Nuclear Friday: Icebreaker

Almost every field of scientific research was considered relevant to the Cold War, including climate science. Some of the best data about changes in ice coverage and thickness in the Arctic comes from the US Navy. Careful study of the Arctic ice became relevant with the development of submarines powered by nuclear reactors and closed cycle steam turbines. The USS Nautilus, launched in 1954 was the first such submarine. Unlike diesel-electric submarines, reactor driven submarines can travel long distances at high speed while completely submerged. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 the US needed to make a similarly dramatic demonstration of technological prowess. This demonstration would be primarily for domestic purposes, as Eisenhower and the Pentagon knew from secret intelligence programs that the success of Sputnik did not indicate as much Soviet capability as his opponents supposed. In 1958 it was decided that Nautilus would sail from the Pacific to the North Pole, and then to the Atlantic to assure the public that the US did indeed have a response to the perceived “missile gap”.

Nautilus had to make her Arctic transit with inadequate information about ice cover. If something had gone wrong, the captain would just have to take his chances and hope the ice wasn’t very thick. But if the Arctic shortcut was going to become part of naval strategy, submarine crews would need to know where they could break through the ice, and submarines would need to be made strong enough to survive this risky procedure. Detailed surveys of the Arctic ice began in 1959 and the Navy began experimenting with ice-surfacing during the Arctic summer of that same year. These studies were successful and as the first ballistic missile submarines became available there were even plans that the subs could launch missiles after surfacing through the ice.

ICEX 2016:

There were several viral videos going around last spring and summer of a US submarine surfacing through the ice. The submarine was the USS Hartford and the footage came from the ICEX 2016 exercise. ICEX is a long running joint program of the US, UK, and Canadian navies.

Here’s the longest video from ICEX 2016 I could find. It is taken from an internal US Navy video and seems to have a bit of censorship in it. I like this version of the video best because it has a full interview with the supervising climate scientist. It also has a bit of footage from ICEX 2014:

I think the title is a bit misleading. These are far from the largest US submarines.

And if you are familiar with submarines, you probably already have a few questions about this video.

Where are the dive planes? Wouldn’t they break off?

The submarines in the video are the Hartford, a Los Angeles class submarine, and the New Hampshire, a Virginia class submarine. Neither of these submarines has dive planes on its “sail”, but if you look at this picture of the Annapolis from 1999 it might look like they can just tear through the ice with the dive planes:


However, if you thought the dive planes would be a problem, you are correct. This picture from 1969 of the USS Whale shows how dive planes had to be modified so they could rotate to a vertical position to be able to break through the ice:


Obviously, periscopes and other equipment also have to be retracted during ice surfacing.

Would sailors really have cut ice with chainsaws during a nuclear attack?

I know, right? Seems rather time-consuming and every minute counts in nuclear war. But I think the answer to this question is sometimes surprisingly, yes!  Keep in mind though that these submarines in the video and all the submarines in Google image search I can find are attack submarines, not the truly massive ballistic missile carriers. It seems the navies of the world do not allow pictures of missile boats surfacing through ice to reach the general public. In spite of this lack of confirmation, I think in the event of being ordered to surface through ice and launch missiles, the crew may sometimes have to manually clear ice from the missile tube doors. Obviously, this would create problems as part of a coordinated first strike, but it would not matter during a second strike.

But I think this would not be a common problem. The ice in the video is just about as thick as submarines ever attempt to break, and the whole point of all this study of the arctic was to find better places to surface. When the ice is thinner, I have read it is possible to clear the deck of ice by bobbing the submarine up and down in the water. This video of the USS Trepang seems to show the beginning of such a maneuver. Again, public video of such a completed procedure seems to be missing from the web.

My usual sources can’t confirm that the crew would have to clear the deck before the missile doors can be opened, and even Russian sources seem to have failed to provide pictures or video. But one passing comment in this Russian news article does suggest that Russian crews were trained in manually clearing ice from a submarine’s deck so that the missile doors can be opened.  And they probably would have needed to as general Soviet strategy in the seventies and eighties was to keep their ballistic missile subs fairly close to home. In fact, the classic Cold War Akula class submarines were essentially sea-going ICBM carriers deployed almost entirely in the Arctic as a response to improved accuracy of US and UK weapons.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be cutting ice off the deck of a missile submarine knowing that if you were ordered to do so it was almost certainly a second strike and you likely did not have a home to go back to.

The Future of Arctic Research:

Current naval arctic research is funded until the middle of 2018. While climate science research is likely on the chopping block for federal funding next year, I hope that our new Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, will work to assure that these programs retain full funding. The DoD has been very interested in the strategic relevance of climate change and I hope they continue their excellent work.


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