The U.S. Navy staged a war game in America’s forgotten ocean last month. If you missed it, don’t feel alone.
Despite a lot of talk about the bright future for the Arctic — believed to be home to vast quantities of oil and natural gas —not even the people living closest to it pay it much attention, especially in winter. Alaska media largely ignored the story, which is in most ways not surprising.
Anchorage, the state’s largest city, has far more in common with Seattle, 1400 miles to the south, than Deadhorse near the edge of the Arctic Ocean, 630 miles to the north. Much the same can be said for Fairbanks, the state’s second largest city, though the Lower 48 comparative would be more like International Falls, Minn., than Seattle.
Anchorage and Fairbanks are cities in most ways like others in the U.S. North of them, the oil production facilities around Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay are a moon station. And north of that, well, north of that there is nothing but desolate and deserted ice.
Still, the Navy was out there in March some 200 miles north of Alaska’s oil heartland with a nuclear submarine and a camp on an ice flow established with assistance from Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom and troops based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) on the outskirts of Anchorage.
“More than 200 personnel from four nations are part of the exercise, dubbed ICEX 2016, which is designed to ‘research, test and evaluate operational capabilities in the Arctic region,'” CNN.com reported in a four paragraph story that shed almost no light on what was going on. The story devoted way more bytes to dramatic photos of people on the ice than it did to any explanation of what the Navy might be planning.
The Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System did release some nifty video of the nuclear submarine USS Hartford surfacing through the ice and pararescue jumpers from the Alaska Air National Guard’s 212th Rescue Squadron parachuting out of a C-17 Globemaster onto the ice.
“ICEX is a joint-force exercise which allows multiple military branches to assess readiness in the Arctic, increase operation experience in the region, develop partnerships and collaborative efforts, and advance understanding of the arctic environment,” the DVIDS reported.
Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, was a little more revealing, suggesting ICEX was a bit of Arctic saber-rattling, or cold spear-shaking, or something like that.
“The five-week submarine drill coincides with separate war games in Norway called Cold Response involving 16,000 U.S. and NATO forces,” it reported. “Together, the exercises underscore the emergence of the Arctic as an area of concern as melting ice caps raise the prospects for competition over vital undersea natural resources. The area could become a flash point between the U.S. and Russia.”
The story suggested something of a new Cold War, a subzero one this time, could be developing in the region where the U.S. and the USSR, the predecessor to modern Russia, were not so long ago joining hands to save the whales.
It was 28 years ago in 1988 that a Soviet ice breaker arrived off Barrow to assist the U.S. government and multi-national oil companies in trying to rescue three grays whales that turned into a media sensation after they becoming trapped in ice off the most northernmost city in the U.S.
An international rescue effort later estimated to cost $5.7 million eventually succeed in opening a channel for the whales to move offshore.
Whether they survived was never known. Whale scientists were so skeptical of the whales’ chances they refused to put satellite tracking devices on them. They feared the public-relations fallout of if the great whale rescue turned out to be a great whale bust.
It didn’t. Instead the story came to be glorified in the sweet, family-friendly, 2012 Hollywood movie “Big Miracle,” wherein the whales are saved.
Both the rescue, and to a lesser extent the movie production, were big deals in Alaska. The Navy’s planning to protect the state from unwanted Russian immigrants? Not so much.