By Andrea Shalal-Esa
APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY ICE STATION, Arctic Ocean, March 24 (Reuters) - The United States is staging high-profile submarine exercises in the Arctic Ocean this month as evidence mounts that global warming will lead to more mining, oil production, shipping and fishing in the world's last frontier.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and a Who's Who of other VIPs braved below-zero temperatures this month to visit a temporary camp on the ice about 150 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where two nuclear-powered U.S. submarines are conducting military training exercises.
"It is important for us to continue to train and operate in the Arctic," said U.S. Navy Captain Rhett Jaehn, the No. 2 official overseeing U.S. submarine forces.
He said U.S. submarines are a powerful symbol of U.S. military power, and the training was meant to ensure that the United States maintained access to the Arctic, home to the world's largest undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
"It is a key potential transit line between the Atlantic and the Pacific. We want to be able to demonstrate that we have global reach. That we can operate in all oceans, and that we can operate proficiently in any environment," Jaehn said.
Russia, the United States, Denmark, Greenland, Canada and Norway, which border the Arctic, and China are already jockeying for position to benefit from new business opportunities there.
Navy scientists predict the Arctic will have one ice-free summer month in about the mid-2030s, and two to three ice-free months by around mid-century. Less ice means the 56-mile wide Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska could one day compete with the Persian Gulf and other shipping lanes because it is as much as 40 percent shorter than conventional routes.
Changing ice conditions in the Arctic are expected to lead to greater commercial traffic, increasing the need for submarine and Coast Guard patrols.
The Navy's chief oceanographer, Rear Admiral David Titley, who visited the camp last week, said just finding a thick enough multi-year ice sheet to put the camp was difficult this year.
TESTING CREWS, EQUIPMENT
Jaehn is the officer in charge of the temporary ice camp, where more than two dozen Navy officials, researchers, engineers and scientists, and some military officials from Britain and Canada, are facilitating the biannual exercises.
The exercises train U.S. submarine crews to deal with craggy ice keels that extend 20 to 50 feet into the water, and varying salinity levels that complicate communications and navigation under the ice cap. This year they are testing a new Raytheon Co messaging system.
Navy officials are also using the opportunity to test new equipment on ships like the USS New Hampshire, the second of the new Virginia-class submarines to participate in the exercises, and how it performs in the Arctic's icy waters.
Hamilton Sundstrand, a unit of United Technologies Corp, is sending officials this week to repair the ship's oxygen generator, which stopped working last week for unknown reasons. A backup system was being used. [nN21173014]
Submarine crews practice surfacing the 8,000-ton submarines, directly through thick ice or in nearby open waters, and learn to avoid hitting another ship.
Larry Estrada, director of the Arctic Submarine Laboratory which runs the camps with the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington, said this year's ice exercise cost about $3.5 million and did not include torpedo tests, which are usually done at alternating camps.
He said budget pressures have prompted the Navy to host the ice camps once every three years instead of two. Not all ice exercises included an on-ice presence, he said.
The next ice camp will not take place until 2014, a concern for some who think the United States needs to expand its presence in the Arctic, not back off.
"I'd like to see more U.S. ice camps for longer periods of time in the U.S. Arctic," said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Christopher Colvin, commander of the Alaska and Arctic district which is as large as the entire continental United States.
"Demonstrating U.S. use and presence is important," Colvin said, noting that Russia was increasing its presence in the Arctic, and had plans for six to eight shipments of gas condensate along the northern route.
Mabus called the exercises and temporary ice camp "invaluable" and said he thought the Pentagon would be able to find the money to keep the camps on a two-year cycle.
Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, who also visited the camp, said he worried that the United States was not doing enough to prepare for coming challenges in the Arctic, underscoring Russian and Chinese interest in the region.
He said the U.S. government had agreed to a draft treaty that divides responsibility for search and rescue among the eight Arctic nations, but had no plans to buy more ice-breaking ships to carry out rescues.
The Coast Guard, Navy and Alaska officials are also concerned about the United States' failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"We don't have a seat at the table right now," Mabus said, noting that U.S. failure to ratify the treaty would prevent it from staking a claim to its continental shelf.
That would effectively open up oil production in that area to outside bidders, possibly even China, Treadwell said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa)