The Arctic. A vast land of ice with unexplored depths that have intrigued explorers for centuries. There is evidence of Arctic expeditions dating back to the Ancient Greeks. With the discovery of the American continent, the search for a Northwest passage became the mission of many brave men who would give their lives for the discovery. This month the U.S. Navy conducted its biennial Polar exercises in the Arctic Ocean. ICEX 2018 is the product of years of research, expeditions, and our desire to be faster, stronger, and better. The roots for this five-week biennial exercise lay in the history of the Cold War and the beginning of the nuclear-powered submarine.
In April of 1909, Robert Peary claimed to be the first person in recorded history to reach the North Pole. While this claim has been disputed, it laid the foundation for future explorers to attempt the arduous journey and make history of their own. The crew of the airship Norge flew over the Pole on May 12, 1926. This claim is undisputed and has become the first noted sighting of the Pole. The first people to step foot on the North Pole were a Soviet party of scientists in 1948 under the command of Alexander Kuznetsov. One thing that all these missions had in common was that they were either done on foot with sleds and dogs or by plane. The idea of a passable sea route seemed unfathomable with the thickness of the ice in the region. That was until a submarine entered the picture.
Sir George Hubert Wilkins was an Australian polar explorer that saw the submarine as the perfect means for attaining a Northwest passage. In 1930, Wilkins along with colleague Lincoln Ellsworth laid out the plans for a trans-Atlantic expedition. They believed that a submarine would be able to be fully equipped with a working laboratory that would allow them to do comprehensive meteorological studies. Since Wilkins was not a U.S. citizen, he could not purchase a submarine, but he was able to lease a vessel for five years. He was given the disarmed O-12 which he would fittingly rename Nautilus after Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The submarine was fitted with a custom drill that would allow it to drill through the ice pack overhead. A crew of eighteen was chosen and the expedition was set. Losses plagued the beginning of the mission. Before ever leaving port, the Quartermaster was knocked overboard and drowned. Undeterred, they left New London, CT on June 4, 1931. On June 14, they faced engine failure and Wilkins was forced to SOS for help and was rescued by the USS Wyoming. Repairs were done and by June 28, the crew set out for their destination once again. By August, they were only 600 miles from the North Pole when they realized that the submarine was missing its diving planes. Without the diving planes, the crew would be unable to control the submarine while submerged. Upon a plea from one of his investors, Wilkins had to admit the problems with his journey and seek safe port. While heading to England, the crew was forced to stop in Norway due to a storm. The Nautilus suffered severe damage and Wilkins received permission from the U.S. Navy to sink the vessel off the Norwegian coast. While Wilkins may have failed at his specific mission, he proved that submarines were capable of operating in the Arctic seas. And it would only take a few short years and another submarine named Nautilus to prove that he was right.
On August 3, 1958, USS Nautilus became the first vessel to pass through the North Pole. During her journey she traveled the entire Polar ice cap. She returned home to a hero’s welcome and expeditions to the Arctic were changed forever. What was once seen as impossible had in one mission become a tangible Northwest passage. On March 17, 1959, the USS Skate became the first submarine to surface at the North Pole. During the mission, the crew placed an American flag at the Pole and held a ceremony for Sir Hubert Wilkins who had passed away in 1958, unable to see his dream accomplished. During the ceremony, his ashes were left at the Pole in honor of the work he had done to make such a mission possible.
On March 7, ICEX 2018 was officially kicked off with the construction of a temporary Ice Camp and the arrival of two U.S. fast-attack submarines and one U.K. Royal Navy submarine. During the five weeks, the Navy will assess its operational readiness and develop its understanding of the Arctic environment. USS Connecticut from Bangor, Washington and USS Hartford from Groton, Connecticut will conduct multiple exercises in the region, along with the Royal Navy’s Trafalgar-class submarine HMS Trenchant. Rear Admiral James Pitts stated that “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.” Not only do the three submarines participate in these exercises, but the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory brings together three nation’s services and over 100 participants. The camp set up in the Pole is called Ice Camp Skate, named after the submarine that was the first to be able to lay eyes on the Pole. This year’s ICEX takes on new importance. As sea ice disappears, largely due to global warming, new waterways have emerged, leaving open untapped natural resources and uncharted territory. The race has begun to lay claim to these previously uncharted territories and ICEX allows the U.S. Navy along with the Royal Navy to explore and learn what it has to offer.