Navy’s Ice Exercise Kicks Off in the Arctic
The Navy’s biennial Ice Exercise — also known as ICEX — began this week with more than 200 participants expected to travel to the Arctic over a five-week period, service officials said March 1.
The exercise will “help the Navy access our overall readiness to operate in the Arctic, increase our operational experience in that area and develop international and interagency partnerships,” said Capt. David Kirk, head of the Navy’s undersea influence branch.
The exercise is taking place 200 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in the Beaufort Sea. Construction of an ice camp known as Sargo — which could house a maximum of 80 people at one time — began Feb. 29.
The entire exercise will take place over five weeks, with about four weeks of scientific experimentation, Kirk told reporters at the Pentagon.
The Navy — alongside partner nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Norway — plans to participate in more than 20 tests over the exercise. More than 30 organizations are involved, including the Army, Coast Guard, Alaska Air National Guard, the Department of the Interior and the Department of State.
The Navy has for more than 65 years operated its vessels and submarines in the Arctic, Kirk said. Early iterations of ICEX focused primarily on submarine operations and scientific research. “ICEX 2016 will continue to develop and hone submarine operational skills … so we have assured access to a strategically important Arctic region,” he said.
The Arctic region presents unique challenges to the military, Kirk said. Differences in acoustics, salinity and temperature in the Arctic Ocean greatly affect submarines and their equipment, he said.
“The overhead ice canopy alters the way we … operate and communicate and navigate,” he said. “The simple fact that the water temperature is about 28 degrees and we have fresh water systems throughout the ship is just a challenge in and of itself to keep things from freezing.”
Experiments will include the use of unmanned vehicles, said Scott Harper, head of Arctic research at the Office of Naval Research. Underwater drones used during the exercise will collect environmental data in the region. The harsh conditions in the region could pose a challenge for many of the systems, he noted.
“There’s a lot of issues with freezing, and there’s buoyancy issues with the fresh water layer as ice melts, he said. “A lot of these unmanned vehicles that are in the water are tuned to particular buoyancies.”
Additionally, many unmanned underwater vehicles use GPS to navigate. Ice cover will degrade that, requiring a higher level of autonomy, he said.
Small unmanned aerial vehicles will also be used during the exercise, Kirk said. They will be used for perimeter searches and situational awareness. Additionally, they’ll help spot polar bears that might attempt to enter the ice camp.
The Arctic region has become increasingly more contested as Arctic sea ice melts and opens new waterways. It offers Arctic nations a wealth of economic advantage with its oil, minerals and fisheries. Many nations, including Russia, have been beefing up their presence in the region.
Kirk stressed that ICEX was not in response to any alleged tensions with Russia. “We’ve been conducting ICEX for years and years and years,” he said. “We think it’s an important region to operate in. I don’t think in that context that it’s driven at all by Russia.”
The Navy’s goal is “not to militarize the Arctic,” said Jerry Barker, deputy branch head for policy within the office of the chief of naval operations. “The president has clearly stated that, our national objectives clearly state that.”