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In a thawing era, ICEX 2020 kicks off up north

At the frigid top of the world Wednesday, the Navy kicked off Ice Exercise 2020.

Led by U.S. Submarine Forces, the three-week biennial exercise helps boat crews stay sharp in an Arctic region that officials believe is becoming increasingly vital to national security.

Based out of Camp Seadragon, a temporary military outpost on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, ICEX 2020 will focus on the fast attack subs Connecticut and Toledo, which arrived on the very cold scene this week.

The crews from the Seawolf-class Connecticut — homeported in Bremerton, Washington — and the Los Angeles-class Toledo, which sailed from Groton, Connecticut, are scheduled to make several Arctic transits and also surface near the North Pole and conduct training there, officials say.

The crew of the fast attack submarine participates in ICEX 2020 in the Arctic Ocean. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B. Zingaro/Navy)
The crew of the fast attack submarine participates in ICEX 2020 in the Arctic Ocean. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B. Zingaro/Navy)

ICEX 2020 plays out amid emerging competition for the Arctic in an era of melting sea ice, which is opening up new transportation and resource extraction opportunities across the region.

Russia has beefed up its robust polar presence in recent years. And while it’s not an Arctic nation, China also continues to telegraph increasing interest in exploiting the thawing region.

“The Arctic is a potential strategic corridor — between Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the U.S. homeland — for expanded competition,” SUBFOR commander Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle said in the release.

“ICEX 2020 provides the opportunity for the Submarine Force to demonstrate combat and tactical readiness for sustained Arctic operations in the unique and challenging Arctic environment.”

Torpedoman's Mate 2nd Class (SS) Thomas J. Miletich, at bat, is all set for the first ball to be pitched in the first game played at the North Pole. Ready to stop anything that gets by Miletich is catcher Lt. j.g. Vincent Leahy. Both are crew members of Seadragon (SSN-584), taken on 15 September 1960. (National Archives)
Torpedoman's Mate 2nd Class (SS) Thomas J. Miletich, at bat, is all set for the first ball to be pitched in the first game played at the North Pole. Ready to stop anything that gets by Miletich is catcher Lt. j.g. Vincent Leahy. Both are crew members of Seadragon (SSN-584), taken on 15 September 1960. (National Archives)

The Navy’s underwater fleet has been exploring the Arctic for decades, punctuated by Nautilus — the world’s first operational nuclear-powered boat — and its famous submerged transit of the North Pole on Aug. 3, 1958.

Capable of housing and supporting 45 personnel, ICEX’s village on an ice floe gets its name from the Skate-class Seadragon, an icon from the same era of underwater Arctic pioneers.

Seadragon was the first sub to navigate under an iceberg and transit the Northwest Passage, according to U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

A steady stream of subs continued to venture north over the decades and that’s a key reason why SUBFOR’s personnel never lost their Arctic sea legs.

But in recent years the boat crews’ surface and aviation siblings have been asked to relearn how to operate in colder climes.

The aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman entered the Arctic Circle in late 2018, the first flattop to do that in nearly two decades, and Pentagon planners continue to explore homeporting an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in Alaska, too.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Wendler stood watch on March 15, 2016, during the five-week Ice Exercise above the Arctic Circle. Congress wants the Pentagon to consider building a maritime and air base in Alaska that can withstand similar conditions. (Navy)
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