Think of the Royal Navy in the Arctic in modern times, and it is Europe’s northern flank that will come to mind. It has for years deployed warships there, and its Royal Marines and pilots are sent to northern Norway each winter for cold-weather training. Uncertainty about Russian expansionism has only seen this activity intensify; 3,000 Royal Navy seamen took part in a giant Nato exercise in Norway this winter.
Operating in polar regions is about more than fighting, however, and since 2020 the Royal Navy has been working with the Canadian and American coastguards to refine its ability navigate in ice by sending officers — as well as its sole ice patrol ship — to the North American Arctic to receive ice-pilot training.
Now, the Royal Navy appears ready to conduct more training in ice-covered waters, after it signed an agreement last week with the United States Coast Guard that is similar to a 2021 agreement with the Canadian Coast Guard. The agreements, according to the Royal Navy, will help it prepare for expanded operations in the North, while also seeing to improve its ability to operate in the Southern Ocean.
The agreement comes after two officers from Royal Navy ice patrol ship Protector sailed with US heavy icebreaker Polar Star in the winter of 2021. In the autumn, two other Protector officers sailed aboard US Coast Guard icebreaker the Healy as it passed through the Northwest Passages.
The Protector is primarily used to support Britain’s scientific activities in the Antarctic, and the training is mostly intended to help the Royal Navy accomplish its mission in the Southern Ocean. In June 2021, however, the Protector conducted training in the Arctic with the assistance of a US Coast Guard ice pilot. The point of the training, according to Captain Michael Wood, the Protector’s commander at the time, was for the crew to familiarise itself with sailing in the region, and for the Royal Navy itself to “re-assert” its ability to do so.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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