Ice experts aid U.S. military in Arctic Ocean exercise

Rod Boyce
March 22, 2024

Camping on an Arctic Ocean ice floe can be risky. Choosing a safe spot is critical in a setting where the surface can crack open.

Preparing for two Navy attack submarines longer than a football field to pop up through the sea ice adds to the challenge.

Ice Camp
U.S. Navy photo
Ice Camp Whale tents and vehicles sit on the Arctic Ocean ice during Operation Ice Camp in early March 2024.

That essential job — finding a good spot for the U.S. military’s biennial Operation Ice Camp — falls to people at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

Research professor Andy Mahoney and research professional Joshua Jones assisted with ice floe selection for the five-week exercise, which began Feb. 20. After a week spent searching for a camp location, Mahoney stayed for the first two weeks. Jones was back on site for the second half of the on-ice activities.

“Josh and I were heavily involved in the process of selecting the ice floe where camp was set up,” Mahoney said. “We went out on all the ‘ice pioneering’ flights to observe the ice and make thickness surveys after landing.”

“Back in Deadhorse, we also took part in all ice-related discussions with the camp leadership,” he said.

U.S. Navy photo
The fast-attack submarine USS Indiana is shown after surfacing in the Beaufort Sea near Ice Camp Whale during Operation Ice Camp on March 13. 2024.

The Navy describes Operation Ice Camp, formerly known as ICEX, as a biannual operation to assess operational readiness in the Arctic and to “increase experience in the region, advance understanding of the Arctic environment and continue to develop relationships with other services, allies, and partner organizations.”

U.S. Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Space Force personnel participated in the exercise, along with personnel from the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Canadian Navy, the French Navy, the United Kingdom Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.

Either Mahoney or Jones was always on the ice to help assess ice conditions as they evolved. 

Monitoring included a network of RTK-GPS beacons surrounding the camp to measure any small-scale deformation associated with cracks. RTK-GPS units differ from regular GPS devices in that they can provide data accurate to the centimeter level rather than to meters.

For the network, Mahoney wrote software for a laptop in the command tent to trigger an alarm if the distance between any two buoys changed by more than 5 centimeters. A change of that size could indicate formation of a crack near camp.

Andy Mahoney and submarine
Photo courtesy of Andy Mahoney
Research professor Andy Mahoney of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, left, stands near the USS Hampton’s sail during Operation Ice Camp in March 2024. A civilian employee with the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Lab stands in front of the sail.

Mahoney also went on reconnaissance trips by helicopter to find locations near the camp for the two submarines participating in this year’s operation — the USS Hampton and the USS Indiana — to surface. The Hampton is based in San Diego and the Indiana in Groton, Connecticut.

Mahoney has been involved with the Operation Ice Camp program since 2018 and also participates in its sister program, ARCEX, between the Ice Camp years. ARCEX, which is also run by the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Lab, doesn’t include an ice camp but still uses Geophysical Institute assistance for sea ice surveys, testing and training.

The two Geophysical Institute experts provided key information to military personnel during this year’s camp.

Mahoney said, for example, that he assured the camp’s officer in tactical command that the nearby  icebergs identified by the U.S. National Ice Center were of a type typically referred to as “ice islands.”

“Ice islands have much shallower keels than icebergs and therefore do not represent the same threat to submarines operating below the ice,” Mahoney said.

Prior to Mahoney’s assurance, submarines near the ice camp had been operating under an urgent procedure change that required additional watches and increased sonar use.

“So they were glad I was able to explain why they could go back to normal operations,” Mahoney said.