, left to right: Capt. David Kirk, Office of Legislative Affairs; Representative John McHugh (R-NY, now Secretary of the Army); Representative Todd Akin (R-MO); Adm. Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations; Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC); Rear Adm. Douglas McAneny, Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet; Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA); Mr. Alcides Ortiz, SECNAV Special Advisor; Mr. Erik Raven, professional staff member for the Senate Appropriations Committee on Defense; Ms. Jenness Simler, professional staff member for the House Armed Services Seapower Sub-committee.Photo by Petty Officer 1st ClassTiffini Jones.

While initially a small and modest undertaking, the ICEX program has evolved into the development, testing, and certification of highly specialized tactics, techniques, and procedures designed to optimize the Submarine Force’s performance in under-ice operations.

“ICEX is important to our maritime strategy because it really allows us to better understand and operate in all areas of the world,” said Roughead while onboard USS Annapolis (SSN-760) during ICEX. “We, as a Navy, are a forward deployed navy, we’re a global Navy; we’re a Navy that exercises sea control and power projection, and if we are a global Navy, we have to be able to do it everywhere.”

The Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines Annapolis and USS Helena (SSN-725), home ported in Groton, Conn. and San Diego, Calif. respectively, were the two submarines that participated in ICEX. The event took place approximately 200 nautical miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. All operations during ICEX were conducted within a portable tracking range closely monitored by personnel at the ice camp, who assisted in data gathering and analysis of the exercises conducted by the two submarines.

“ICEX provides for the Navy an opportunity to test our combat systems, our navigation systems, our communication systems, and just what it’s like to operate in this very, very challenging environment,” said Roughead. “By coming up here, by being part of not just a Navy initiative, but a broader scientific initiative, it really helps out not just the Navy but other communities as well.”

The officer in tactical command for ICEX was Capt. Greg Ott, currently the Deputy Director for Operations at COMSUBFOR. Capt. Ott was in charge of the overall camp operation, the operations of the two submarines, and the logistics group in Prudhoe Bay during the exercise.

“Submarines are the only ships in the U.S Navy that have historically operated in the Arctic on a regular basis,” said Ott, “There’s a homeland security aspect to the ICEX since there are other countries that operate up here. Also, if the ice retreats, it could be a vital sea lane of communication; it’s important for us to make sure our interests are protected.”

Annapolis and Helena, under direction of Capt. Ott, practiced surfacing through the pack ice. Twelve Sailors from the crew also had the chance to spend a night ashore and experience life at the remote ice camp. For Adm. Roughead it was a great opportunity to see the submarine operating under the ice and the skill and expertise required to ensure the exercises are properly executed.

“The submarine fleet has been doing this for a long time,” said Ott, “So we understand what the difficulties are. By expanding our experience through events like this one, we better understand what the boats need to be able to do and ensure they are trained and equipped to operate in the Arctic.”

After two weeks of testing, the submarines submerged below the ice for a final time and headed toward home. Meanwhile, remaining personnel tore down every scrap of the ice camp and flew it back to the mainland, leaving the ice the way it was found.

The knowledge about the dynamic nature of the Arctic Ocean gained during ICEX will be shared with the rest of the Navy and will be used to ensure that U.S. Naval forces continue to exercise operational excellence in the Arctic now and for the foreseeable future.

Lt. j.g. Megan Isaac works in the public affairs office for the Commander, Submarine Force.