The submarine and the icy surface

This posting forms part of a series of ‘Polar Posts’ by our MSc students as part of their work in Klaus Dodds’ Geopolitics of the Polar Regions class. We will be adding further Polar Posts in the coming months.


Figure 1 USS Annapolis on the surface of the Arctic Ocean after breaking through three feet of ice.

Writing on the ‘surficial qualities of camouflage’, Isla Forsyth, explores the importance of human and technological interactions with three of the world’s surfaces – sand, water, and earth – and investigates how these surfaces have facilitated the workings of weapons systems in unexpected and novel ways. The article is extremely insightful and prompted me to consider how this discourse may be applied to icy spaces such as the Arctic. Clearly ice presents some challenges when viewed through this paradigm. It is, as highlighted by Gerhardt et al, a conceptually slippery and liminal substance; one that may be grasped momentarily only to melt away. This indeterminate and unstable surface remains, however, an intriguing and important material background with which states can negotiate to achieve specific geopolitical objectives.

A prime example can be found underwater in Soviet submarines operating in the Arctic during the Cold War. Their submariners understood the surficial qualities of the ice and used this knowledge to great effect to allude ever listening US sub hunters. The key to this was noise – the sounds of creaking ice, the crash of great chunks falling into the water, and the cries of Arctic wildlife living on the frozen surface were among many of the sounds filling the headphones of the listening hunter who, as exemplified in the film Hunt for Red October, relied on hearing the distinct clunk of propeller turns or the hum of machinery to locate their adversary. This din was only amplified by sonar signals bouncing offthe surface of the ice, its various protrusions, and subsurface salinity layers acting like solid objects to the waves of sound. This nearly impenetrable shroud of ice gave the prey the distinct advantage over the hunter, its surface providing the perfect noisy environment under which the Soviets could scatter and conceal their submarines. As described in ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’, the shroud of ice also provided a means for the submarines to glide unseen and unheard, drifting along with the currents under the subsurface. By taking shallow routes such as the Kara and Laptev seas, the Soviets could end up among the ice bergs of Baffin Bay, the fjords along the west coast of Greenland, or even the Canadian channels of Hudson Bay. In the words of Admiral James Watkins, “the Ice is a beautiful place to hide”.


Figure 2 The crew of the USS Dallas listen carefully for signs of the Soviet sub Red October in the film ‘Hunt for Red October’.

ICEX exercises conducted by the US in 2009 sought to demonstrate that their subs had overcome some of the problems that had hindered their ability to operate in this environment during the Cold War. The exercises trained crews to deal with craggy ice keels that extend 20 to 50 feet into the water, and the varying salinity levels that complicate communications under the ice cap through the testing of a new Raytheon messaging system. In a highly visual display of strength, the exercises also saw the surfacing of the nuclear submarine, USS Annapolis, through three feet of ice . For the first time, abc news were permitted to cover the operation and produced striking images of the sub conquering the icy surface (see figure 1).

This was a display of strength not only of the submarine, but of the US and their technological capabilities.  There is, as highlighted by Bridge a latent power in being beneath the surface, the act in itself implying a right of access and ownership to the space above. Indeed, US Navy Captain Rhett Jaehn, described the ICEX operation as an opportunity to demonstrate that the US ‘have global reach’, that they can ‘operate in all oceans, and ‘operate proficiently in any environment’ to protect their interests. These interests, according to Reuters, revolve around shipping routes and resources which have been and may continue to be revealed by the melting of the same ice that was crushed as the submarine broke through it. Perhaps the ICEX exercises reveal an interesting dynamic whereby the solid icy surface is broken to assert dominance and control, so that when melted, its watery form and the potentiality that accompanies it, remain subject to the same assertions.

Arctic materiality, as highlighted by Gerdhart et al. is stable in neither time nor space, complicating ideals of permanence. Within the surficial context, this impermanence prevents the surface from being inscribed and bent to the will of actors seeking to utilise its properties. It is recalcitrant; its transient and ever changing nature forcing the submarine and the nation states that operate them into a process of negotiation with its protrusions, crags, and subsurface salinity layers, with its movement and that of the currents beneath it, and compelling them to find new ways to assert presence and control in its melting. The ice proves to be in itself an agential geopolitical object and actor whilst also serving as a powerful reminder of the importance of interactions between man, machine, and nature in the workings of weapons-systems and in strategic geopolitical manoeuvres.

Rachael Squire

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