Underneath several feet of ice, a team of Virginia Beach-based divers spent the past few weeks doing something no other military divers had before: retrieving torpedoes from the Arctic Circle.
The training torpedoes were fired by two U.S. submarines as part of an exercise north of Alaska in an area facing increased competition from Russia as climate change opens up shipping routes and nations around the world eye the region’s vast underwater mineral resources.
Every branch of the U.S. military participated in this year’s exercise, which also featured a British submarine and forces from Canada.
The Navy said the exercise was primarily designed to test new under-ice weapons systems.
“As we upgrade different technologies in the torpedoes, we want to make sure they are not affected by the cold water,” said Cmdr. Sarah Self-Kyler, a spokeswoman for Norfolk-based Submarine Force Atlantic, which is leading the five-week exercise known as ICEX.
The Arctic is an especially challenging environment for submarines. Variations in water density affect buoyancy, there’s a constant threat of ice keels protruding from the surface, and sonars perform differently in the harsh conditions. Part of the exercise also focused on learning how extreme cold water affects shipboard systems.
The training torpedoes carried sensors that allowed the Navy to track how they maneuvered and responded. But they had to be recovered by divers before that information could be extracted. The time it takes to recover a torpedo could range from a few hours to a day depending on several variables, according to Self-Kyler.
Local divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 and Underwater Construction Team 1 were among those bringing the torpedoes out of the water, a task that in prior years fell to civilians working with the University of Alaska.
“This is the first time military divers have ever recovered the torpedoes in the Arctic,” said Chief Warrant Officer Mike Johnson, who is assigned to MDSU2 at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. “Both units are extremely proud and feel this is a major accomplishment for the Navy.”
Here’s how they did it:
First, they trained for weeks ahead of time. That included taking a Coast Guard cold-water ice-diving course, torpedo recovery training and classroom instruction on hypothermia and frostbite.
Each torpedo carried a tracking device, and a helicopter would fly a diving team from a base camp on the Beaufort Sea to other remote areas in the Arctic Circle where the torpedo was expected to run out of fuel. Once they found the right area, a 36-inch hole was drilled into at least three feet of ice for the divers to fit through.
With a wind chill approaching -40 degrees, a tent was set up over the hole to protect the divers from the wind and trap heat from a small propane tank that would keep their gear warm as they got ready.
Once they were set, a pair of divers tethered to a line above water descended into bone-chilling 28-degree water. By comparison, water temperatures off the coast of Virginia Beach this week were about 45 degrees.
Even with dry suits and fleece undergarments, the freezing conditions could be difficult.
“It definitely does knock the wind out of you, especially if you have a leak,” said Sr. Chief Scott Wright, a master diver with the Virginia Beach-based Underwater Construction Team 1. “One guy cut a glove and just kind of had to deal with it for the time being.”
Wright said the torpedoes were typically easy to find because they were floating straight up and the water was crystal clear.
“The water’s gorgeous. It’s probably clearer than the Bahamas,” he said. “There’s all kinds of blues and light refractions.”
After digging a small hole to send a video camera down, crews were usually able to dig the larger holes in the ice for the divers within 10 feet of where the torpedoes were. Once they found the torpedoes, divers would place weights on them so they wouldn’t float straight up anymore.
They would attach brackets with cables to the top and bottom of each torpedo so it could be pulled out through a separate hole.
A helicopter would then hoist the torpedo and fly it back to base camp.
When the divers left the water, Wright said, the water on their equipment would freeze.
“When they come up it’s negative 40 and their wet. They’re not dressed for it,” he said. “We make sure they get back to camp in time.”
At the base camp, the divers warmed up in tents that were typically kept at about 78 degrees. The torpedoes were loaded onto a small airplane and flown to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where they were cleaned and shipped back to their home facility to be rebuilt for future use.
The submarine portion of ICEX is finished, but the overall exercise and research is scheduled to last through March 30.
© 2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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