By Lt. Courtney Callaghan, CSS-11 PAO, Mr. Theo Goda, Joseph Hardy and Larry Estrada, Arctic Submarine Lab
ICEX is part of the U.S. Navy Submarine Arctic Warfare program sponsored by the Chief of Naval Operations, Undersea Warfare Division (OPNAV N97). The biennial Submarine Arctic Ice Exercise (ICEX) program, along with other routine Arctic transits, is the long-standing means by which our Submarine Force develops and hones its Arctic operational and warfighting skills.
ICEX dates back to the 1940s after recognition of a potential threat and operational need in the Arctic. Since 1947 when Dr. Waldo K. Lyon, founder of the Arctic Submarine Laboratory, made the first dive beneath the Arctic on a U.S. Navy submarine, over 120 submarine operations and more than 70 ICEXs have been conducted near and under the ice.
Initially, ICEX employed diesel submarines conducting short excursions beneath the ice pack and in the Marginal Ice Zones. Throughout the Cold War era, the Sturgeon-class submarines were the workhorses of the Arctic, participating in numerous ICEXs, many of which were conducted with the support of drifting research ice stations. Since 2007, ICEX has become a formal program of record focusing on submarine operational proficiency and tactical capability of three fast attack classes supported by Navy-operated ice camps.
The Need and the Challenges
With growing international interest in the region, it is important that the Navy sharpen its skills in the Arctic to maintain a stabilizing presence there. “From a military, geographic, and scientific perspective, the Arctic Ocean is truly unique and remains one of the most challenging ocean environments on earth,” said Rear Adm. James Pitts, commander of the Undersea Warfighting Development Center (UWDC). “We must constantly train together with our submarine units and partners to remain proficient in this region.” As such, UWDC Detachment Arctic Submarine Laboratory (ASL) leads the coordination of ICEX and development of its short-term drifting ice station to support this mission.
ICEX provides the U.S. and Royal Navy submarine forces the opportunity for tactical training and systems testing in an environment unlike any other in the world. The Arctic Ocean is partially covered by sea ice throughout the year and completely covered in the Arctic winter. The Arctic Ocean’s surface temperature and salinity vary seasonally as the ice cover melts and freezes; its salinity is the lowest on average of the five major oceans due to low evaporation, the heavy fresh water inflow from rivers and streams, and limited connection and outflow to surrounding oceanic waters. The combination of these factors causes the Arctic Ocean salinity and density to vary dramatically, which has significant effects on submarine operations. The contour of the sea ice canopy poses additional challenges for submarine sensors.
USS Connecticut (SSN 22), USS Hartford (SSN 768), and the Royal Navy hunter killer submarine, HMS Trenchant (S-91) were all able to conduct operational training, testing the ship systems in this unique environment during ICEX 2018. The three submarines conducted joint operations at Ice Camp SKATE in the Beaufort Sea from March 7-21, 2018 before rendezvousing and surfacing at the North Pole on March 27, 2018. Each submarine followed its own route to the Arctic Ocean, demonstrating assured access and proficiency in submarine Arctic operations.
The three submarines spent 105 days under ice while steaming over 21,000 nautical miles. Combined, they performed 20 through-ice surfacings including the first three-submarine ICEX since 1991. This was the first under-ice deployment of a Royal Navy submarine since 2007 and through-ice surfacing since 2004. Submarine operations at SKATE consisted of four exercise torpedo firings and recoveries during a Torpedo Exercise (TORPEX) and six submarine tactical development tests.
The journey to ICEX 2018 began months before the submarines arrived in the Arctic. In October 2017, experts from the Naval Ice Center (NIC) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), in collaboration with ASL, began tracking satellite imagery to identify ice floes that could be suitable sites for the drifting ice station. Satellite images were used to track ice floes that survived the summer months.
“To select a site to build the drifting ice camp, the team needed to identify a floe consisting of both first-year and multi-year ice. The site needed to be within flight range of our support aircraft in order to continue delivering supplies and personnel,” said Larry Estrada, ASL Director. “First-year ice is characteristically flat, providing an ideal location for grooming a runway, whereas multi-year ice, or ice that survives the summer months, produces a stronger, thicker, and more stable floe, ideal for supporting ice camp structures.”
Approximately one week before the start of camp build, a small team with members from ASL, UAF, and NIC conducted a surveillance flight from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. During the flight, the Coast Guard dropped tracking buoys onto multiple ice floes that the team evaluated as potential sites for an ice station. Two days later, members of ASL, Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation (UIC) Science, and UAF embarked on a chartered plane to conduct pioneering surveys on the previously identified candidate ice floes.
Once on the ice, the team drilled and collected ice cores on each of the ice floes surveyed. Additionally, a specialized sled carrying an Electromagnetic Induction (EMI) instrument was pulled across each floe to determine the varying ice thicknesses. The EMI can distinguish between the different properties of sea ice to identify ice thicknesses. These data were used along with other logistics considerations to select an ice floe that was the most likely to support four weeks of personnel on the ice.
Ice Camp SKATE
After selecting the most suitable ice floe, construction of Ice Camp SKATE began. Tens of thousands of pounds of tents, food, supplies, snowmobiles, diving equipment, and additional support equipment were delivered to the site. This was achieved through two methods. The primary method was by aircraft. The second method was via an airdrop facilitated by the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing.
The 176th Wing partnered with U.S. Marine Corps riggers from 1st Air Delivery Platoon, Landing Support Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group to construct the airdrop platforms and attach the parachutes for the Navy equipment.
The ice camp was named in honor of USS Skate (SSN 578), the first submarine to surface near the North Pole in open water in 1958 and the first through-ice surfacing at the North Pole in 1959. USS Skate developed and perfected the vertical surfacing procedure that is used by U.S. and British submarines today. Skate was also the first submarine to rendezvous with a drifting ice camp, Ice Station Alpha, in 1958.
Ice Camp SKATE was a temporary ice station that was essential for training, integrating, and certifying submarines in advanced tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) under the ice. The structures and personnel at the camp served as a temporary command center for conducting submarine operations, including under-ice navigation and TORPEXs, and assessing the submarines’ readiness while operating in the harsh arctic environment.
The ice camp team of personnel from ASL, UIC, and UAF built the ice camp with support from personnel from the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy. Ice Camp SKATE consisted of seven berthing shelters, a galley and mess tent capable of feeding more than 50 people, a command center and submarine tracking range tent, a tent for diving operations, a tent for helicopter and equipment maintenance, a working tent for research, and multiple ice runways.
“With every ICEX we are able to build upon our existing experience and continue to learn the best way to operate in this unique and harsh environment,” said Rear Adm. Pitts. “We are constantly testing new TTPs under the ice, and this exercise allows us to do so on a larger scale alongside our UK, joint, and academic partners.”
“The advantage of having a camp on the ice floe is to provide a stable platform to deploy a tracking range, sensors, and test equipment for the exercise,” Estrada said. From the tracking range, range safety officers monitor and control all movements of the submarines and provide the targeting for the TORPEXs. Additionally, from the command center, camp personnel kept tabs on everybody leaving or returning to camp and controlled the movement of vehicles and aircraft. U.S. Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Command (METOC) officers also monitored any changes in the weather and the ocean environment to ensure safe operations for ice camp personnel and provided support for the three submarines.
The Royal Navy continued its long history of participating in ICEX with the return of one of their hunter-killer submarines, HMS Trenchant (S-91), as well as Sailors participating on the ice as camp safety officers.
The Royal Canadian Navy also continued support of ICEX by providing an experienced Sailor to serve as camp safety watch and range safety officers in addition to pilots and aircrew who flew numerous flights carrying personnel and cargo to and from the camp.
After the completion of the exercise and departure of the submarines, ASL along with team members from UAF and UIC, dismantled the camp and returned the site to its original condition. As good stewards of the environment, the camp was demobilized with nothing left on the ice to ensure the Arctic ice remained free of any lasting pollutants or remnants of ICEX.
Meteorological and Ice Analysis Support
ICEX 18 was supported by a meteorological team composed of members from NIC, the UK Royal Navy Joint Operational and Meteorological Center London, and the UK Fleet Hydrographic and Meteorology Unit from Devonport. The combined ICEX weather team monitored the weather for dynamic environmental changes and provided weather forecasts for the drifting ice camp.
The NIC and UAF also provided ice floe monitoring and fracturing predictions for the ice camp. The monitoring and risk predictions were developed with the use of high-resolution satellite imagery, meteorological observations, modeling tools, and analyst interpretation. These capabilities were a significant enhancement from previous ice camps and contributed to the continuity of operations of the ice camp and subsequent demobilization before the seasonal ice breakup.
Meteorological support for flight operations were also vital to ASL and the success of the exercise. To maintain operability throughout the exercise, the only means of transportation of personnel and cargo across the Beaufort Sea was via air. Daily flights from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska provided the camp’s logistics lifeline.
“On-site imagery analysis from the NIC analyst in Prudhoe Bay provided aviators with current and forecasted positions of the drifting ice camp and atmospheric information in the Arctic Ocean,” said Lt. Jon Edmonds, Royal Navy METOC officer.
For the three submarines that participated in ICEX 2018, preparation began well before they arrived at Ice Camp SKATE. ASL installed temporary arctic equipment and the crews were trained to operate this equipment. ASL also provided Arctic Operations Specialists, commonly called ice pilots, to each submarine to provide guidance in operations under ice and experience in arctic operations.
Each route to and from ICEX provided the submarines with unique navigational and operational challenges. On its way to Ice Camp SKATE, USS Connecticut had to transit areas with very shallow water in the vicinity of ice keels deeper than 60 feet. Along their paths to the camp, USS Hartford and HMS Trenchant transited routes containing icebergs that had to be detected with active SONAR, tracked, and avoided.
Before the submarines can surface, they must find open water or an ice feature that meets the ice breakthrough criteria for the particular submarine class. Due to the limitations for surfacing, each submarine must closely monitor atmospheric, navigation, and communication systems.
While operating at Ice Camp SKATE, each submarine surfaced multiple times to accommodate the transfer of personnel and other military riders and guests. While surfaced, the submarines conducted ice liberty, allowing the crews to step out onto the ice for the opportunity to enjoy fresh air and get a rare glimpse of the ice floe.
“Our submarine forces are capable of operating here just as we operate along our East Coast and throughout the world,” said Cmdr. Matthew Fanning, Commanding Officer of USS Hartford. “These types of drills show we are capable of doing it and willing to come up here and conduct operations.”
While TORPEXs are conducted every other ICEX, 2018 stood apart as the first time military divers were used to recover the torpedoes. Divers from U.S. Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) Two, Underwater Construction Team One, and the U.S. Coast Guard braved the Arctic waters to play a critical role in recovering the torpedoes.
During the exercise, Connecticut and Hartford conducted a TORPEX in which one submarine acted as a target while the other fired exercise torpedoes under the ice. Exercise torpedoes have no warheads and carry less fuel.
“The primary objective of this year’s ICEX was to test new under-ice weapons systems and validate tactics for weapon employment,” said Ryan Dropek, Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport, R.I. Weapons Test Director. “Once the divers recovered these torpedoes, we were able to extract important data about how they performed and reacted in these conditions.”
After the submarines fired the torpedoes, helicopters transported locating and field party teams to the locations where the positively buoyant torpedoes were calculated to run out of fuel. Each torpedo had a tracking device to assist in the search. Once the exact location was determined, a 3- or 4-person team would drill a series of holes for the divers to enter and exit, as well as one hole for the torpedo to be lifted out by helicopter.
“Once we knew the location of the torpedo and drilled holes, our divers slipped into the water to begin placing weights on a line attached to the tail end of the torpedo,” Chief Warrant Officer Michael Johnson, officer-in-charge of MDSU-2 divers, explained. “The weights helped shift the torpedo from a state of positive buoyancy to neutral buoyancy under the ice.”
Once the torpedo was neutral, the divers attached brackets with cables to the top and bottom of the body of the torpedo. The NUWC torpedo recovery team connected the torpedo to the helicopter, which lifted it vertically out through the hole. Once the torpedo was delivered to the ice runway, the NUWC team prepared it for transport back to Prudhoe Bay.
Strategic Engagements and Visitors
ICEX 2018 completed two significant engagements that included a tour of the ice camp and an overnight embarkation on a submarine. These engagements provided those in leadership positions with first-hand observations of the Arctic environment and submarine operations under the ice so they understand the capabilities, limitations, and tasking of submarines in the Arctic. The first event was hosted by Adm. James Caldwell, Director Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, and was attended by professional staff members for Congress, the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the White House Military Office. The second event was hosted by Adm. Bill Moran, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, and was attended by influential leaders in Congress, the Intelligence Community, and the UK Defence and Armed Forces.
Additional multinational and UK Distinguished Visitor engagements were conducted at ICEX 2018. Rear Admiral Pitts hosted submarine professions from the United Kingdom at Ice Camp SKATE, and then the contingent proceeded to HMS Trenchant. Aboard the boat, the visitors and submarine leadership conducted a memorial for HMS Tireless (S-88) crewmembers who lost their lives on an Arctic deployment to support ICEX in 2007.
Following the operations at Ice Camp SKATE on March 21, 2018, all three submarines transited over 1,000 miles to the North Pole. They rendezvoused on March 26 and surfaced on March 27. The boats conducted re-enlistment ceremonies, dolphin presentations, and enjoyed several hours of ice liberty. This event is a significant challenge as the boats must coordinate among themselves to find a location suitable for each one to surface.
Cmdr. Matthew Fanning said of his experience at the North Pole, “It was a great honor to be one of the few submarine Sailors to have the opportunity to surface at the North Pole, especially to be able to do it 60 years after USS Skate and USS Nautilus conducted their historic Arctic voyages.”
The U.S. Navy and partners made several achievements during ICEX 2018. All exercise objectives set for ICEX 2018, both operational and strategic, were successfully completed during this event. For instance, ICEX 2018 personnel completed a TORPEX and tactical development testing while supporting Arctic research and military training. For the first time in 27 years, an ICEX was conducted with three submarines. Additionally, ICEX 2018 marked a return to under-ice operations for the Royal Navy after an 11-year absence.
The following websites contain historical information on ASL, the Navy’s involvement in the Arctic, and ICEX 2018 pictures and videos.
Memorial for crewmembers of HMS Tireless