Julia Bergman, NEW LONDON DAY
22 March 2016
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would like to make a Navy exercise that evaluates operational readiness and furthers scientific research in the Arctic an annual event to send "an important message to the Russians" that the U.S. is serious about the future of the region.
The Navy is currently participating in Ice Exercise 2016, a five-week-long exercise involving four nations and more than 200 participants. The exercise, which happens every two years, will cost approximately $6.3 million this year.
During a conference call with reporters following a weekend trip to the Arctic, Murphy said he'd like to find a way to fund the program annually.
"The Russians are increasingly making claims on the Arctic, and running submarines in and around the region as a way to stake those claims ... ICEX is a way for
us both to have a military presence, but also a research presence," he said.
While in the Arctic, Murphy received classified briefings on "the incredible pace of Russian operations" in and around the region.
Outside the Arctic, Russian boats have ventured closer than ever before to the U.S. and its European partner ports "in immensely provocative ways," he said.
"No one is suggesting that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is contemplating a nuclear launch against a NATO country, but it's not clear how tethered to reality Putin is, and it should make us nervous that many of his submarines are starting to get dangerously close to the U.S. and our allies," Murphy said.
Murphy spent most of his trip aboard the Groton-based USS Hartford (SSN 768), one of two Los Angeles-class submarines participating in ICEX 2016.
With the trip under his belt, Murphy, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he'll now be in a better position to advocate for submarine funding going forward. He is in favor of the Navy's proposal to now build 10 Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines instead of nine from 2019 to 2023, which, if approved by Congress, would help mitigate an expected decline in the size of the attack submarine force.
"I think I can speak with greater firsthand experience now about the importance of keeping a full complement of submarines in the water to protect the Arctic, to chase down Russian and Chinese boats and to conduct counterterrorism activities," Murphy said.
During his time aboard the Hartford, Murphy said he was struck by both the capability of the crew, who were "oozing competence," and how important it is that the Navy retain these sailors.
"When you invest millions of dollars in training them up on the most complicated piece of machinery that our military produces, you want to keep them around so that they have a chance to ultimately become part of the leadership teams on these boats," he said.
Murphy is "more committed than ever," he said, "to making sure that we're doing the right things to build the quality of life for these sailors both on the boat and when they're home ... to keep them a part of the submarine fleet as long as possible."
As part of the exercise, the Hartford will practice operating in the Arctic, surface at the North Pole and work with the National Science Foundation and other organizations to collect data such as changes in the salinity and temperature of Arctic water and sea ice measurements.
The crew is maintaining close ties with the Hartford's namesake city even in the northernmost part of the Earth. Paraphernalia from Hartford's new minor league baseball team, the Yard Goats, such as banners and jerseys, is "all over" the inside of the submarine, Murphy said. Once the top enlisted submariners on the boat achieve certain levels of competence, they get to wear a specially designed Hartford Yard Goats cap around the boat, he said.
Murphy was able to enjoy some down time with the crew. While the self-proclaimed "New Haven pizza connoisseur" was skeptical at first, he enjoyed some "surprisingly good" pizza, and had the unique experience of watching "The Hunt for Red October" with a four-star admiral.
Adm. Frank Caldwell, director of Naval Reactors, traveled to the Arctic with Murphy, and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Reps. Steve Womack, R-Ark., and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.
It was fun to hear submariners critique the movie "600 feet under the surface," Murphy said.