On 15 March, the Royal Navy announced that HMS Trenchant had become the first British submarine to surface through the Arctic ice pack in more than a decade. Trenchant was taking part in the United States-led ICE EXERCISE 18 (ICEX), a five-week biennial exercise run from a temporary ‘ice camp’ off the north coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean.
The participation of a Trafalgar-class submarine in ICEX 18 was an important step in the Royal Navy’s move to recover the ‘under-ice’ capability that was a crucial part of NATO’s Cold War strategy to protect North Atlantic sea lanes and challenge the Soviet maritime ‘bastion’ in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean.
Operating under the ice provides cover from aerial surveillance, while the ice itself creates a unique undersea environment that disrupts sonar. That makes the Arctic a convenient place to hide submarines that can be used for deterrence and surprise attacks.
Britain stopped sending submarines to the Arctic after the tragic accident on board HMS Tireless in 2007, in which two crew members were killed by an explosion while the submarine was under the ice pack. However, even before this accident, maintaining an ‘under-ice’ capability was a diminished priority for UK Defence. The Trafalgar-class was designed specifically for antisubmarine warfare in the Atlantic and Arctic, but later adapted to provide a platform for launching Tomahawk missiles in a land attack role. The newer Astute-class are dual-purpose by design, further strengthening the Royal Navy’s dependence on its submarine force for land attack at short notice. The Royal Navy has no other platform for launching Tomahawk missiles.
In recent years, though, Russia’s growing military footprint in the Arctic, and the prospect of increased commercial activity in the region, has persuaded the Royal Navy to start regenerating the submarine services’ ‘under ice’ capability. Surfacing a submarine through ice is no easy task. The first to do so was the USS Skate, which surfaced near the North Pole in 1958. Since then, only the US, UK (HMS Dreadnought surfaced four miles from the North Pole in 1971) and the Soviet Union/Russia have sent submarines into the Arctic Ocean. The ice pack may provide a convenient place to hide but it also produces unique operational challenges for navigation, communications, surveillance, and launching missiles.
ICEX serves to increase crew experience of these challenges, advance their understanding of the Arctic environment, and assess their operational readiness. In 2018, crews and equipment were tested against live ‘targets’, while also practicing tracking and simulating attacks against other submarines, and surfacing through the ice. The Royal Navy’s participation in ICEX 18 (Royal Navy officers also took part in previous iterations in 2014 and 2016) deepens a resurgent bilateral relationship between US and UK Armed Forces in the Arctic. Elsewhere in the Arctic, the Royal Marines have been training the US Marine Corps in how to survive and fight in cold weather environments since 2016.
HMS Trenchant’s successful deployment to the Arctic paves the way for the Royal Navy to send one of its newer Astute-class submarines under the ice at some stage in the future (the Trafalgar-class submarines will be withdrawn from service by 2022), although it may yet be some time before an Astute is seen in the Arctic. The UK submarine force is already thinly-stretched. As an illustrative case, Trenchant did not take part in the recent missile strikes on Syria, partly because it was still in northern waters following ICEX 18, and despite being the duty Tomahawk missile firer.
As the House of Commons Defence sub-Committee inquiry on ‘Defence in the Arctic’ recently learned, it seems that despite the Royal Navy’s recent participation in ICEX, its ability to meet the Russian threat in the Arctic with submarines is likely to remain “fleeting and opportunistic” – rather than “persistent and meaningful” – and a far cry from what the submarine service offered during the Cold War