A Different Kind of Theater: Leveraging Science for the World’s Cold Spots


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By David Smalley


They are vast, frozen tracts of land and ocean. They are sparsely populated.

And they will be critical in the decade ahead, for US naval forces and the world.

They are the Polar Regions—the Arctic and the Antarctic. To the average person, they are remote, barren, snow-capped expanses of 24-hour darkness in the winter and round-the- clock sunshine in the summer. In fact, the two regions are vastly different, both in geological makeup and naval impact. The Arctic is an ocean, with territorial claims by multiple surrounding coastal nations. By contrast, the Antarctic is a continent, with no territorial claims per international agreement, surrounded by international waters.

But while they are different in so many ways, most especially geopolitically, naval scientific efforts in both regions are proving vital in gaining greater understanding of these extreme environments.

In recent years, the Arctic in particular has been increasingly a topic of discussion, from the Pentagon to the halls of Congress to the media. Shifting international considerations are part of the reason, but environmental factors—rapidly diminishing sea ice and significant changes in wind and wave patterns in the Arctic Ocean, for instance—bring new urgency to how we look at future operations.

Data from the region tell a story of dramatically changing conditions: Summer sea ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean has reached all-time lows. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, even winter ice levels are lower than ever before. That means new waterways are opening up, and regions once nearly impossible to reach are now accessible. Mineral- and resource-rich regions long inaccessible are now rife with potential. Tourism, fishing and shipping opportunities are growing. New oil fields beckon.

Military strategists from nations that in the past may have had less cause to ponder these regions realize that there are new opportunities for governments as well as commerce—all of which bring new challenges for naval forces. Time is money. Many analysts see an Arctic transit shaving precious days from today’s sea routes moving goods from Asia to Europe. The Bering Strait could become a new choke point for seagoing commerce.

US naval leaders are well aware of the changing parameters. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has said, for instance, that despite constrained budgets and urgent needs around the world, future surface ship design must incorporate the likelihood of increased Arctic operations. The replacements for current guided missile cruisers, destroyers, and littoral combat ships will need to be “modular and modernizable,” and their designs will need to consider the unique Arctic environment for their hulls as well as energy and propulsion systems.

“The Arctic is going to be a different kind of theater in the future, and if we neglect the fact that we’re going to be operating in the Arctic as we design this new class of ship, that’s just narrow thinking on our part,” Richardson told an audience at the Center for American Progress.

In short: With an increase in accessibility comes a demand for increased naval capability. And right now, the Navy doesn’t know enough about Arctic variability to forecast safe conditions for deployments of its surface fleet.

Cmdr. Blake McBride, former science director for polar science and technology for the Office of Naval Research Global, and currently a military deputy in ONR’s Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department, has been in regular contact with US partners in the Polar Regions.

“The United States is an Arctic nation, and the Arctic is an ocean,” he said. “That means that we, as the naval security forces of the United States, have a duty to prepare and be able to operate effectively in our Arctic territory if and when called upon.”

The Navy’s 2009 Arctic Roadmap served as a wake-up call for many within the fleet and force. The current version—“U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap, 2014-2030”—assigns tasks to various naval organizations to prepare the fleet for future Arctic operations. “The US Navy recognizes that the opening of the Arctic Ocean has important national security implications as well as significant impacts on the US Navy’s required future capabilities,” says the document’s introduction.

These environmental changes and resultant geopolitical challenges are being discussed in the scientific and popular press as well. “America Needs to Get Serious about the Arctic,” says a headline in the National Interest. Foreign Affairs has looked at “The Coming Arctic Boom” and the National Interest described “The Battle for the Arctic.” These are just the tip of the iceberg. The problem is more widely recognized, but solutions are costly and not quickly achieved. We have far fewer icebreakers than, for instance, Russia. According to published reports, Russia has 40 such seagoing vessels (four of which are nuclear powered). Seven more are planned or under construction. In addition, numerous other Russian vessels have at least some icebreaking capabilities. The United States by contrast has a total of two icebreakers—both of which are operated by the Coast Guard. One, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10), is operating well past its planned lifecycle, mostly in the Antarctic. “The highways of the Arctic are icebreakers,” said Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan. “Right now the Russians have superhighways and we have dirt roads with potholes.”

That’s a problem when resources are constrained and the cost of even one new icebreaker costs approximately $1 billion.

In the face of those kinds of numbers, effective science and technology will be key to furthering US interests in the decades ahead. Better fundamental understanding of changing dynamics is essential. Existing forecasting models need to incorporate changed conditions. How fast is the ice melting in the marginal ice zone? How does that affect wave patterns and currents, and hence sea states and shipping lanes? In regions that are already challenging because of harsh weather, vast distances, minimal infrastructure and unique sea conditions, America’s global leadership responsibilities—ensuring open sea lanes; providing ready forces for current operations; and designing effective contingency plans for future requirements—underscore the need for accurate forecasts. That alone is anything but simple if we want to get it right.

To move forward (literally and figuratively), ONR, together with its international command, the Office of Naval Research Global (ONR Global), is spearheading multiple efforts to increase our understanding of the Polar Regions. In addition to material science efforts to minimize ice buildup on hulls, these include new programs to better understand sea and ice dynamics in the Arctic, new platforms and sensors to explore vast regions of the Antarctic, and increased international partnerships in both regions.


The ONR Global office in Santiago, Chile, is partnering with the US Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command; the Air Force Office of Scientific Research; and a prominent Chilean company on the Polar Traversing Robotics for Autonomous, Collaborative and Efficient Reconnaissance (Polar TRACER) project. The program focuses on developing novel machine learning algorithms to understand extremely low-feature environments such as those found in Antarctica.

Currently, many state-of-the-art autonomous rovers and vehicles in use around the world rely on complex, often extremely delicate sensors. But what works in most geographic settings often fails in the vast uninterrupted polar ice, which features white-outs, high winds, snow- covered hazards and slippery, deformable terrains, including sometimes massive undetected crevasses.

The TRACER program is developing special terra-mechanic sensors, using new algorithms, to be placed on a new land vehicle platform, to enhance short-range capability.

The ultimate goal? Getting more and better information to humans, while decreasing the likelihood of injury or loss of life in unexplored terrain. The small autonomous vehicle that will use the new algorithms will go ahead of large convoys over Antarctica, with sensors able to withstand the harsh conditions and assess ground conditions for safety.

The knowledge gained from the project will help scientists and naval forces in the Arctic as well.

Robots under Ice

Through the ONR Arctic and Global Prediction program, ONR-sponsored scientists have had great success using unmanned underwater vehicles and other autonomous technologies to better understand what’s happening on and beneath the ice. ONR-sponsored scientists have over the past few years pioneered a new generation of lightweight, autonomous sensing packages. No longer are wooden huts and oil generators needed for persistent environmental observations.

Better knowledge of the Arctic environment will assist in the development of better forecasts for weather, sea conditions and ice movement—all important considerations for future naval and maritime activities.

“The Arctic has been poorly understood and poorly measured such that it causes us to have less accurate weather forecasts overall,” notes McBride. “Being able to operate effectively in the region will enable us to have capabilities that are resilient to punishment from the extremes of the environment. Having that, in turn, will enable us to negotiate and operate from a position of strength in the region.”

The core ONR programs are the Seasonal Ice Zone Recon Surveys (SIZRS), and Department Research Initiatives, or DRIs. SIZRS is a program of repeated ocean, ice and atmospheric measurements across the Beaufort Sea seasonal ice zone. It is a partnership with the US Coast Guard, which has, through search and rescue and drug interdiction missions, considerable operational experience in the Arctic—as well as planes and ships that have proved to be an invaluable resource for naval research.

ONR programs include the development and placement of advanced underwater platforms or wave buoys, which are transmitting data once unimaginable (due to being unobtainable) to civilian and Navy scientists. In just one example, a team of top scientists from the University of Washington, sponsored by ONR, boarded a Coast Guard C-130 and, above remote areas, put advanced, sensor- laden dropsondes into the northern waters. It has had an enormous return on investment in advancing fundamental scientific understanding of what’s actually taking place in the Arctic, and where specifically.

Last summer, ONR researchers placed deep- and shallow- water sonar arrays in the Canadian Basin to study acoustic propagation—basically, how sound travels in the water. Both sets of arrays will be collected this summer after one year of deployment. This begins a drive to develop greater persistence in scientific observations. Taken together with the DRIs listed below, findings will be incorporated into existing models to better predict conditions for Navy ships.

The DRIs:

    • Marginal Ice Zone: This program looks at how fast the marginal ice zone—the transition zone between sea ice and open ocean—is changing.
    • Arctic Sea State: This study analyses how waves are increasing as a natural consequence of the sea ice decline.
    • Stratified Ocean Dynamics in the Arctic: This study examines the Arctic Ocean conditions and behaviors in the wake of increased wave action.
    • Arctic Mobile Observing System: This program is intended to integrate unmanned vehicle technology developed largely by ONR to better measure the Arctic without risk to human life, as well as reduce cost of studying the region. It allows us to measure parts of the Arctic at times when no human could do so for long—i.e., during the winter months.

Antarctic Partnerships

One of the ways ONR can gain enormous knowledge at low cost (compared to sponsoring multiple new research programs, for example), is to leverage the expertise of partner nations on sea ice/wave interaction in the southern ocean near Antarctica. In addition to gaining insights into the Antarctic, it informs our understanding of the Arctic, improving our ability to more accurately forecast sea states in various ice conditions.A number of ONR Global grants focus on collecting and using improved wave/sea ice data. ONR works with oceanographers based in New Zealand and Australia who have vast experience in the waters “down under.” New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, for instance, is leading efforts to improve wave/ sea ice data collection, and is working with ONR Global on a new disposable sea ice wave buoy. ONR Global also is working with researchers at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore to study sea ice and waves in totally new ways, validating the Navy’s acclaimed Watch 3 wave model run by Dr. Erick Rogers at of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.In an interconnected world, such collaboration is essential. Just as we understand that global weather patterns in one part of the world can impact conditions halfway around the planet, so too can research efforts in one part of the globe be analyzed and applied thousands of miles away.Other current research grants include testing and validation of scalable sea ice material, and modeling and comparison with scaled-up simulations and real ice covers.As part of the mutually beneficial collaborations, McBride has participated in multiple journeys with experienced polar partner navies, including New Zealand, Denmark, and Iceland. The lessons learned and reports back will be essential to informing the “Navy/Marine Corps after Next.”

“Through my travels and interactions with military and scientific experts, I have learned about the challenges, opportunities, and needs they experience in the coldest and most extreme environments on Earth,” he said. “That enables me to translate the observations into relevance for US naval interests and for our country as a whole— while simultaneously exploring collaboration possibilities with our friends and allies.”


With those principles of engagement and partnership front and center, ONR Global has also been a key player in the establishment of the International Cooperative Engagement Program for Polar Research (ICE-PPR). This proposed framework between the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden, is part of ONR’s answer to the challenge of the Arctic Roadmap, which directs the Navy to “expand cooperative partnerships with Arctic nations and Arctic states, and international, interagency, and private sector stakeholders that enhance Arctic security.”

A multilateral framework between all of these partner nations is being finalized in a new memorandum of understanding for research, development, test, and evaluation cooperation in military-to-military polar research. The memorandum will formalize research collaboration between the partner nations and the US Navy, Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard.

Four research areas will be front and center in this new partnership as it begins: situational awareness, human performance, platforms, and the environment. While the US Navy has much to bring to the table, including its own existing research programs cited, as well as extensive submarine experience beneath the Arctic Ocean, it also has much to learn from the cold weather operational experience and capabilities of other nations.

“ICE-PPR is science diplomacy in action,” said Dr. Chris Bassler, director of the Naval S&T Cooperation program at ONR Global. “This will be an invaluable tool for all of the partner nations to increase understanding of, and capabilities in, these unique theaters, ensuring a safe, stable and secure Arctic region.”

The cooperative research projects will also be essential to leverage investments, avoid duplication of research, and build partnerships.

“It also will be an enormous assist as we work toward future interoperability in areas like search and rescue, or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” said Bassler. “This will support CNO directives and could potentially be a game-changer for all concerned.”

As the program evolves, officials see the memorandum enabling the development of projects in many mutual areas of interest, including: polar environmental modeling, prediction, and information-sharing; polar sensors and remote sensing techniques; polar communications and situational awareness; platform design and performance for polar environments; navigation in ice conditions; energy efficiency in polar environments; human performance in polar environments; and much more.

The first ICE-PPR meeting was held in Helsinki in February 2016, and included the US Navy’s chief of naval research, as well as counterparts from each of the seven nations currently planning to join the ICE-PPR memorandum of understanding. It is expected to be officially signed later this year.


As the Arctic opens for more human activity, there will be greater requirements for the US Navy to be operating in the region. Vast distances, punishing weather conditions and a lack of supporting infrastructure makes this a challenging proposition. The Navy is actively preparing for potential future polar mandates. Better understanding and forecasting capabilities of this demanding region, and better protections for surface ships, will be critical to that end. Naval S&T is leading the way.

About the author:

David Smalley is the associate editor of Future Force.

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