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U.S. Navy could close Arctic submarine ice camp after cracks appear

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy is mulling whether to dismantle or relocate an ice camp used to support submarine exercises off the Alaskan coast after cracks appeared in the ice, sources familiar with the process said on Monday.

This is the first time since 2011 that the U.S. Navy has built a temporary base camp on the ice far north of Prudhoe Bay to support submarine exercises in the region, although it did carry out a similar exercise in 2012 without a camp.

The sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said officials grew concerned about safety after cracks appeared in the ice near the camp - essentially a small village with housing, a mess tent and various buildings where scientific and military exercises are carried out and coordinated.

"Safety is a critical issue," said one of the sources, noting that the Navy could potentially move the camp to a different location if the current spot was deemed too dangerous, or abandon this year's exercise altogether.

Officials at the Navy's Arctic Submarine Laboratory, which plans and coordinates the exercises, had no immediate comment. The Navy's U.S. Atlantic submarine fleet also had no immediate comment.

This year's Ice Exercise 2014 (ICEX 2014) began on March 19 as part of the Navy's regular effort to train in the Arctic Ocean, which serves as a route for submarines to transit between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The Navy in February released a plan for how to expand its presence in the Arctic beginning around 2020 after a detailed analysis showed that seasonal ice is disappearing faster than had been expected as recently as three years ago.

In 2011, Navy officials noted a reduction in the thickness of the ice in the area where the base camp had been located in the past. The thickness of the ice was a concern again this year when officials were first scouting out a suitable site to build the camp.

The Navy has said that this year's exercise includes the USS New Mexico, a Virginia-class attack submarine built by Huntington Ingalls Industries and General Dynamics Corp, and USS Hampton, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine.

Submarines have conducted under-ice operations in the Arctic regions for more than 50 years to support of inter-fleet transit, training, engagements with allies and military operations.

The Navy has conducted 120 Arctic exercises, many together with British submarines, since the USS Nautilus submarine made its first transit of the region in 1958.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Ros Krasny and Sandra Maler)

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