On October 28, 1957, the Navy Department released information that the USS Nautilus had taken part in:
“… one of the most incredible adventures in naval history. Carrying a team of scientists as well as her own officers and crew, the nuclear powered submersible Nautilus cruised for 5½ days and travelled more than 1,000 miles in the black depths beneath the arctic ice pack. Assisted in the history making operation by the conventional submarine USS Trigger, Nautilus helped the scientists obtain data on under-ice profiles, bathymetric studies, oceanographic study of water masses and current studies. In addition, data was gathered on cold weather operation of equipment and machinery.”
With the simultaneous furor over satellites, the significance of this feat may well have been overlooked. What does it mean to us?
In spite of tremendous effort and progress by Russia and a much lesser effort by the United States and other non-Soviet bloc nations, the region of the Arctic Ocean remains one of the world’s little known areas. To be sure, we know the area superficially; but prior to the Nautilus cruise, the exact nature of the underside of the ice was one of the great gaps in our knowledge. Nautilus filled in a large part of this gap by collecting, as reported by senior scientist on the cruise, Dr. Waldo K. Lyon,
“… continuous and uniquely extensive records of under ice profiles, covering a distance of 1,382 miles … (and showing) … the distribution of sea ice types, thickness and particularly, the distribution of water spaces.”
For years men struggled and fought the ice in the Arctic Ocean to reach the North Pole until Peary in 1909 managed to trek across the sea ice to the top of the world. Since that time, flying across the Arctic Ocean has become commonplace. But progress in techniques for proceeding on or through the ice has been limited to construction of more powerful icebreaking ships which can batter their way into the fringes of the ice pack. The clear water beneath the ice has been largely neglected.
Sir Hubert Wilkins in 1931 made the first practical effort to utilize the wide-open avenue under the ice. His theory was sound, but his equipment was so unreliable that he was unable to put the theory to test. In World War II German submarines on many occasions, when trapped by pack ice closing in behind them, dived under the ice to escape. They also used the ice canopy effectively to escape from Pursuing anti-submarine forces. During August, 1947, in the Chukchi Sea north of Bering Strait, USS Boarfish was the first U. S. submarine to accomplish extended dives under sea ice. But her progress was painfully slow with the limitations of storage battery power and the need for surfacing frequently to recharge her batteries. Now ten years later, the Nautilus has demonstrated unlimited and rapid movement under ice in the Arctic Ocean. And again quoting Dr. Lyon’s report:
“The trans-arctic submarine, which five years ago was often called fantastic, is now a demonstrable fact, and consequently, the Arctic Ocean becomes an operating area for the submarine forces.”
The Arctic Ice Pack
The ice pack in the Arctic Ocean region lends itself to exploitation by submarine. It has long been evident from flying over the Arctic Ocean that the icepack consists of individual floes, varying in size from several miles in diameter to only a few yards. These individual floes are always moving under the influence of wind and currents. They pile up, break, and change shape. As they move, leads of open water form. These leads in summer have a tendency to grow into good sized “lakes” or polynyas as the ice pack wastes away under continuous 24 hour a day sunlight. Late summer arctic temperatures average around 40°F. except near the surface where melting ice maintains temperatures near the freezing point. In winter the open leads refreeze rapidly with temperatures dropping down to thirty or forty degrees below zero, and the ice pack is somewhat less mobile than in summer.
It is difficult, in fact virtually impossible, to implant this picture of the north polar ice pack in the mind of a person who has not had an opportunity to see for himself. The written or spoken word is unconvincing. Photographs or motion pictures are better, but there is no substitute for an actual “look-see.” Prior to embarking on his epoch making cruise, Commander W. R. Anderson, skipper of Nautilus, studied all available material on the arctic regions. The descriptions he studied were accurate, but he retained certain reservations until he participated in an aerial reconnaissance of the polar ice pack just before the Nautilus departed from home base. His comments on this reconnaissance flight are significant:
“No book or movie had given us an adequate idea of what the ice looked like. The flight gave us a great deal of confidence as to our ability to operate beneath the pack and to surface in openings.”
Potential of Under-Ice Operations
At any time of the year, a submarine maneuvering under the polar ice pack could expect to find either open water or ice thin enough for the submarine to break through to the surface, provided the submarine is designed with sufficient topside strength to permit contact with the ice. The Russians can do this as well as we. Nuclear power is not a requirement for basic under-ice submarine operations, but nuclear power does provide mobility and freedom from the delays caused by finding a place to surface and stopping to charge the batteries of a diesel-electric powered submarine. The theory of under-ice submarining is simple. In practice, it requires experience and skill, thoroughly dependable equipment and machinery, and a submarine with a superstructure tough enough to withstand damage from contact with the ice.
The ability to operate submarines under the north polar ice pack offers peaceful advantage to all nations. The extent of these advantages will become fully apparent only as the capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines are fully exploited in the north. Under-ice submarining also has certain military implications. Thus the Nautilus polar cruise is analogous to the launching of the Russian Sputniks, as the space satellite also has tremendous potential for peaceful advantage to all nations plus its military implications.
The prime peacetime task of the nuclear-powered submarine in the Arctic is survey-work. The U.S.S.R. has been very active the past ten years in the arctic basin gathering bathymetric data by aircraft landings on the ice and by drifting stations on the ice pack. The United States has also recently engaged in this type activity beginning with the occupation of ice island T-3 in 1951 by Colonel J. O. Fletcher, USAF, and his party. The U. S. Navy has also made several series of ice landings by aircraft to obtain soundings and oceanographic data. These methods are not only hazardous due to the problems of arctic weather and the instability of the ice pack itself, but the data obtained is sporadic. The United States is now in a position to gather bathymetric data on the Arctic Ocean in a shorter time and in the much more precise and meaningful form of continuous contours by submarine. A thorough knowledge of the region is a prerequisite to using it to fullest advantage and to understanding its relationship and effect on the rest of the world.
It is immediately apparent that nuclear-powered submarines can use the arctic basin as a transit area. The Russians already so use it for a few short weeks during the summer when they send surface ship and icebreaker convoys along their Northern Sea Route across the top of Siberia. The distance from northern European ports to the Orient via the Arctic Ocean is approximately half the length of the next shortest water route via the Suez Canal. This tends to make nuclear-powered submarine cargo ships and tankers look attractive.
Commercial aircraft are now overflying the Arctic on daily schedules. In the Atlantic and Pacific, we have weather ships stationed along the trans-ocean air routes. These ships also provide navigational check points for aircraft and rescue facilities when need be. The nuclear-powered submarine can perform this same function in ice covered seas, a consideration that will become increasingly important as arctic air routes are further developed.
It may be possible to maintain extensive surface activities, such as air bases on the arctic ice pack, by manufacturing artificial ice islands and supplying them by nuclear-powered submarine. It is also feasible to resupply some arctic land bases by submarine in case of emergency during the winter or to augment supplies brought in by surface ships during the short, ice free summer months.
With the large and growing Soviet submarine force and the threat of submarine-launched missiles, we now must consider the coastlines of the United States as the most vulnerable and hard to defend part of our borders. The United States has expended a great deal of money, time, and effort on means for protecting the country from the Soviet submarine threat; and we have achieved a considerable measure of success in improving our anti-submarine capability. The Russians have not had cause to worry greatly about the submarine threat to their coastlines.
Actually the U.S.S.R. has a longer coastline that the United States. The northern coastline of the U.S.S.R. extends from 170° west longitude, where it faces Alaska across Bering Strait, to 30° east longitude where it meets Norway. This is nearly half way around the world at the Arctic Circle. But Russia’s long-stretching northern coastline has heretofore been protected by the arctic ice pack. With the demonstrated ability of the nuclear-powered submarine to move freely under the ice pack, the former protection will be reduced, for the ice will now protect the submarine itself rather than the Siberian coast.
Employing characteristic stealth, a missile-launching submarine can reach and maintain position in the ice pack without its presence being known. The submarine can remain undetected indefinitely, drifting on the surface in an open lead, camouflage painted white to blend with the ice, cruising under the ice, or lying quietly topped against an adequately thick ice floe just as submarines have previously lain immobile on the bottom of the sea. From its position in the ice, the submarine can emerge to fire missiles within a few minutes of receiving a signal to do so. From the ice pack east of Spitzbergen, it measures about 400 miles to Murmansk, 880 miles to Archangel, 1,180 to Leningrad, 1,420 to Moscow and 1,780 to Kiev in the Ukraine. With our lesser interest in the far north and the greater distance of centers of population and industry from the Arctic, any threat to the free world from Soviet under-ice submarines is negligible.
Air bases and fixed missile-launching sites in the future will be vulnerable to destruction as they can be “zeroed in.” The aircraft carrier striking force is more difficult to counter with its mobility. The missile-launching submarine in the open sea is also mobile and, being out of sight, is infinitely more difficult to detect than a surface force. But a submarine protected by pack ice is virtually immune to detection. The missile-launching submarine constitutes an attractive deterrent force, relatively economical and most difficult to counter. When it comes to deterring the Soviet Union by threat of missile-launching submarines, the arctic ice pack is a valuable ally.
Unwanted though it may be by the United States and the rest of the free world, this is an era of competition in military strength. The successful Russian satellite launchings produced somewhat frenzied activity in the satellite and rocket field by the United States. On the other hand, the U. S. Navy pioneered the missile-launching submarine and the nuclear-powered submarine. Now the Nautilus has demonstrated that this combination can range the entire length of the Red coastline. The Soviets have been given an anti-submarine problem of their own, a purely defensive problem similar to the one we have found so difficult.
A graduate of the Naval Academy in the Class of 1942, Commander McWethy served for eleven years with submarines, including six war patrols in the Pacific. In 1948 he made a flight over the North Pole and from 1949 to 1951 he was Executive Officer of the icebreaker USS Burton Island and participated in four expeditions to the western Arctic. He is presently on the Staff on COMSUBRON TEN.
BEYOND HIS CAPACITY
Contributed by Lieutenant Colonel W. F. Frank, USMC
The task force had finally returned to port after several months at sea, and the crews had been granted the customary liberty. As was to be expected, the admiral had to hold mast the following morning. One of the offenders was the admiral’s yeoman who had indulged himself beyond his capacity and as a result had been over leave. After listening to the charge and the yeoman’s honest and straightforward explanation, the admiral bellowed:
“Son, why don’t you learn to drink like an officer and a gentleman?”
“Oh, no sir!” came the horrified reply. “I could never do that.”
(The Naval Institute will pay $5.00 for each anecdote accepted for publication in the Proceedings.)
 Note: A land fast ice shelf has built up along the northern part of the Canadian archipelago. Some sections have separated and now drift around in the icepack. These have been called “ice islands” as they are considerably thicker than normal ice floes. Icebergs form from the “calving” of a glacier where it meets the sea. Icebergs are not normally found in the Arctic Ocean.