As the entire U.S. military pivots to preparations for a future conventional war after decades of asymmetrical conflict, the Navy’s diving community is giving increased focus to what it takes to operate in the frigid waters that Arctic missions may require in the not-too-distant future.
The course is run by a combination of experienced Navy divers and civilian instructors and aims to get the dive community ready should they be asked to head beneath the ice in an Arctic climate.
Diving beneath 18 inches of ice presents its own hazards and challenges, according to the command and senior divers in the unit.
It’s an environment a world away from the bathtub-temperature waters of Virginia and Florida where much of the unit’s dive training takes place.
“Divers usually have direct access to the surface,” Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua Slack told Navy Times. “Knowing we’ll be diving under the thickness of ice, we try to prepare them mentally for the rigors.”
One facet of the training involves switching out one’s breathing apparatus while underwater, Slack said, but in cold environments, the body reflexively tries to inhale when one’s face is suddenly struck by the icy water.
As such, divers have to train to make sure they are expelling their breath when that cold blast of water hits.
“Obviously, aspirating water under the ice is largely problematic,” Slack said.
In addition to the cold, diving under ice is extremely dark, so during the training, divers are aided by patches of ice above them that have been cleared of snow to allow sunlight in and assist with orientation, Master Chief Jason Mette said.
Emergency procedures take on a more urgent tone under the ice as well, since divers can’t simply surface if things go wrong, Slack said.
In case of an underwater problem, divers are instructed to stick a screw into the ice above and standby while rescue divers deploy lines and do 360-degree sweeps in the murky depths, Slack said.
The water was between 36 and 38 degrees during last month’s training, and everyone dove with a partner.
And while diving in such an environment can be daunting, Mette said he emphasizes the same principles as any other dive scenario.
“I like to stress to the guys three things: trust topside personnel; trust in your dive buddies, and trust in your equipment,” he said.
Navy divers conduct a variety of missions for the fleet, from salvage and recovery to ship and submarine repairs, as well as “saturation diving,” which can involve “working and living at extreme depths for days or weeks at a time,” according to the sea service.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.