NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — It dipped to 9 below zero before dawn Friday at Camp Ripley, Minnesota — the same as at Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States — which is why Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua Slack has no doubts that his divers are getting the right training for the Navy’s stepped up interest in Arctic operations.
The sailors from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 are spending February in the middle of Minnesota, diving at least twice daily in water just 4 degrees above its freezing point, and under ice that can be 3 feet thick.
As far as Slack and MDSU-2 are concerned, that’s pretty Arctic.
The Navy’s latest strategic planning and NATO’s new, Norfolk-based Joint Force Command have heightened their focus on the Arctic over the past several months.
That focus comes in response to increased Russian naval activity, especially important because of signs of growing Chinese interest in the region, and because Arctic waters offer Russian submarines a path to the North Atlantic sea routes and telecommunications lines that link the United States and Europe.
So Slack’s divers, who normally train in the warmer waters of Virginia Beach and downright balmy Key West, Florida, need to know how to operate in those frigid, dangerous conditions.
If air supplies run short or equipment fails, divers in the Arctic — and the 36 degree water of Lake Ferrell — can’t simply swim up to the surface. There’s ice in the way.
And if they need to switch to a back-up breathing system, that 36 degree water can provide a disorienting shock when it hits their faces. Divers need to learn to be braced for that.
Visibility is poor, too. The MDSU-2 divers’ training in Minnesota includes work with a hand-held navigation device and the underwater sonar the team uses when divers search for hazards, mines or items that need to be recovered.
Since the divers are part of the Navy’s expeditionary command, they’re expected to be ready to go anywhere and set up everything they need to do their jobs.
When they head to Lake Rapoon, 30 miles from Lake Ferrell, as they do most days in this training, they drill on setting up shelters to stay warm while they suit up for diving and when they emerge from their mission.
They practice settling up their “wagon wheel” — the 25- and 50-foot diameter circles, centered on the hole through which divers enter the water, that they clear with snowblowers. It’s called a wagon wheel because the sailors also clear lines leading from the central hole to the circles — the spokes. They also cut escape holes on the circles, and clear enough snow to make arrows pointing the way to safety.
That lets enough light through that target-like wagon wheel to guide a diver in trouble.
MDSU-2 divers have ice screws, so they can grab onto ice to make it easier for a fellow sailor to find them if they get into trouble.
They practice jumping in quickly for the urgent, but careful 360-degree sweeps that a rescuer must perform if a diver runs into difficulties under the ice.
It’s all part of being a Navy diver, Slack said. And the training means that if MDSU-2 sailors need to go to the Arctic, they’re ready to carry out their mission, he said.