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World A US Navy destroyer teamed up with Canada's navy to learn how to operate in harsh Arctic conditions

05:29  18 september  2020
05:29  18 september  2020 Source:   businessinsider.com

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a man standing in front of a large ship in the background: Sailors aboard USS Thomas Hudner stand watch in low-visibility conditions during Operation Nanook, August 5, 2020. US Navy/MCS Sara Eshleman © US Navy/MCS Sara Eshleman Sailors aboard USS Thomas Hudner stand watch in low-visibility conditions during Operation Nanook, August 5, 2020. US Navy/MCS Sara Eshleman
  • US Navy destroyer USS Thomas Hudner sailed north on short notice last month to join the Canadian-led exercise Operation Nanook.
  • Surface ships like the Thomas Hudner are spending more time in the Arctic, but the region still presents acute challenges to military operations and commercial activity.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When the crew of US Navy destroyer USS Thomas Hudner learned they were participating in the Canadian-led Arctic exercise Operation Nanook last month, they hustled to prepare.

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"Our biggest thing we did for preparations obviously was get in touch with our Canadian counterparts and get a hold of all the messages, [communications] plans, and those types of things," Cmdr. Brett Litchfield, the Hudner's commanding officer, said in an interview this month.

But "the high fence" they had to clear was getting "dry suits for all of our boat crews and for our personnel that were going to be topside for extended periods of time," Litchfield said. "That's not something we normally have in stock."

a small boat in a body of water: Sailors from USS Thomas Hudner, front, and Canadian sailors from HMCS Glace Bay train on small boats during Operation Nanook, August 18, 2020. US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally © US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally Sailors from USS Thomas Hudner, front, and Canadian sailors from HMCS Glace Bay train on small boats during Operation Nanook, August 18, 2020. US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally

Operation Nanook, which ended in late August, was Navy's latest trip north as it refocuses on the Arctic, where military and commercial activity is expected to increase as a changing climate makes the region more accessible.

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Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, head of the Navy's 2nd Fleet, acknowledged before the exercise that the service is still putting "the proper equipment" for the Arctic back onto its ships.

Hudner's crew contacted vendors near its home port in Mayport, Florida, and in Norfolk, Virginia, and "were able to get enough for a small portion of our boat crews, but not everyone," Litchfield said.

Despite that, the crew was very motivated, Litchfield said. "It was a short notice task, and they could have easily just been complaining about it, but they jumped on board [and] took the opportunity."

Relearning in the Arctic

a boat on a body of water with a mountain in the background: Danish frigate HDMS Triton, front, and USS Thomas Hudner transit Godthab's Fjord in Greenland, August 13, 2020. US Navy/MCS Sara Eshleman © US Navy/MCS Sara Eshleman Danish frigate HDMS Triton, front, and USS Thomas Hudner transit Godthab's Fjord in Greenland, August 13, 2020. US Navy/MCS Sara Eshleman

Navy submarines have long been active in the Arctic, conducting well-known exercises like ICEX. But Navy surface ships are in many cases venturing north for the first time over 30 years.

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"The US surface fleet has had a long absence from the Arctic, and it's only been in the last two years that its started to try to regain [its presence] both in the Northern Atlantic and the Arctic," said Rob Huebert, a professor and Arctic expert at the University of Calgary. "So to a certain degree, what we're seeing is a redevelopment of old skills that were allowed to basically disappear."

That has required fast learning and a little improvisation. When the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman sailed into the Arctic in 2018, for example, the crew brought baseball bats to knock ice off the ship's surfaces.

The Hudner also had to track down more than just cold-weather gear. The waters off western Greenland were wide and deep, Litchfield said, but "the problem we had was we don't normally have the charts in our voyage management system, the digital charts for areas up that high north."

"So it took us a few weeks to get those charts and get approval to use the Danish charts in our system in order for us to safely navigate," Litchfield added.

a ship in a body of water: A Danish air crewman repels from an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter during a search-and-rescue live-hoist drill on USS Thomas Hudner, August 11, 2020. US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally © US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally A Danish air crewman repels from an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter during a search-and-rescue live-hoist drill on USS Thomas Hudner, August 11, 2020. US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally

The Hudner's small-boat operations included search-and-seizure and search-and-rescue exercises with other ships.

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Participating crews were able to tour and conduct exercises on each other's ships, but for a few days during the three-week drill, "the sea state was a little bit high and choppy," Litchfield said. "So it was not safe for a training event to lower the small boats in the water and send people down a ladder off the flight deck to embark those boats."

Instead, the US destroyer simulated drills that would've required boarding, communicating "bridge to bridge from our liaison officer to the master of the simulated ship to be boarded," Litchfield said.

'We know that we can do it'

a man riding on the back of a boat: The visit, board, search and seizure team aboard USS Thomas Hudner trains in Atlantic Ocean during Operation Nanook, August 17, 2020. US Navy/MCS2 Sara Eshleman © US Navy/MCS2 Sara Eshleman The visit, board, search and seizure team aboard USS Thomas Hudner trains in Atlantic Ocean during Operation Nanook, August 17, 2020. US Navy/MCS2 Sara Eshleman

After a post-Cold War break, Canada's military restarted Arctic exercises for regular forces in 2002 and now has knowledge needed to deal with Arctic conditions and problems at high latitudes, like communications interference, Huebert said. (Litchfield said Hudner's internet and phones "got a little spotty" as it sailed north.)

But Nanook took place during "by far the nicest time of the year," Huebert added. "Toward the end of August, it doesn't get any nicer, any more ice-free, than that. As much as the Canadians can help their allies learn, there's still that learning in the really bad conditions."

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Those aren't the only challenges. One US icebreaker, Healy, recently broke down during a trip to the Arctic. The only other US icebreaker, Polar Star, is over 40 years old and struggles despite constant maintenance.

Canada's navy recently received HMCS Harry DeWolf, its first ship in decades to be built for Arctic military operations.

The DeWolf can operate in first-year ice up to a meter thick, Rear Adm. Brian Santarpia, commander of Canadian naval forces in the Atlantic and Arctic, told Insider before Nanook.

But the US Navy, Huebert said, "there is no surface vessel ... that can go into ice-infested or even ice-covered waters."

a man with a hat on a boat in the water: A sailor from USS Thomas Hudner aboard Canadian Navy ship MV Asterix during Operation Nanook, August 22, 2020. US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally © US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally A sailor from USS Thomas Hudner aboard Canadian Navy ship MV Asterix during Operation Nanook, August 22, 2020. US Navy/MCS Seaman Apprentice Sawyer Connally

Sailing in the Arctic is one thing. Getting somewhere is another.

"As soon as you go past the Bering Strait, you really don't have any other place that you can go in for infrastructure," and in eastern Canada, "basically once you get past St. John's, Newfoundland, you're on your own," Huebert said.

Canadian military personnel "will often comment that it was much easier to operate in Afghanistan than it is in the high north, because at least in Afghanistan you have other people's bases," Huebert added.

Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski said this week that the US was "moving forward finally on a deep-water port in Nome," though Nome is not on Alaska's Arctic coast.

Canada has touted Nanisivik Naval Facility in its eastern Arctic as able to support DeWolf-class ships once it opens in 2022, but it's not clear if it can support foreign ships, Huebert said.

Litchfield said Nanook was his first Arctic operation in 30 years in the Navy. But, he noted, US ships have participated in Nanook before, and other Navy ships are making extended trips in the Arctic.

Such operations are "going to become probably more frequent," Litchfield said. "At least we know that we can do it, and we know what we have to do to prepare for it for future operations."

Read the original article on Business Insider

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