Cold War duty in the Arctic's frigid depths
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Atop the globe, the icy surface of the Arctic Ocean has remained relatively peaceful. But its depths have boiled with intrigue, no more so than in the Cold War.
Although the superpowers planned to turn those depths into an inferno of exploding torpedoes and rising missiles, the brotherhood of submariners - the silent service, both Russian and American - has worked hard over the decades to keep the particulars of those plans hush-hush.
Now, a few secrets are spilling through a crack in the wall of silence, revealing some of the science and spying that went into the doomsday preparations.
A new book, "Unknown Waters," recounts the 1970 voyage of a submarine, the Queenfish, on a pioneering dive beneath the ice pack to map the Siberian continental shelf. The United States did so as part of a clandestine effort to prepare for Arctic submarine operations and to win any military showdown with the Soviet Union.
In great secrecy, moving as quietly as possible below treacherous ice, the Queenfish, under the command of Capt. Alfred McLaren, mapped thousands of miles of previously uncharted seabed in search of safe submarine routes. It often had to maneuver between shallow bottoms and ice keels extending down from the surface more than 100 feet, threatening the sub and the crew of 117 men with ruin.
Another danger was that the sub might simply be frozen in place with no way out and no way to call for help as food and other supplies dwindled.
The Queenfish at one point became stuck in a dead end. The rescue took an hour and tense backtracking out of what had threatened to become an icy tomb.
"I still dream about it every other week," McLaren, 75, the book's author, recalled in an interview. "It was hairy." The University of Alabama Press is publishing his recollections of the secret voyage.
Sylvia A. Earle, an oceanographer and the former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said such feats in perilous waters made McLaren a genuine hero. "The sub could have disappeared, and nobody would have known anything about it," she said. "But they came through. That's exploration at its most exquisite."
After McLaren's mission, the Arctic became a theater of military operations in which the Soviets tried to hide their missile-carrying subs under the fringes of the ice pack while American attack subs tried relentlessly to track them. The goal was to destroy the Soviet subs if the Cold War turned hot, doing so quickly enough to keep them from launching their missiles and nuclear warheads at the United States.
Norman Polmar, an author and analyst on Navy operations, called the polar environment "very, very difficult" for subs. He said ice dangling from the surface in endless shapes and sizes made the sub's main "eyes" - sonar beams that bounce sound off the bottom and surrounding objects - work poorly.
Polmar added that the submarine community nonetheless considered the Arctic "a big deal," because it had a near monopoly on operations there.
McLaren commanded one of the Navy's most advanced warships, a jet-black monster the length of a football field.
It was the first of a large class of submarines specially designed for year-round operations in polar regions. As such, it boasted an array of special acoustic gear meant to help it visualize the complex world beneath the pack ice.
For instance, the sub had a special sensor to detect icebergs jutting downward with threatening spikes. From bow to stern, it had a total of seven acoustic sensors pointing upward to help the crew judge the thickness of ice overhead.
As McLaren recounts in "Unknown Waters," the Queenfish, in preparation for its Arctic voyage, was stripped of all identifying marks and picked up a full load of torpedoes.
It arrived at the North Pole on Aug. 5, 1970, rising through open water. On the ice, an impromptu Santa Claus in a red suit frolicked with crew members.
The submarine then sailed for the Siberian continental shelf, where it began its mission of secret reconnaissance.
Moscow claimed seas extending 230 miles from its shores, including most of the shelf, whose waters averaged a few hundred feet deep. But Washington recognized just a 12-mile territorial limit, and McLaren was instructed to play by those rules.
As the book recounts, the sub repeatedly ventured within periscope range of Soviet land. In the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago, its crew examined the October Revolution and Bolshevik Islands.
The Queenfish also spotted a convoy. "I was able to see and identify all six ships as Soviet," McLaren writes. "They consisted of an icebreaker leading a tanker and four cargo ships on an easterly course that slowly weaved back and forth through the chaotic ice pack."
The main mission was to map the seabed and collect oceanographic data in anticipation of the Arctic's becoming a major theater of military operations. The sub did so by finding and following depth contours, for instance, by locating the areas of the Arctic Basin where the seabed was 600 feet below the surface. A result was a navigation chart that bore the kind of squiggly lines found on topographic maps.
The goal of mapping the bottom contour also sent the Queenfish into the dead end. The crew was watching a favorite Western movie, "Shane," when a messenger touched McLaren on the shoulder and whispered that the sub had ground to a standstill.
"Heart in my mouth, I ran up to the after port side of the control room," he writes. "Saturating the iceberg detector scope was bright sea-ice-return in all directions."
McLaren ordered all crew movement to cease as he and other watch standers worked the propeller, rudder and stern planes to move the Queenfish slowly backward. Finally, he writes, the boat entered deeper water, and the crew "gave out a huge collective sigh of relief."
The two-month voyage ended in Nome, Alaska, where the sub and crew encountered a chilly reception. The mayor and other people on the town dock had mistaken the sinister-looking sub without markings as Soviet.
In 1972, McLaren won the Distinguished Service Medal, the military's highest peacetime award.
Historians say Cold War maneuvering in the Arctic picked up after his mission, with the two sides deploying more submarines beneath the ice. The United States built a total of 36 sister subs to the Queenfish, known as the Sturgeon class.
Little is known publicly of the polar exploits. But every so often the icy world erupted in a foretaste of war. In 1984, an American satellite observed a Soviet sub breaking through the ice of the Siberian sea to test fire missiles.
Military and legal experts said McLaren's book, while providing a glimpse into a hidden world of Cold War planning, might also make political waves today.
That is because of the sub's repeated penetrations of what Moscow considered its territorial waters, defying boundaries that Washington refused to recognize. The disclosure of that boldness could bolster the case in international forums for American navigational rights, legal experts said in interviews.
Bernard H. Oxman, a specialist in maritime law at the University of Miami School of Law, called the 1970 voyage "an indication of state practice and a refusal to acquiesce in Russian claims over navigation." Although Moscow has in recent years relaxed such claims, he said, the legal precedent remains.
So too, McLaren sees his spy mission as a milestone for freedom of navigation, whether in Russian waters or elsewhere in the contested wilds atop the globe.
The issue is a hot one today, because melting polar ice is opening up new shipping lanes and exposing potentially vast deposits of natural resources, including oil. A modern gold rush is getting under way.
"It's important to maintain freedom of the seas," McLaren said in an interview. "That's something our country has fought for literally from its inception."
Global warming and the shrinking polar ice pack are creating new opportunities and responsibilities, he said, adding: "We've got to stand our ground."