by Larry Estrada
ASL plays an important part in developing doctrine and procedures for Arctic operations. It supports all Arctic submarine deployments. It coordinates major submarine ice exercises (ICEXs), including the setting up of an "ice camp" on the ocean surface for each of these events. It supports the installation of specialized Arctic equipment and technology in submarines, and it conducts test and evaluation in support of operations under the Arctic ice pack and in the surrounding marginal ice zone, where open-ocean phenomena such as waves affect the dynamic properties of the ice cover. In addition to these wide-ranging efforts on behalf of the Submarine Force, ASL also serves as the principal liaison between the Navy and civilian scientific organizations for the cooperative program called Science Ice Exercise (SCICEX), which permits U.S. submarines deploying to the Arctic to contribute to civilian scientific research.
The Early Years
The Arctic Submarine Lab traces its roots to 1940, when the Navy Radio and Sound Laboratory was established in San Diego. In 1941, on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, Waldo Lyon (1914-1998) became the organization's first Ph.D. physicist. Under his direction, the Sound Division tested, repaired and modified submarine equipment and harbor defenses in the Pacific. In addition to obvious fields like hydrophysics and high pressure physics, the lab's undersea work extended into less obvious areas like X-ray physics, low-temperature studies, and Arctic geophysics. In 1945, the Radio and Sound Lab was amalgamated into the new Naval Electronics Laboratory (NEL). Under Lyon's direction, the Submarine Studies Branch of NEL's Research Division conducted hydrostatic pressure research that contributed to the eventual development of deep ocean exploration vehicles, and it developed 250 kVolt X-ray equipment for observing the Bikini Atoll atom bomb tests.
Meanwhile, the Arctic was becoming a high priority. The Cold War pitted the U.S. against the Soviet Union, the first military rival to confront America directly across the Arctic Circle. Arctic operations meant ice, an infamous hazard to navigation that submariners usually tried to avoid. During World War II, German U-boats had avoided detection by hiding under ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but the polar ice pack was another matter altogether.
That began to change with Operation Highjump, the third Antarctic expedition led by U.S. Navy polar explorer Rear Adm. Richard Byrd. "In 1946," Dr. Lyon later recalled, "I got a letter asking if there was any research I wanted to do in conjunction with the expedition. I said, yes, try a submarine in the cold water down there." Lyons designed and tested suitable oceanographic equipment and a primitive under-ice sonar—essentially a fathometer mounted to look up rather than down— and NEL installed them in USS Sennet (SS 408). With Lyon onboard, Sennet joined Operation Highjump and tested the sonar's ability to support a future under-ice dive.
This set the stage for Operation Blue Nose, an unprecedented Arctic submarine cruise in the summer of 1947. Embarked in the submarine tender Nereus (AS 17), Rear Adm. Alan McCann, Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific, led Boarfish (SS 327), outfitted with Lyon's equipment, plus Caiman (SS 323) and Cabezon (SS 334) through the Bering Strait and up to 72° 15' North Latitude. With McCann embarked, Boarfish became the first submarine to dive beneath the Arctic ice.
During the series of test dives that Boarfish carried out, Lyon served as the Navy's first "ice pilot," an embarked expert with the technical and procedural know-how to train a submarine's crew for under-ice operations and advise her commanding officer on carrying them out. From 1947 to his last under-ice mission in 1981, Lyon would spend a great deal of time with tons of frozen water overhead. In 1948, he returned to the Chukchi Sea in USS Carp (SS 338), and the following year he led the first joint U.S.-Canadian Arctic scientific expedition through the Bering Strait in USS Baya (AGSS 318), a World War II fleet boat converted for research.
Lyon also set out to establish a dedicated Submarine Research Facility. In 1948, he acquired Battery Whistler, an obsolete coastal artillery installation atop Point Loma built during World War I to defend San Diego harbor. Designed to hold heavy 12-inch mortars, the battery was basically a large open pit with a strong concrete floor, ideal for supporting heavy equipment and an ample test pool. Initial construction got under way in 1952. The Navy moved the super-pressure chamber it had completed in 1945 to the new complex. Later modified for pressure testing down to 40,000 feet, the chamber was used to test equipment for vessels like the pioneering research bathyscaph Trieste and the Navy's deep submergence rescue vehicles.