President Barack Obama was recently in Alaska for three days to highlight the dangers of global climate change. The presidential tour included a stopover in an Inuit town north of the Arctic Circle that’s slowly succumbing to the rising sea.
But another high-profile American visitor preceded Obama to the Arctic region… on a mission of military might. In a rare feat of high-tech prowess, the U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarine USS Seawolf spent several weeks under the Arctic ice cap during a six-month deployment beginning in March and ending August 21.
Officially, Seawolf’s mission was to travel from her home base in Bremerton, Washington, through the Bering Strait and under the North Pole in order to train with the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing north over the pole was faster than going south and passing through the Panama Canal, according to Commander Jeff Bierley, Seawolf’s skipper.
But the Arctic journey was also a statement to the rest of the world that the U.S. Navy can still go pretty much anywhere the water is deep enough. “The deployment was important because it’s part of the Navy’s continued commitment to assured access to all international seas,” Beirley, a 21-year veteran of America’s submarine fleet, told The Daily Beast.
But there are countries that would prefer to limit the Navy’s freedom of navigation. China has been claiming the exclusive right to a bigger and bigger swathe of the mineral-rich western Pacific—and is even building artificial islands in the China Seas in order to cement its claims.
This maritime competition is equally evident than the once-untapped Arctic, which gets warmer and less icy every year thanks to climate change. “In the coming decades, the Arctic Ocean will be increasingly accessible and more broadly used by Arctic and non-Arctic nations seeking the region’s abundant resources and trade routes,” the Navy warned in its 2014 “Arctic Roadmap” strategy document.
China sent five warships into the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast for the first time ever in late August. Early the same month, Moscow asked the United Nations to endorse Russia’s new claim on 463,000 square miles of Arctic seabed that could contain huge oil and gas deposits. The UN had rebuffed a similar request in 2002, but that didn’t stop Russia from sending a tiny submarine to plant a Russian flag on the Arctic floor five years later.
Russia is putting more and more muscle behind its Arctic expansion plans. On August 11, a Russian shipyard launched a refurbished nuclear-powered missile submarine that the Kremlin has modified to carry submersibles similar to the one that pulled off the 2007 flag stunt. The Delta IV-class missile sub will help support Arctic oil exploration among other missions, according to Russian media.
While China and Russia plot, America’s 71 nuclear submarines—by far the biggest such fleet in the world—continue sailing far and wide, in even the most dangerous waters. It’s a kind of political statement with a long tradition. The first submarine to reach the North Pole, in 1958, was USS Nautilus, America’s earliest operational nuclear sub.
“Nautilus’s transect was a brave technological triumph, of course,” said William Althoff, author of Arctic Mission, a history of the sub’s North Pole foray. “And it proved the extraordinary capability of nuclear boats in the Arctic arena. But, fundamentally, it was a political expedition.” That’s no less true for Seawolf's own northern mission 57 years later.
Sailing a submarine through the Arctic is all the more impressive for its difficulty. Under-ice ops require a sub crew to plan meticulously and navigate carefully. Seawolf and her two sister submarines, built between the 1990s and early 2000s, include special gear for the task, including ice-mapping sonar. Seawolf had previously crossed the North Pole back in 2013.
The hardest part of the journey is the first part—through the narrow Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia, Bierley said. “That’s shallow water.” With little room to maneuver, Seawolf’s crew of around 115 people had to take pains to avoid sea-ice “keels” jutting downward into the water.
Thanks to her nuclear reactor, the 353-foot-long Seawolf doesn’t need to ingest air for her engine—a necessity for most diesel-powered submarines. The reactor also produces air and water for the crew. With plenty of canned and frozen food aboard and an “inertial” navigation system that constantly calculates the vessel’s position without the help of GPS satellites, in theory the multibillion-dollar submarine can stay submerged for months at a time.
But if someone on board gets sick or hurt, the sub must surface—through the ice—in order to evacuate the patient by helicopter. Punching through the ice cap is easier said than done and requires practice. “It’s not a trivial thing,” Bierley said. Seawolf practiced the maneuver once during her recent back-and-forth journey over the pole.
First, a submarine must use its sonar to survey the overhead ice and find a nice, flat sheet that’s thin enough for the vessel to break through. In Seawolf’s recent case, the ice was 5 feet thick. Next, the crew eases the submarine upward until its sail—the part that juts out of the cylindrical hull—makes contact with the ice. “That’s generally not enough to break through,” Beirley explained. A pressurized-air system gives the sub a boost to finally crack the ice.
The final step is almost hilariously low-tech. “We start clearing off the ice,” the sub captain said. “We had five or six guys working on it. Chainsaws, picks, shovels, you name it.”
Standing with his crew on the seemingly endless expanse of ice, Bierley said he was struck by the quiet and loneliness of it all. “No birds. No noise at all. The wind wasn’t even blowing.”
And no polar bears. “I was kind of disappointed,” Bierley admitted.
Maybe next time. Returning to Washington in mid-August, Seawolf entered drydock for maintenance. But in this era of melting ice and Arctic resource-grabs, other U.S. submarines will no doubt continue the Navy’s polar deployments. The sailing branch is already planning to send two subs under the ice in 2016.