Not Since the War of 1812 Has U.S. Sovereignty Been This Threatened
Pressures today are a lot different than what we encountered back during the Cold War… I don’t have to tell you about the capabilities of the latest Russian submarine, which is out and about as I speak today… And the Chinese have come on unbelievably strong, building a navy to rival all others, second to none.
That’s not me — your editor — talking, although it’s exactly what I believe.
Those are the words of Kenneth Braithwaite, former Navy pilot, retired admiral and current secretary of the Navy.
I’ve never met Mr. Braithwaite, but he’s definitely worth hearing. He spoke this week at a conference sponsored by the Naval Submarine League, of which I’m a member.
What are the challenges out there, on the high seas if not across the world? Here’s what Secretary Braithwaite said:
Not since the War of 1812 has the U.S. and our sovereignty been under the kind of pressures that we see today.
Yes… It’s that serious.
Let’s dig in…
In a sign of our COVID-infected times, the Submarine League conference was online. That made it easy to attend, simply by sitting down in front of my computer. And it also allowed me to pause the feed, back up and transcribe the secretary’s words exactly.
I came away from the conference impressed at U.S. capabilities in undersea warfare. And these capabilities are important — critical, actually — to U.S. defense because what’s happening under the sea is far more than “just” submarines.
Virginia-class submarine. U.S. Navy photo.
I heard numerous talks and presentations that reinforced much of what I knew or suspected. But I have to add that we no longer dwell in the underwater world of World War II movies, or even those cheesy war films that have a modern submarine or two in the plot.
The current and future vector for warfighting at sea is near-unbelievable kinds of submarines, augmented by unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), “seafloor combat” and truly 3D warfare from the bottom of the ocean, well into Earth orbit.
I came away informed and impressed in many ways. But I also came away worried…
Because people on the front lines — submarine commanders and the admirals who run the fleet — know things that the media do not (or cannot) tell us. It doesn’t help that much of it is classified, although the levels of secrecy are more than justified.
By extension, I suspect that many of our politicians, and certainly the vast majority of American people, are unaware of how precarious things are just now.
First, let me make a disclaimer. Anything I say here is personal opinion, and not an official statement on behalf of the Navy, Department of Defense or U.S. government.
Second, I’m not speaking for the Naval Submarine League either, a “nonpolitical” organization and professional association of people who deal with the underwater realm: military, retired military and industry.
The focus of the Submarine League is on raising awareness of the national need for submarines and other underwater systems, as part of defending the country. So let’s raise some awareness here…
Last week’s conference was definitely apolitical. There was not a word about elections, voting, the Electoral College or the rest… Just an occasional reference to funding from Congress and guidance from documents like the National Defense Strategy.1
A lengthy list of admirals, captains, senior enlisted and industry reps made presentations — at the “unclassified” level — on the status of Navy people, submarines, underwater programs and the industrial base that builds and maintains submarines and related weapons.
The good news is that Navy underwater systems — submarine programs and much more — are in excellent shape.
The U.S. has great submarines, fabulous people, superb weapons, a strong industrial base and a powerful, deep reservoir of academic and research talent to move things ahead.
On the front lines of defense, U.S. submarines prowl the sea, unseen, performing all manner of missions. These range from “strategic deterrence” in the form of missile-carrying hulls to critical intelligence-collection efforts in areas of concern.
One aside on that last point… A friend of the family has a son who was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. The son went out on a U.S. submarine for a one-week familiarization ride. While at sea, the submarine received “other tasking.” The son came home about four months later and cannot say a word about it.
Which brings up another point… In the submarine world, there’s long-standing sentiment that people who “know things” don’t discuss them. And people who discuss things don’t really know.
After over 30 years of association with the Navy, I’ll only say that I know a “few things” about submarines, and I hardly ever mention them…
Right now, though, I’m bending the submariners’ rule — and only because the secretary of the Navy made public comments that are worth passing along…
Such as this point from Secretary Braithwaite:
Today there are more vessels in the PLAN (China’s People’s Liberation Army/Navy) than in the U.S. Navy. Thankfully, our capabilities are much greater, which continue to give us the edge. But that’s only a matter of time. When I think about the totality of where we are today, I’m alarmed.
He added, “The Chinese presence in the Arctic is unprecedented. In the Far East, every single one of our allies and partners is concerned about how aggressive the Chinese have been.”
These points resonate with what we’ve discussed here at the Whiskey bar.
In many ways, the end of the Cold War ushered in 30 disastrous years for America. Previously, I discussed three critical mistakes the country made since the early 1990s.
- In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began the process of U.S. deindustrialization, with large numbers of companies moving jobs to Mexico.
- In 2000–01, China’s “normalization” of trade with the U.S. and then that country’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) opened the floodgates for U.S. manufacturing and jobs to decamp.
- And from 2003 and beyond, the U.S. entered into the cycle of “Forever War” in the Middle East and Central Asia.
In essence, post-Cold War the U.S. wasted its power and credibility. It deindustrialized and financialized, while mesmerized by the concept of globalization: truly a false god if ever there were one.
Distilled to an essence, the country’s leadership class fell for the self-deluding idea that vast numbers of people in the U.S. would just sit around and “think” while vast numbers of other people elsewhere did the actual work.
For example, we see this snotty, exploitative attitude embodied in the truly obnoxious (racist, actually) phrase stamped on the back of many Apple products: “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China.”2
Those Californians… They feel pretty darn good about themselves, eh?
But there’s no such thing as being a big, powerful country without a big, powerful industrial base that produces a vast array of value-added articles. That’s not how the world works. Or as we’ve discussed before, “A Real Economy Makes Real Things.”
Indeed, in the midst of a global-scale pandemic, America this year awakened to the grim fact that the country doesn’t even manufacture most of its pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. Or as we discussed, “U.S. Medical Care Has Become China-Care.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Aside from NAFTA, the WTO and endless wars, U.S. policymakers and strategists made many other stupid blunders over the years as well, to be sure. We discussed it recently, here.
But let’s simply condense many issues and frame the picture thusly: The U.S. spent 30 years vastly overspending its internal resources and making up the difference with so-called “money supply” growth out of the Fed, all while the world accepted those fake dollars in exchange for real trade goods.
Another way to understand it is that the massive, spendthrift U.S. trade deficit financed the buildup of China into the continental-scale industrial power that she is today.
And now, bitter reality stares us right in the face.
Per no less than the secretary of the Navy — amplifying what many an admiral would tell you, based on facts from the front lines — the U.S. faces a potential adversary that can outproduce us in pretty much everything.
China produces more steel and more machinery, has more shipyards, more welders and pipefitters… and plenty of smart people who majored in math and physics at university, versus America’s growing army of grievance cultivators and gender-studies scholars.
Here’s the deck-plate fact: China is focused on building up its military, to the clear end of pushing the U.S. out of the Western Pacific.
China is not “asking.” China is “ordering.”
We’ve discussed this before, here at the Whiskey bar. After 75 years, the end-state of the Second World War is altering and transforming into a new arrangement.
If there’s a hope amidst the ruins, it comes from the sun flash reflecting off the periscope of a U.S. submarine. (A cardinal tactical error by any submarine skipper, but I’m using the visual idea to make a point…)
Because despite the totality of utter economic and industrial folly of the past three decades, the submarine guys were able to keep things together.
There are volumes to write about how the submarine community – Navy and private industry – kept a critical industrial base more or less intact.
It’s an astonishing tale of how submariners maintained superlative standards, stayed creative, and kept funds flowing to keep the lights on from design shops to shipyards and waterfront piers.
Looking ahead, the next challenge for the submarine side is continuing to build the current Virginia class of vessels and raising output from two hulls per year to three.
All while pushing an entirely new program of ballistic missile hulls — Columbia class — to maintain the strategic deterrent of missiles at sea. (The venerable Ohio class is aging out, sad to say.)
And this new Columbia vessel is truly impressive, not just in size, but capabilities.
Virginia-class attack submarine (foreground), as compared to Columbia class (rear).
As to those capabilities, perhaps I might say something more, some other time. (There, see what I just did?)
For now, I leave the last words to Secretary Braithwaite:
Not since the War of 1812 has the U.S. and our sovereignty been under the kind of pressures that we see today… As we look back, what kept Great Britain from winning the ‘second war of independence,’ defeating us and making us a colony again? There were many factors, including war on the Continent with a guy named Napoleon and the fact that many in Parliament, in London, felt that it would be better to have us as a sovereign nation and trading partner, instead of being part of a colony.
To be very frank with you all, not since the war ended in 1814 has the U.S. ever faced an adversary that has been as committed, that has been as well financed and that has the industrial might to be able to defeat us. That’s why today it is more important than ever that we have a submarine force that is second to none.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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2 The Fascinating History Of “Designed In California”, Fast Company