Royal Navy returns to the Arctic – HMS Trenchant surfaces in the ice

For the first time in a decade, a Royal Navy submarine has operated under the Arctic ice. HMS Trenchant surfaced in the Beaufort Sea this week, joining two US Navy boats exercising submarine warfare skills under the polar ice cap.

Ice Exercise (ICEX) is held on a biennial basis and is run by the US Navy with participation from the RN and Canadian Navy. This year USS Connecticut and USS Hartford were joined by HMS Trenchant. The last RN submarine to participate in ICEX was HMS Tireless in 2007, although RN personnel have participated in recent such exercises. The Arctic region is increasingly becoming a focus of competition between the Russians and NATO nations. Since the Cold War, the Russians have used the Arctic as a bastion to hide their Ballistic missile submarines, while NATO has tried to develop skills to hunt and neutralise them. The mineral and hydrocarbons in the region have also attracted the Russians who have built a series of bases in the Arctic, expanded their fleet of icebreakers and claimed rights to large parts of the seabed.

In the wake of the attempted murder by agents of the Russian government of Sergei Skripal, relations between the UK and Russians are now at their worst since the early 1980s. Every possible demonstration of British and NATO resolve to contain Russia should be welcomed and ICEX is a timely reminder that the RN submarine force still has under-ice capability. Participation by a T-class submarine in a future ICEX was announced back in 2016 but at times last year, Trenchant’s participation must have seemed doubtful. The 6 active SSNs of the RN’s submarine force is holding on by a small margin but the institutional operating knowledge and experience do remain, should it be called upon. Despite being designed with the ability to do so, as yet no Astute class submarine has participated in an ICEX, although it must be assumed it is only a matter of time before they are deployed to the high North. There had been mounting concern that budget pressures meant that the 7th Astute class submarine might not be built. Fortunately, this disastrous possibility seems to have been averted and Defence Procurement Minister Guto Bebb has now promised the boat will be formally ordered before the end of March 2018. Against a backdrop of tensions with Russia, a major submarine power, 7 Astute class submarines is the bare minimum requirement.

A temporary ice camp (Camp Skate), home to over 100 personnel has been constructed on the ice shelf in the Beaufort Sea to support the exercise. Each ICEX has a significant scientific dimension, with the aim to gather environmental data about the ice itself and the waters below. Operating submarines under the ice create additional hazards. Not only are options for surfacing in an emergency greatly reduced, but acoustic and sonar conditions are very different to the open sea. The underside of the ice shelf is not flat with ice ‘fingers’ that extend downward, presenting an obstacle for submarines that must rely on specially developed echo-sounders for navigation and to locate thinner ice under which it is safe to surface.