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Inside a Navy submarine sailing the Arctic

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U.S. Navy sailors aboard nuclear-powered submarines have long been training in the Arctic to learn to hunt down their Russian counterparts in a war. But as Russia expands military operations there, America’s submarine force is sharpening its warfighting skills at the edge of the world.

On a March day during Operation Ice Camp, the black metal sail of a 360-foot-long attack submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and torpedoes broke through the thick ice of the Beaufort Sea.

For many of the 152 sailors aboard the USS Hampton, this is their first patrol.

In the submarine’s nerve center, where sailors steer the ship and monitor the sonar, radio and weapons consoles, Chief Petty Officer Jacob Green directs junior officers and crew members in the performance of their duties.

Everyone called him “Cob” – meaning Captain.

Operating submarines in the Arctic is particularly challenging. First, navigation. In some areas, shallow water forces crews to navigate between dual threats: ice above and the seafloor below.

Ice keels – large chunks of overturned sea ice facing downwards – are also a hazard here. This was the case when I was a lieutenant colonel. Mike Brown and his crew sailed across the Bering Strait aboard the Hampton.

“We were operating the ship 20 feet off the bottom, with 40, 60 feet of ice on top, and we were able to avoid the ice keel,” Commander Brown said.

Second, water that condenses on the hull from cold seawater poses a risk of small electrical fires in submarines.

Since losing propulsion could mean getting trapped under the ice, keeping the submarine’s small nuclear power plant in optimal condition becomes a matter of life and death.

As with any submarine, space is at a premium.

Because sailors worked shifts, beds often had to be shared (rotating bunks were called “hot racks”). Cooks often baked fresh bread so they didn’t have to store premade bread (supply officers were called “chops,” like pork chops). Menus must be carefully planned during underwater missions. In an emergency, surgery can be performed on the wardroom table.

The small dining area for officers and sailors is one of the few places where the crew can relax together and study the details of submarine operations for hours on end.

The crew plays the strategy card game Solitaire to pass the time, so don’t let the time pass by, they say.

But time does pass, and all sailors miss the milestones in the lives of family and friends. When they eventually return home, they won’t be able to talk in detail about their efforts at sea because much of what they do is classified.

Some sailors spend their downtime on their smartphones, reading old news or watching TV shows and movies they downloaded before going on patrol. “Day 31 is sometimes the lowest morale day on the voyage,” said Capt. Michaela Johnston, undersea medical officer. “App downloads expired: Spotify, Netflix, and more.”

Sailors say “cruising” on a submarine is like working in a small office with no windows, no way to leave, no Wi-Fi and zero cell service. Key military decisions are made entirely on board, with no external communication.

The ship was laid out like an elongated maze of extremely dark passages no wider than the aisles of a school bus. Sailors must remain parallel as they pass each other. The escalator between the two main decks is so narrow that only one person can use it at a time. Nothing and no one is forever distant.

Commander Brown leads an all-male crew.Ban women from serving in submarine force It ended in 2010, many female officers are rising through the ranks on submarines like his. No one is currently senior enough to command a submarine.

On this special day, the Hampton rose from the depths of Ice Camp, a three-week mission that tested the crew’s ability to fight in one of the most unforgiving places on Earth.

A few miles away, other service members and researchers built Whale Camp, a collection of freeze-proof tents and a small command center on a large ice floe that itself moved at half a mile an hour on the frozen ocean.

Life there was rough. No shower. There is no running water. The outdoor temperature dropped to minus 40 degrees. After sunset, the Northern Lights above sometimes twinkle.

When physical contact with the submarine is required, teams will fly back and forth between the submarine and the camp in a helicopter.

“The goal here is twofold,” Commander Brown said in an interview. “It’s geopolitical. It’s also just developing the proficiency to be able to operate under the ice. I have a group of sailors who, by and large, have never been here and have never been under the ice. So one of my main focuses is One is to train the next generation of sailors.”

U.S. Navy submarines perform classified missions around the world every day. Attack craft like the Hampton might collect intelligence on enemy warships or eavesdrop on unfriendly governments, while larger ballistic missile submarines can stay underwater for 90 days at a time and carry enough nuclear warheads to destroy entire countries.

Soon it will be time to break through the unforgiving Arctic ice.

As the crew concluded its mission in the Beaufort Sea, the submarine headed north before surfacing in the Arctic.

The submariners would then move on, sailing on in silence beneath the icy sea.

John Ismay Reporting from Washington also contributed.

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