Photo of the of USS Scranton
(left) Crew members of USS
Scranton (SSN-756) silhouetted by the Arctic sun.

(below) Scranton crewmembers explore the surface of the ice. Note the rudder penetrating the ice in the foreground.

Photo of cranton crewmembers exploring the surface of the ice

 

 

A New Era in the Arctic

 by J. L. Gossett

This year, for the first time in a third of a century, not one, but two new classes of U.S. submarines have surfaced at the North Pole. On 5 June 2001, USS Scranton (SSN-756) broke through almost four feet of ice to become the first 688/688I to surface at the pole. Then, just two weeks later, USS Connecticut (SSN-22) conducted the first polar surfacing by a Seawolf-class submarine. 

These events were just part of LANTSUBICEX 1-01 - a three-ship exercise conducted to demonstrate the U.S. Navy's continuing commitment to assure access to all international waters. And, like the ice itself, there was much more to the story below the waterline than what showed above the surface. 

Photo of USS Scranton
USS Scranton (SSN-756) breaks through the Arctic ice at the North Pole.

Since the 1960s, the USS Sturgeon (SSN-637)-class submarine has been the "workhorse" of the Arctic. Right up to the last 637 deployment by USS L. Mendel Rivers (SSN-686) in late 2000, these submarines were the backbone of Arctic submarine operations. [Editor's Note: See the Winter 2001 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.] With the passing of the venerable Sturgeon class, the Submarine Force decided that to maximize its flexibility for global operations, three current classes - 688, improved 688 (688I), and Seawolf - would all have their Arctic capabilities developed to the greatest extent possible. 

LANTSUBICEX 1-01 was the first step in this process. The theme of the exercise was to evaluate and improve the Arctic operability of all three, and USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723), Scranton, and Connecticut deployed this summer with that goal in mind. LANTSUBICEX 1-01 evaluated a wide spectrum of submarine operations and systems on the three boats. At their most basic level, Arctic operations require a submarine to withstand sub-freezing (29║F) seawater temperatures, but all of the ship's systems and components face significant challenges. Of particular interest were:

Surfacing. One of the objectives for this deployment was to conduct the first-ever test of the Seawolf-class submarine's ability to surface in the Arctic. Additionally, NAVSEA had recently upgraded the vertical surfacing procedures for 688/688I-class submarines, which were tested by both Oklahoma City and Scranton.

Avoidance Sonars. A key element of this deployment was the first Arctic test of two new high frequency sonars: the AN/BSY-2 sonar on Connecticut and the AN/BQQ-10 (ARCI Phase-IV) sonar on Scranton. In addition, Oklahoma City conducted the second Arctic test of the AN/BQS-15A ice avoidance sonar. Sonar performance in detecting ice keels or icebergs is crucial to safe operation in polar waters.

Communications. With normal SSIXS satellites unavailable in the high Arctic, submarines in that region are often limited to communicating with their low data rate VLF floating wire antennas. As an alternative for higher data rates, Scranton conducted the first high-latitude test of the Navy's new constellation of Polar EHF satellites.

Navigation. Without surfacing to access GPS, submarines in the Arctic must rely on their onboard inertial navigation systems for position fixing. To improve underice navigation capabilities, Oklahoma City conducted the first Arctic test of the new-generation AN/WSN-7A Ring Laser Gyro Navigation (RLGN) system, and all three submarines were equipped with the AN/WSN-2A replacement for the venerable Mk-19 gyrocompass.

Additionally, having all three submarines in the Arctic at the same time provided each boat the opportunity to test its active and passive sonar arrays against real contacts. The results of these technical tests are still preliminary and will take some months to evaluate, but initial indications are that all three classes can play an important role in future Arctic operations. While participating in the technical tests, all three of the crews experienced the thrill of an Arctic surfacing and the opportunity to stretch their legs at the top of the world. 

During the second of Scranton's two surfacings, Commanding Officer CDR Earl Carter used an Iridium« satellite telephone to alert the media to the Navy's new presence in the Arctic, and many crewmembers used Iridium« to talk briefly with their families back home. Scranton was also joined at the North Pole by a P-3C Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) from VP-16, which took aerial photographs of the surfaced ship and her crew. Additionally, the British Royal Navy - past partners in Arctic operations - had a representative aboard all three U.S. submarines. During the exercise, Scranton spent two days gathering scientific data, similar to that collected during the six SCICEX cruises of the 1990s. This latest data - useful for constructing a profile of major oceanographic parameters across the most variable portion of the Arctic - will be declassified and placed in a civilian repository for use by all of the world's scientists.

The Arctic is too variable an environment to fully test a submarine in one brief deployment, and for 2002, we hope to send one representative from each of the three types back to the region in different seasons. Then, for 2003, we are planning another major operation that may include an ice camp. Thus, the hard work, professionalism, and sacrifice of the men aboard Connecticut, Scranton, and Oklahoma City during LANTSUBICEX 1-01 have inaugurated an exciting post-637 era, and their success has already re-invigorated and strengthened our force-wide Arctic capability.

Mr. Gossett, a 1972 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is the Head of Operations at the Arctic Submarine Laboratory. He has participated in 24 submarine Arctic missions, most recently as Ice Pilot/Technical Director aboard USS Scranton during LANTSUBICEX 1-01.

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