US Military Support of Science in Antarctica

By Lt. Col. Edward Vaughan


Today, Operation DEEP FREEZE (ODF) is a joint service, on-going Defense Support to Civilian Authorities (DSCA) activity in support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff designated the Commander, US Pacific Command (CDRUSPACOM), be responsible for execution of this DSCA operation. CDRUSPACOM created Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica (JTF-SFA) to carry out ODF, and appointed the Commander, 13th Air Force, to also serve as Commander, JTF-SFA (CJTF-SFA).

United States Antarctic Program (USAP)

United States Antarctic Program logo

Within the scope provided by NSF policy and direction, JTF-SFA forces coordinate with inter-agency and international partners to provide air and maritime cargo and passenger transport throughout the Antarctic Joint Operations Area. JTF-SFA forces consist of active duty, Guard and Reserve personnel from the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army, and Coast Guard as well as Department of Defense (DoD) civilians and attached non-DOD civilians. ODF operates from two primary locations situated at Christchurch, New Zealand and McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Under the NSF’s lead, ODF works closely with other national Antarctic programs, to include those of New Zealand, Australia, and Italy.

As a joint service, inter-agency operation, most of the military aircraft and ships used in ODF are coordinated and provided by Commander, US Transportation Command and then attached or assigned to CDRUSPACOM and CJTF-SFA for mission execution. Cargo and fuel tanker ships from the Navy’s Military Sealift Command provide the largest share of resupply to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, while members of Navy Cargo Handling Battalion – One provide cargo handling and ship loading. Coast Guard Icebreakers have previously opened the icy sea lanes in and around the Ross Sea, and remain on call, should the NSF’s primary contract ice breakers not be available.

ODF military support aircraft include the C-17 ‘Globemaster III’, deployed forward to New Zealand with personnel from the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. The C-17 provides the bulk of the aerial resupply between New Zealand and Antarctica. Inter-continental transport of personnel and cargo to and from the U.S. is augmented by C-5A aircraft from the 105th Airlift Wing, Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York. LC-130 ski-equipped cargo planes deployed forward to Antarctica from the 109th Airlift Wing, Stratton Air National Guard Base, New York, provide on-continent heavy lift to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and other remote science outposts in Antarctica.


Operation DEEP FREZE (ODF) has its roots in the storied history of the US Navy’s explorations in Antarctica. As far back as 1839, Captain Charles Wilkes led the first U.S. Naval Expedition into Antarctic Waters. In 1929, Admiral Richard E. Byrd established naval outposts on the Antarctic coast and began conducting photographic and geologic mapping operations around the continent on snowshoe, dog-sled, snow mobile, and airplane.

LC-130 at Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. (Photo: Lt Col Mark Doll, USAF)

LC-130 at Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. (Photo: Lt Col Mark Doll, USAF)

On November 28, 1929, Byrd and his crew made their historic first flight over the South Pole. After several more expeditions to Antarctica, in 1946, Byrd organized the U.S Navy’s Operation Highjump, which put more than 4,000 people and numerous ships and other craft into the area of the Ross Sea. In 1948, Commander Finn Ronne led an expedition that photographed over 450,000 square miles of the continent by air.

The International Geophysical Year 1957–58, or IGY, as it was known, marked a turning point in Antarctic exploration. With the IGY, science would become the primary focus of the U.S. presence in Antarctica. Preparing for the IGY, the U.S. Navy launched Operation Deep Freeze 1 in 1955-56 to prepare logistics and basing support in advance of the scientific work. During the IGY, which lasted 18 months, forty nations collaborated to advance world knowledge in myriad scientific disciplines. This international cooperation eventually led to the creation of the Antarctic Treaty.

For the next forty-plus years, the U.S. Navy provided support and logistics for scientific work in the world’s coldest, driest, and highest continent. Naval Support Force Antarctica and Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VX-6, later VXE-6) provided the military’s primary support to US Antarctic Program throughout the period. Among the many types of aircraft flown in Antarctica, VXE-6 operated various models of LC-130 heavy-lift ski-planes since 1961. VXE-6 operated LC-130s in Antarctica until the 1998-99 season, when the Navy decommissioned the unit and passed the support mission officially to the US Air Force.

Beginning in 1988, the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard, flying its own LC-130 aircraft, began augmenting the Navy’s Antarctic support program. The 109th acquired its first fleet of LC-130 aircraft, known as the C-130D at the time, in 1975, with a primary mission of resupplying the Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar sites along the northern Arctic tier. As DEW line sites gave way to new technology, the 109th Airlift Wing shifted its ski-operations focus from north to south, and in the 1998-99 season became the only flying unit in the world to fly the ski-equipped LC-130. The 109th still operates LC-130s in both the north and south polar regions, positioning them as the only pole-to-pole unit in the Air Force.

[References: ODF Commander Situation Report, National Science Foundation, Antarctic Treaty System, Air Force Historical Research Agency, and US Navy Historical Archives]