by Larry Estrada and Jeff Gossett
Connecticut(SSN 22) surfaces through the ice.
Photos by Cmdr. Christy Hagen.
The United States has long recognized the strategic importance of the Arctic. This remote and inhospitable region is likely to grow more important in the 21st century, as nations vie to exploit its untapped resources, and climate change raises the possibility of opening new shipping lanes in the far north. The Arctic Ocean and its surrounding seas are fundamentally a maritime domain, and therefore a prime responsibility of the U.S. Navy. The dense canopy of sea ice that covers much of the region, even in summer, precludes most surface operations, so the responsibility for operating and, if necessary, waging war beneath the ice falls to the U.S. Submarine Force.
American submarines have operated under the Arctic ice for purposes such as inter-fleet transit, training, and cooperation with allies for more than 50 years. Since USS Nautilus (SSN 571) made the first polar transit in 1958, the Submarine Force has completed more than 25 major Arctic exercises involving an ice camp. These ice exercises (ICEXs) routinely include personnel from Britain's Royal Navy, and many have included a British submarine.
This year's exercise—ICEX 2011—took place in the Beaufort Sea during the last two weeks of March. As usual, the exercise was sponsored by the Director of Submarine Warfare (OPNAV N87), and the San Diego-based Arctic Submarine Laboratory (COMSUBPAC Detachment ASL) was responsible for planning and coordinating the entire effort — including the establishment of the temporary ice camp and the emplacement of a tracking range on the ice to monitor the movements of the participating submarines.
The two submarines chosen to demonstrate their operational and warfighting skills in ICEX 2011 were USS New Hampshire (SSN 778), a Virginia-class boat homeported in Groton, Conn., and USS Connecticut (SSN 22), a Seawolf-class submarine home-ported in Bremerton, Wash. Before transiting to the Arctic, each received a suite of temporary alternations (TEMPALTs) consisting of sensors specially designed by the Arctic Submarine Lab to facilitate under-ice operation. These included upward-looking side-scan sonar and an underwater camera. ASL experts also embarked on the submarines to provide technical support for the TEMPALT equipment, to train the crews in operating it, and to make their expertise and experience in Arctic operations available to the submarines' command teams.
Connecticut, no stranger to the Arctic, had the added challenge of navigating through the shallow water of the Bering Strait. A shallow-water transit—or, for that matter, any evolution that calls for a submarine to navigate in close proximity to the ice overhead—requires a high-frequency active (HFA) sonar with an ice-keel avoidance (IKA) mode. This enables the submarine to detect and avoid "ice keels," ridges of sea ice that project farther down into the ocean than most of the ice pack.
Connecticut carried a TEMPALT called ORCA (Operationally Reliable Capability–Arctic) designed to improve the longevity and performance of the HFA sonar's IKA mode in Arctic conditions. Testing ORCA's effectiveness was one of the highest priorities of this year's ICEX, and initial data reported by Connecticut and by embarked ASL test personnel indicated that it significantly improved IKA longevity and performance.
When the submarines arrived at the ice camp, a helicopter from the camp located the most suitable areas for them to surface for embarking and debarking test support personnel and visitors. New Hampshire was directed to an area of open water and slush designated "Water Works." Connecticut, with her specially strengthened sail, was directed to an area designated "Marvin Gardens," which had two to three feet of ice for her to break through. Marvin Gardens was selected because it had ample room for Connecticut — and also because its ice was thick enough for people to walk on safely, but not so thick that it took a long time to clear off the hatches after surfacing.
New Hampshire was the first Virginia-class submarine to take part in an Arctic tactical development (TACDEV) exercise, and only the second to be tested in the Arctic. USS Texas (SSN 775) had already conducted the initial cold-water and under-ice testing for the class in the fall of 2009, and the information gathered in that earlier deployment proved invaluable for New Hampshire and for Matt Pesce and Kevin Searls, the ASL arctic operations specialists (AOSs) assigned to her. The AOSs provided New Hampshire's commanding officer and crew with pre-Arctic classroom training and supported their at-sea work-up. They also assisted Submarine Squadron Four with Arctic certification of the submarine.
When New Hampshire departed her homeport, she was trained, equipped, and ready to support all the test objectives of ICEX and the Naval Sea System Command (NAVSEA)'s Virginia-Class Program Office (PMS 450). The Virginia class is designed to operate in all environments, including the Arctic, and PMS 450 sponsored ICEX 2011 testing to evaluate the submarine and her systems over the course of a full spectrum of operations in the Arctic environment. Submarine Development Squadron Twelve also participated in the testing to glean more knowledge about best procedures for operating the Virginia class under the ice. Like Connecticut, New Hampshire achieved most of her test objectives during the complex two-week testing schedule.
|New Hampshire (SSN 778) at "Water Works." Photo by Cmdr. Christy Hagen.
The Ice Camp
As usual, ICEX 2011 established an ice camp to serve as the base for its test program. From there, the officer in tactical command (OTC) controlled all operations, and under his authority, the exercise director coordinated all testing. The OTC was Capt. Rhett Jaehn, deputy director of operations for Commander, Submarine Force. The exercise director was Jeff Gossett, the Arctic Submarine Lab's deputy director. ASL also provided an officer in charge and assistant officer in charge of the camp, and it contracted with the Applied Physics Lab of the University of Washington (APL/UW) to construct and operate the camp. ASL personnel provided logistic support for the camp out of Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse), Alaska.
APL/UW set up a tracking range to monitor and record the submarines' positions relative to one other, which greatly facilitated testing and post-exercise analysis. Camp personnel also located deep ice keels in the surrounding area suitable for testing ice-detecting sonar and directed the submarines to those features.
In addition to technical experts, the 25 "permanent" camp staff included support personnel ranging from the camp doctor to the cooks hired by APL/UW and the Sailors from Submarine Squadron Eleven who helped build the camp, unload supplies, and do whatever else needed doing. More than 100 other people came and went, embarking on or debarking from the submarines, conducting tests, or engaging in scientific research.
The six watchstanders of the range safety team ensured that all submarine evolutions, aircraft operations, and field parties were conducted safely. Three range safety officers (RSOs) had the primary responsibility for communicating with the subs and monitoring their movements. Their three assistants (ARSOs), in addition to helping with the submarines, were responsible for communicating with aircraft, helicopters and field parties outside the camp.
The range safety team was international. The RSOs were Cmdr. Paul Acquavella, U.S. Navy, who had previous ICEX experience, Lieutenant Commander Steve Murphy, Royal Navy, and Lieutenant Commander Mike Mangin, Canadian Navy. The ARSOs were Hector Castillo, a U.S. Navy civilian from ASL, who also had previous ICEX experience, Chief Petty Officer Reggie Hammond, Royal Navy, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Huot, Canadian Navy. To build teamwork and avoid any misunderstandings due to different ways of operating, each RSO worked with an ARSO of a different nationality. (Another member of the Canadian Navy, Lieutenant Commander Phil Collins, embarked in Connecticut and visited the ice camp during the course of the exercise.)
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