Submariners get stuck into Arctic role at Alaskan ice camp

For the first time in nearly a decade, submariners unfurl the Royal Navy’s standard on the Arctic ice.

Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Moreland and Lieutenant Sam Harris stepped on the frozen wastes covering the Beaufort Sea – off the north coasts of Alaska and the Yukon Territories – as the Silent Service moves a step closer to renewing operations under the Arctic ice.

It’s been nearly a decade since a British boat punched through the ice and emerged on the surface of the Arctic Ocean during a patrol.

Re-generating the Submarine Service’s ‘under ice capability’ is an operational priority as the Arctic is likely to become a key theatre with the ice cap shrinking – and international military and commercial maritime activity likely to increase as a result.

Which is why a pair of UK submariners is working on a moving ice floe at temporary US Navy Ice Camp Sargo, around 170 miles north of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. 

Lt Cdr Moreland (HMS Astute) and Lt Harris (HMS Trenchant) are looking into the equipment, training and procedures needed to allow the Royal Navy’s hunter-killer boats – Trafalgar and Astute-class boats to safely return under the ice.

The two submariners sailed with the USS Hampton to get to the US Arctic Submarine Laboratory’s temporary ice camp.

We will use their experience and learning to prepare one of our Trafalgar class boats to operate under ice, before rolling out this capability across our entire attack boat flotilla

Rear Admiral John Weale, Head of the RN Submarine Service

The Los Angeles-class boat rose through thick sheet ice to report its safe transit through the Bering Strait and to re-fix the boat’s position by GPS before continuing to Camp Sargo on ICEX (Ice Exercise) 2016. 

“It was interesting to be met by the camp’s crew who were armed with chainsaws and pick-axes to clear ice from the hatches to allow us to get off the boat!” said Lt Harris.

“I was particularly interested in the navigational aspects of the training; including seeing first-hand how our US counterparts ship control team continually maintained sea clearance above and below the boat while under the ice.

“I thought that their greatest single seamanship challenge was transiting the shallow Bering Strait while avoiding frequent, and deep, ice keels from icebergs and sheet ice.

“The value to the Royal Navy from our visit is high, and we greatly appreciate the assistance of the US Navy.

“We’ve learned a number of lessons – especially for the Astute class which has not yet been tested in Arctic waters. A UK return to the increasingly-contested Arctic will be very much helped by this experience.”

Sargo serves as a temporary command centre for conducting operations in the Arctic region. Some 70 personnel live and work in 20 temporary buildings – everything from dormitories and mess tent to a command centre and range control where the underwater tactical development exercises were conducted. 

Drinking water is mined from the ice sheet and access to the camp is provided by a runway for small aircraft. Food supplies are dropped by parachute and collected on snow-mobiles. 

The head of the RN Submarine Service Rear Admiral John Weale said the exchange programme was “a key step to returning our attack submarines to the under ice battle space.

“We will use their experience and learning to prepare one of our Trafalgar class boats to operate under ice, before rolling out this capability across our entire attack boat flotilla.”