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As the Ice Melts, Nuclear Submarines Train for Arctic War

Hundreds of sailors from the US Navy and British Royal Navy meet under an ice floe in the Arctic Sea for ICEX 2018.

by David Axe
Mar 12 2018, 1:00pm

Image: Arctic Submarine Laboratory/Facebook

Three nuclear-powered attack submarines are heading for a rapidly-melting North Pole for the US Navy's biggest undersea Arctic exercise in years.

ICEX 2018, which officially began on March 6, not only involves more submarines compared to the last three Arctic exercises in 2016, 2014 and 2011, it also better simulates likely combat conditions for a major war under the ice.

The US Navy submarines USS Connecticut and USS Hartford are meeting the British Royal Navy sub HMS Trenchant under an ice floe on the Arctic Sea. The subs, each with a crew of more than 100 sailors, combined are bringing along scores of researchers from government agencies and universities.

The vessels feature strongly-built sails (the protruding structure atop a submarine's main, tube-shape hull) that can punch through several feet of ice. Photos from the US Navy's Arctic Submarine Laboratory, the San Diego-based office that coordinates the exercise, indicate that Connecticut was the first submarine to arrive, punching through the floe in early March.

The Alaska Air National Guard earlier air-dropped bundles of supplies and construction material to help the science team build a temporary base on the ice that can support 50 people at a time.

The Air Guard's rescue planes and helicopters are on standby in the event of an emergency.

While the scientists study the thawing Arctic environment, the subs will conduct undersea war games. "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. James Pitts, commander of the US Navy's Undersea Warfighting Development Center.

Just two submarines supported each of the previous ice exercises. ICEX 2018 is different in other important ways, Lt. Courtney Callaghan, a US Navy spokesperson accompanying the exercise team, told me via email from the Arctic.

"This year the infrastructure of the ice camp is more expeditionary, enabling a lighter and more mobile camp for building and demobilization," Callaghan wrote. The US Navy has good reason to want an easier-to-move camp. The last exercise in 2016 ended a week early when a crack suddenly appeared in the ice under the expedition's main base.

This year in another break from 2016, the submarines will be firing torpedoes, Callaghan said. Not only does that give the subs' crews valuable experience with real weapons, it also facilities realistic training for the divers who must recover the torpedoes. Video released by the US Navy depicts a diver plunging into the frigid Arctic water through a hole in the ice.

A US Navy submarine surfaced through the Arctic ice for the first time in 1959. Since then, the US fleet has completed 27 ICEXs. The exercises could become more important as climate change warms the Arctic.

"Decreases in Arctic ice cover, type, and thickness will lead to greater access for tourism, shipping, resource exploration and extraction and military activities," the Pentagon warned in a 2015 report. "These factors may increase the need for search and rescue capabilities, monitoring of increased shipping and other human activity and the capability to respond to crises or contingencies in the region."

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