The Navy’s Half-Century
Legacy of Arctic Operations
By DAVID F. WINKLER
With the Soviet launch of Sputnik in October
1957, Americans began to question assumptions
of technological superiority over their superpower
rival. Failures in American efforts to place a vehicle in
space only compounded the problem. But the U.S.
Navy helped ease the national psyche with the successful transpolar under-ice voyage of USS Nautilus 50
The future Cold War Gallery addition to the
National Museum of the United States Navy intends to
highlight two of the individuals who made this feat
possible. Adm. Hyman G. Rickover led the effort to
develop nuclear propulsion for naval warships, eliminating the requirement to surface for air — a challenge
in the Arctic. Dr. Waldo K. Lyon faced the technical
problem of finding German submarines hiding under
ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during World War II.
Using the USS Boarfish, Lyon demonstrated sonar and
oceanographic equipment that enabled the submarine
to conduct under-ice dives that paved the way for the
The Navy’s efforts to build on the Nautilus
accomplishment, however, remained modest. In the years following, twin-screw Skate-class submarines made annual exploratory trips under the ice following different
tracks into the Arctic basin to collect bathymetry data.
However, the loss of USS Thresher on April 10, 1963,
halted under-ice operations for four years.
In 1967, the Sturgeon-class submarine USS Queenfish
made a short cruise under the ice between Baffin Island
and Greenland. This class of submarine incorporated
many features recommended by Lyon to facilitate under-ice operations, although he would have preferred that
the class have two screws for better maneuverability.
Starting in 1969, annual deployments usually paired the
single-screw Sturgeon and twin-screw Skate class subs to
explore the depths under the ice. The cruises’ objectives
were to improve navigation and operational safety in the
Lyon usually embarked on one of the submarines to
monitor the scientific data gathering. Of his 25 under-ice trips, the last, conducted in 1981, coincided with
the introduction of a potential under-ice threat: the
Soviet Typhoon-class ballistic-missile submarine.
Looking at satellite photography of the new hull,
naval analysts noted that the Typhoon class marked a
radical departure in design from previous American
and Soviet ballistic-missile submarine classes. With its
smooth curved missile deck and high freeboard, the
Typhoon obviously was designed to operate under the
ice, surface at a moment’s notice, and fire its nuclear-tipped missiles at targets in North America.
Under Navy Secretary John Lehman, the service
responded by implementing a maritime strategy that
included forward-area antisubmarine warfare. Suddenly, Navy under-ice programs received funded priorities previously given to space programs. For example,
the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory expanded
from 11 personnel to more than 60 in the early 1980s
and the number of submarines operating under the ice
increased from one or two to up to a dozen in one year.
Mk48 torpedoes and torpedo components were tested under the ice to demonstrate the American under-ice warfighting capability. These submarine operations
were supported by the University of Washington’s
Applied Physics Laboratory, which operated ice camps
on the surface. In March and April 1986, one ice camp,
located 180 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska,
housed 189 scientists working on 39 research projects.
With Soviet Bear reconnaissance overflights, the
American effort did not escape notice. The 1986 operation culminated with the rendezvous and surfacing of
three submarines at the North Pole. By the end of the
Cold War, the Americans had resolved many of the
issues involved with under-ice warfighting.
In retrospect, the Nautilus mission was not only a
navigational feat that demonstrated the capabilities of
nuclear power, but also a precursor of operations that
may have foiled Soviet strategic planning. Rickover
served on active duty until 1982 and died in 1986.
Lyon retired in 1996 and passed away two years later.
He made one final trip to the North Pole when his
ashes were scattered at the North Pole when USS
Hawkbill surfaced there on May 3, 1999. ■
Sources: Sixth and Seventh Submarine History Seminars: “How
Submarine Intelligence Collection Made a Difference-Lessons from
the Past,” U.S. Navy Memorial, April 11, 2007; and “Fifty Years
Under the Ice,” U.S. Navy Memorial, April 10, 2008.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical