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During the last forty-three years of the 20th century (1957-2000) the Arctic Ocean was the exclusive operating area of the military. Specifically, the operating area of the submarines of three nations: the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia and Great Britain.

It has been told many times how the submarine USS NAUTILUS made its historic transpolar Arctic voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic in 1958, following an aborted attempt under the ice in the summer of 1957, which ended when the main gyrocompass failed. During the 1958 trip, the actual time NAUTILUS spent under sea ice was relatively short (4 days) when compared to the later Arctic Ocean deployments by submarines. However its impact was great. First of all, it clearly demonstrated to the world the fine attributes of nuclear propulsion and the submarine: speed, endurance and freedom from the outside atmosphere. Secondly, the trip was a tacit declaration that the Arctic Ocean was truly an international body of water, not a lake belonging to the Soviet Union, as that country had implied in various international discussions. Lastly, the NAUTILUS voyage, made public soon after its completion, provided the U.S. (and the rest of the world) with convincing evidence that the nation had the necessary skills and technological acumen to conduct a bold and unique exploration successfully. It was a dramatic event at the leading edge of research-one that generated great national pride and confidence in our military capability.

Following the NAUTILUS voyage and over the remainder of the century, the United States Navy made repeated research deployments to the Arctic. These deployments, sometimes supported by ice camps, icebreakers and aircraft, were planned to improve our understanding of the unique ocean environment and to develop submarine operations, military tactics, and sensor systems that were
effective in the under-ice domain. In the early years the primary research focus was very basic: to define the performance limits of the submarine platform itself, in and under sea ice.

In 1962, a November Class SSN surfaced at the North Pole, evidence that the Soviet Union intended to be a player in the Arctic. Nine years later the United Kingdom Royal Navy operated in the Arctic Ocean under the ice when HMS DREADNOUGHT deployed to the central Arctic basin.

It seemed that during the Cold War the Arctic Ocean would always be an area of potential confrontation, because the U.S. and the Soviet Union were separated by distances in the Arctic that were easily within the capability of modern weapons. In the Bering Strait individuals on Little Diomede Island (part of the United States) and Big Diomede (part of the Soviet Union) literally faced at one another across the International Date Line. But because of the forbidding nature of the environment nothing happened. (Cold, long periods of darkness, rugged in penetrable ice, and remoteness were inhibiting). The Arctic Ocean was little more than a very cold potential hot spot. Then in 1989 the international political environment in existence for over 40 years underwent radical alteration.

A Dramatic Change

The Soviet Union collapsed and became the Russian Federation. The new nation inherited a Navy in rapid decline-more from decay than from planned force reduction. Beset with low pay (or no pay) for its officers and men; undermined by an inability to fund proper maintenance for its remaining active ships; and faced with a huge number of abandoned and deteriorating vessels, the Russian Navy is but a shadow of its former self. Russia’s dominating geographic presence is no longer supported by a strong navy.

With the Cold War at an end and the Russian Navy in essential disarray, Congress extracted the peace dividend from the military. The Submarine Force did not escape the dramatic reduction in size mandated by Congress. As a result, we in the United States can forget the Arctic. Right? No need to worry about that remote, limiting and hazardous ocean (about which we know very little). No strategic importance. Let us concentrate on what our Navy can do in the wanner climates and in the shallow littoral areas.

Wrong! This country cannot ignore the Arctic Ocean. A number of events have come to pass in the past three years that collectively create a need for the United States to pay serious attention to a growing strategic importance of the Arctic, and not forget it. The events come from four factors: (1) the aforementioned, recent force level reductions actions forced on our Navy by the Congress; (2) the continued presence of a hostile maritime threat under the Arctic Ocean sea ice; (3) new and dramatic environmental changes recently observed in the area; and, (4) because of these changes, the emerging importance of the exploitable geography of the Arctic. In fact, given the recent trend, it appears the Arctic will play a bigger role in our lives than ever before-environmentally, commercially, militarily and politically. The growing relevance of the Arctic is subtly developing.

This unfolding chain of events had its start in the early months of the Clinton Administration. The Congress and the White House, attempting to extract the peace dividend while at the same time trying to balance the budget, forced dramatic reductions on the military. The 600 Ship Navy, originally defined by President Reagan, never got much above 550 ships and submarines. With the end of our confrontation with the Eastern Bloc, Navy force levels were pushed into precipitous decline. In 1993 the Bottom Up Review (BUR) was presented to Congress by then-Defense Secretary Aspin. Battle Force combatants, which numbered 546 in 1990, were programmed to decline ultimately to 346 in the BUR.

Four years later, Secretary of Defense Cohen prepared and delivered to Congress the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The QDR projected further reductions in Navy force levels to 298 battle force capable combatants. Essentially the Navy was to be cut to one-half its 1990 size in a decade.

Attack submarines did not escape the cuts. After achieving an Attack Submarine Force level zenith of about 100 in 1990, the QDR directed a force level 50 SSNs. Quite naturally, the first submarines in the queue to be retired were the oldest: the SSN 593 and 637 classes and the first flight of the SSN 688 class. Of critical importance to the country’s capability for Arctic operations was the SSN 637 (Sturgeon) class. These SSNs were designed to operate under sea ice safely, and to penetrate up to three feet of sea ice. They repeatedly demonstrated that capability by conducting numerous exercise and research deployments to the Arctic Ocean over the life of the class, 1967-2000. (The total number of Navy ice exercises (ICEXs) and science ice exercises (SCICEXs) by all classes is well over 90.) The Arctic Submarine Laboratory, led for many years by Dr. Waldo K. Lyon, planned and provided technical direction for each of these deployments during which the Arctic performance of the SSN 637 class was repeatedly evaluated and constantly improved. Supporting Arctic equipment and tactics were also steadily advanced. The capability of the 637s to operate effectively in the Arctic, even in the early deployments, was clearly robust. To reinforce our capability during the ’60s and the early ’70s, the SSN 578 (Skate) class were also regular Arctic deployers.

The USS Nautilus and the Skate class were retired long ago. And as of January l, 2001, almost all of the Sturgeon class was gone as well. What Arctic warfighting capability is our country left with? It will be very limited. It effectively resides in two SSNs of the 6881 class, USS SAN JUAN and USS PASADENA, plus the two commissioned ships of the SSN 21 Class, USS SEA WOLF and USS CONNECTICUT. That’s it. And unfortunately, as the dynamics of global politics have evolved, there has been very little time to break in either the SSN 6881 or SSN 21 classes in the operational intricacies and environmental effects of the Arctic. There have been very few opportunities to evaluate the performance of the under ice sonars on each class, to refine shipboard Arctic procedures, and to identify requirements needed to operate those ships under sea ice throughout the Arctic. Nor has there been a proper opportunity to develop an understanding of just how the classes handle in the variable, unpredictable and often confined Arctic. The newer SSNs have been deployed quite appropriately to world hot spots where their VLS capability and other attributes could be better employed.

One asks, .. Why do we need a credible submarine capability in the Arctic?” …. At present and for the foreseeable future the submarine is our country’s only Arctic-capable fighting force. Lacking a robust, Arctic-capable Submarine Force, this country cedes the Arctic Ocean to any nation that decides to take it. More on this critical issue later.

At this point it is appropriate to broaden the discussion to cover several non-military/non-naval subjects that will be factors in defining national security and strategy in the Arctic in years ahead.

Significant Environmental Changes in the Arctic

During the decade of the ’90s, a significant quantity of environmental data was collected in the Arctic Ocean. This was due, in large part, to the unique and recurring support from the Submarine Force through the six dedicated science ice exercise (SCICEX) cruises, conducted by SSN 637 class platforms with members of the science community aboard.

Large, unprecedented changes were detected in the ocean’s parameters and its circulation. Most notably, the first SCICEX cruise, conducted aboard USS PARGO in 1993, confirmed the significant advance of warm Atlantic Ocean water into the western Arctic basin, reaching westward beyond the Lomonsov Ridge which bisects the Arctic from Greenland to the Siberian Islands. Since the 1950s the ridge had been identified as the location of the meeting point (or front) for the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The front had also rotated counterclockwise by nearly 40 degrees. This frontal movement was not the only change noted, however. The core temperature of the Atlantic Ocean water in the Arctic was observed to have warmed by one to one and one-half degrees Celsius (I-l.5°C/= l.5-2.3°F) during ’90s. Clearly the Arctic Ocean was undergoing environmental change.

Other changes were detected. It was the direct result of data on sea ice draft collected aboard the six SCICEX cruises and comparing it to similar historical data, that enabled another researcher to detect the environment’s reaction to the ocean warming. The average thickness of sea ice in the western Arctic Ocean had decreased by 40 percent since the 1950s with most of it occurring in the ’90s. Concurrent satellite imagery also revealed that the real extent of the ice had decreased by 5 percent. A similar reduction in sea ice has been recently detected in the eastern Arctic Ocean in the area north of Svalbard and Franz Josef Land.

The downstream impacts of such a reduction in the mass of Arctic sea ice are many. For the submarine, less sea ice means it might be easier to gain access to the surface should it be required. A 40 percent decrease in one year’s growth of ice would statistically mean the submarine would have a better chance to find a surfacable feature and to conduct a successful surfacing. That in tum would imply a submarine with less built-in sea ice breakthrough capability could operate effectively in the Arctic for the next few decades.

These changes will also have commercial impact. Stated briefly, the Arctic Ocean with less ice cover and more open water, will allow routine merchant marine commerce to move more freely east and west, particularly along the coasts of Russia and North America. However, logic says that in the near tenn some ice strengthening of surface ships will be necessary.

The fact that 9 out of every 10 people in the world live on the continents that border the Arctic Ocean naturally concentrates ocean commerce in the Northern Hemisphere. For western Pacific nations trading with northern Europe countries, use of Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the Russian Arctic coast reduces the time and distance between the two areas by over 4,000 nautical miles (nm) when compared to the Suez or Panama Canal routes. This saving is roughly a 40 percent reduction. At 12 knots the transit time will be reduced by almost two weeks. Similar savings would be realized between the U.S. east coast ports and Korea (for example) through passages in the Canadian Archipelago. A navigable Arctic Ocean is like having a new inter-ocean canal constructed at no cost.

Other areas of exploitable ocean commerce are in the transportation of Arctic-based coal, oil, natural gas and other resources that were previously not accessible or not transportable via the ocean. Northwest Alaska contains proven reserves of low sulfur coal that exceed all other reserves in the United States. Russian natural gas reserves in the Arctic exceed the total of all other known gas reserves in the world. Oil in the Arctic is a proven asset for the United States, Canada and Russia. With less ice these resources become easier to recover and less expensive to get to market. Less ice also means the Arctic coastal shipping season, which now runs from mid-July to early September (and has so for years) will gradually lengthen.

Political Ramifications

For nearly four centuries explorers, shipping executives, merchants, and politicians have dreamed of northern trade routes, across the top of the globe. It was the Far East that was notably attractive to the Europeans. (It is essentially the same now.) The Arctic shortcut was the subject of many voyages, starting as early as the 16th century.

Today there still remain great environmental challenges to using either of the two coastal routes. The Northwest Passage is still extremely difficult to navigate at any time of the year. It is usually impassible at the western end, McClure Strait. It wasn’t until 1946 that the first successful west-to-east voyage was made through the Canadian archipelago. Fewer than 50 surface ships in history have completed the full passage in either direction. The SS Manhattan, configured with an icebreaker bow, was thwarted in 1969 in its attempt to traverse the wide McClure Strait and demonstrate a viable commercial route to get Alaskan North Slope oil to the eastern market. It eventually succeeded in reaching the Beaufort Sea by taking the narrow Prince of Wales Strait east and south of Banks Island, a route not considered acceptable because it was/is so restricted and narrow. There are political and sovereignty issues in the archipelago as well.

Canada claims total sovereignty over all passages within the Canadian Archipelago, including the Northwest Passage. The United States conversely holds that the Northwest Passage is an international strait. However, the two nations, as neighbors, do have an Agreement on Arctic Cooperation signed in 1988 which addresses coordinating research in the Arctic marine environment during icebreaker voyages off Arctic coasts of the two countries. Important to all this is that there exists a dialogue on the matter.

On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, the Russians have long husbanded the Northern Sea Route (NSR), considering it their domain and under their tight control, whether ships are inside Russian territorial waters or not. While many commercial voyages have been completed over small portions of the NSR for nearly 50 years, it was only in 1999 that the first foreign flag (non-Russian) commercial ship completed a transit of the entire NSR from east to west. Use of any territorial portion of the NSR mandates that the ship be accompanied by a Russian ice pilot and at least one icebreaker under an expensive fee system. At present the cost and the short shipping season inhibit the NSR from being a competitive trade route when compared to other routes. A warmer Arctic will increase political pressure in both Canada and Russia to revise or at least reevaluate their current nationalistic and monetary concepts that now prevent greater routine use of the Arctic shortcut.

Another emerging international factor to consider in the Arctic is the right of coastal states, under Article 76 of the Law of the Sea, to extend their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) beyond the current 200 nm limit, if their continental shelf similarly extends beyond the 200 nm limit. Such an extension gives these coastal nations sole rights to resources on or under the ocean bottom beyond the 200 nm EEZ. The Arctic Ocean contains 25 percent of all the continental shelf area in the world, even though its total surface area is but 3.7 percent of the world’s oceans. Five countries ring the Arctic. Their continental shelf areas hold unknown quantities of fossil fuel resources, but experts believe them to be significant. Thus, the Arctic rim countries will be forced to negotiate with their neighbors and the U.N. Commission on the Law of the Sea to define acceptable limits of each claim. Of interest in this regard is a draft Russian claim for their outer continental shelf extension. It was first made public in June 2000. The draft claim shows one boundary point at the North Pole! Not surprisingly, Russia is expected to be the first to submit a formal claim in the Arctic Ocean.

Taken in sum, these issues have created growing international political interest. To reinforce political interest, as articulated many years ago by U.S. Naval sea power strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, a nation must have a military presence in the area.

Military Issues in the Arctic Ocean

Even though ice strengthened commercial carriers may be confidently using either of the Arctic Ocean trade routes within the next couple of decades, it is improbable that the U.S. Navy could design and build surface warships or aircraft carriers possessing the necessary attributes to permit them to operate and be combat ready in the extreme cold weather (and drifting ice) of the Arctic. Steaming steadily on a transit between two ports is very much different from protecting (or interdicting) a sea lane or projecting sea power into the ocean. Inevitably, however, the expansion of commerce in the Arctic will mean another ocean for nations to protect.

One might make the point that if the Arctic is exploitable for commercial shipping, then existing surface warships could establish proper levels of presence and sea control. Not likely. For even though the climatologists talk glibly of an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the future, it will be a very long time before the ocean is ice-free all year round. The Navy has taken no consideration for real Arctic operations into the design of its ships. Low temperatures, superstructure icing and floating ice are genuine hazards to current and projected surf ace combatants and aircraft carriers. Dramatic environmental changes in the Arctic will not occur so quickly that the Arctic Ocean will be anything but the exclusive province of nuclear submarines for the next several decades.

In fact a recent (November 2000) issue of Lloyd’s List, the house publication of the British insurer, Lloyd’s of London, stated that the Russian Navy had the mission to protect the NSR. The article added that the recent loss of the submarine KURSK occurred in an exercise demonstrating that capability.

In summary-things have changed. The United States now has fewer submarines, and those the nation has are of somewhat lesser demonstrated Arctic capability than their SSN 637 class predecessors. And yet there are reasons for this situation. The demands placed upon submarines by the unified commanders-in-chief have been and continue to be high. These demands have substantially reduced opportunities for Arctic operations by the next class of SSNs.

There is good news: the Arctic IS warning. That fact mitigates somewhat the reduced numbers and capability of our submarines. However, there is also bad news. These environmental changes are creating eye-opening interest on the part of other nations. If that interest matures, as would seem to be inevitable, there is a genuine national security need that dictates we as a nation must maintain a capable presence in the Arctic. Surface ships cannot do it. Aircraft carriers cannot do it. Submarines are our only Arctic-capable force … as they have been since 1957. But it will not be effective without continuing advance preparation. We cannot afford to forget the Arctic Ocean.


USS DIABLO (SS 479) October 11·13, 2001 in
Groton, CT. Contact: Tom Lambertson, P.O. Box
86, Port Aransas, TX 78373; (361) 749-4598; e-mail:

USS POMPON (SS 267) August 22-26, 2001, in
conjunction with the National Convention of the U.S.
Submarine Veterans of WWII in St. Louis, MO.
Contact: H. Henderson, 1670 Magnolia Avenue,
Clovis, CA 93611-5963; (559) 322-1360, fax (559)
322-0351; e-mail:

USS SARGO (SSN 583) September 30-0ctober 3,
2001. Contact: Frank Monroe, e-mail: munrofh- or John Nicholson, email:

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