Over five hundred members of the armed forces have been in Seward this week to participate in a military exercise geared at testing the Navy’s logistical effectiveness in the northern theater. The Seward portion saw a ship-to-shore simulated fuel transfer, involving hundreds of feet of hose and pumping apparatus on the north end of Fourth of July Beach.
Dubbed the Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise, the drill brings nearly three thousand total personnel and two vessels to Alaska for maneuvers in Seward and the Aleutian Islands. It also brought the Navy’s highest official, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer, who on Tuesday visited the USS Comstock, currently moored at the Alaska Railroad freight dock.
As a whole, the exercise explores the Navy’s ability to respond to conflict or disaster in a region where it has no permanent bases, said Rear Admiral Scott Gray of the Navy’s Region Northwest. Gray is the shore commander responsible for Navy infrastructure in 11 states from Minnesota to Washington and also Alaska.
“Alaska is a very strategic place, always has been,” Gray said. “Fortunately in the recent past, there really hasn’t been too much of a threat up here. But it’s a challenging environment in the world today. You’ve seen what the Russians are doing: they’re building up their arctic bases. China declared themselves a near-Arctic power. What does that mean? They want to come up here and compete for resources.”
Changes to the Arctic environment, including receding polar sea ice, have created new openings for competition in the globe’s far north, Gray said. Of the states that control territory inside the Arctic Circle, Russia has been the most active in projecting military might in the region, according to reporting by the Associated Press, Bloomberg and others.
“The Navy is coming up here more and more often to make sure that we’re trained and ready to respond,” he added, whether that be for humanitarian assistance or to bring military force to bear in the case of an Arctic conflict. “That’s the beauty of what we’re doing: this type of training is applicable to the whole spectrum of warfare.”
In Seward, exercise participants have specifically been tasked with a logistical task that Navy spokespeople have often sold as a disaster readiness measure.
From a barge anchored offshore, personnel with the Navy Cargo Handling Battalion One will pump tens of thousands of gallons of water to a beachhead equipped with three 20,000-gallon bladders, said Navy Lt. Justin Champine.
“We’re going to set up what we’re going to call a fuel farm,” Champine said on Tuesday. “We’ll set up our fuel farm with the intent to pump tomorrow 25,000 gallons.”
The drill simulates a ship-to-shore transfer of fuel, which could serve either a peacetime humanitarian mission or as logistical support in a combat zone, Gray said.
The cargo handling battalion is one of a number of units involved in the exercise. The two vessels – the USS Comstock and the USS Somerset – belong to Expeditionary Strike Group Three, a unit of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet based in San Diego, Calif.
The Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship USS Comstock is the exercise’s base in Seward and brought all of the equipment required for the exercise. The ship is named for the Comstock Silver Lode, a major silver strike in Nevada’s Virginia Range.
Vessels of the Comstock’s class are a kind of Matryoshka doll for amphibious craft. Itself over 600 feet long and displacing nearly 16,000 tons of water, the Comstock is a sizable ship with a specialized deck – the well deck – for holding and launching amphibious vessels called Landing Craft Utilities, or LCUs. Each LCU is almost 150 feet long and can carry 400 personnel, 280,000 pounds of cargo, or a selection of tracked or wheeled vehicles.
On a recent tour of the Comstock, her captain, Commander Kevin Culver, led members of the press and representatives from the City of Seward through the vessel, visiting the Comstock’s pilot house, flight deck, and a centralized turntable that connects the well deck to the flight deck.
“It’s all connected,” Culver said. “We can receive people, cargo, you name it, on the flight deck and transport it to the well deck, or vice versa.”
The Comstock brought two LCUs for the Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise, but could load three “in a pinch,” Culver said. In addition to its places for landing craft, the Comstock can also receive vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft on its flight deck.
“That is the USS Comstock,” Culver said at the tour’s conclusion. “She is a simple ship, but capable.”
“You should be very proud,” said Mayor David Squires.
“I am,” Culver replied. “I have the best job in the Navy.”