Speaking Of War

Speaking of war, here are some recent news leads to ponder:

“Nearly 20 percent of the more than 2 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from mental health conditions, according to a new report.

“The Navy announced this week that more than 60,000 sailors will be required to spend more time on sea duty.”

“The Navy is considering lengthening the standard deployment of attack submarines beyond six months as it faces rising demands with a fleet that has been shrinking since the end of the Cold War, the commander of American submarine forces told The Associated Press in an interview.”

Ten years and counting into the longest military conflict in American history, a new poll by the Pew Research Center has produced two national surveys , one of military veterans and one of civilians, and they have produced very disturbing results:

  • Veterans, by 84%, said the American public had little or no understanding of the problems that those in the military face, and 71% of the public agreed. This is a “startling disconnect”.
  • Only fifty percent of veterans said Afghanistan was worth fighting and 41% of civilians agreed.

Like the rest of my generation, I grew up with the reality of the Cold War. The USSR was a genuine and imminent menace.

Atlas B ICBM (flight 4B)

ATLAS B ICBM, via Wikipedia

We came extremely close to a global nuclear holocaust with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Children practiced diving under their desks in case of a nuclear attack. People bought fall-out shelters for their backyards. Government went into emergency mode and financed an all-out Defense development that has never really waned since then. The U.S. designed and built a military industrial complex second to none, one that produced strategic bombers, fighters, ICBM’s, cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, the GPS system, and on and on.

Several significant and evolutionary events happened along the way. One of the things the U.S. Navy did was to institute previously-unheard-of 6-month deployments of ships to the 6th and 7th Fleets in the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific.  (This was different from WWII in which troops and sailors served “for the duration”.)  Another was the abandonment of the draft and the design of the all-volunteer military, one which was significantly more effective and better paid. Powered and justified by public fear, the Defense system took on a life of its own. Recognized by President Eisenhower as a financial danger to our society, the Military Industrial Complex still retains its momentum after all these years.

I am raising this question then, is this level of stress on our military and their families still justified?  What military threats does the nation now face? The so-called War on Terror is not really a war, as I previously posted in “On War”. While the government has killed or captured several hundred “terrorists”, they are for the most part a pitiful bunch of rag-tag underlings, typified by the shoe-bomber and the underwear bomber.  The Iraq and the Afghan wars, it can be argued, were unnecessary wars, but once engaged in such things it is politically inexpedient not to finish them. To its credit the Obama administration has committed to end the Afghan War and to continue the Bush administration’s initiative to draw down our forces in Iraq.

The USSR is of course, no more, and although nuclear-tipped missiles still exist in Russia, China and elsewhere, their threat appears to be well contained, most significantly deterred by our nuclear Trident missile submarines, a crowning technological achievement that the public now takes for granted. Russian submarines once presented a credible threat to these, but that fleet has now gone mostly to the scrap yard, and truth be known, they never were a match for the stealth, sensors and weapons of our Submarine Force, one which remains as strong as ever in its quality and powerful enough to completely destroy any other nation or bloc of nations on Earth.

The answer to the stress for ground combat forces must rely on the troop draw-downs now in progress. But what is driving the Navy to these lengths? One need is apparent, and that is the traditional advantage afforded by a floating force that is independent of foreign soil and political complications, a base from which attacks can be launched, thanks primarily to missile technology, anywhere in the world it is needed.

USS Louisville (SSN-724)

Image via Wikipedia

But this not an imminent need, it is a strategic need that should afford the time to plan it with reasonable consideration for affordability, both in cost and stress on people. The need to increase deployment time for attack submarines in particular is questionable. Attack subs, which by their nature must carry some torpedoes for self defense, can carry many fewer missiles than can surface ships. Their principal missions are intelligence, reconnaissance, support of small groups of special forces, and protection of our large surface ships. Without a major naval foe to defend against, all these are much smaller than the former major mission of ASW in the Cold War.

Based on my own career knowledge of submarines then, I can only conclude that this initiative to lengthen the times at sea is motivated by a competitive instinct to carry the same burdens and get the same budget attention as the other branches of the armed forces. Inter-service rivalry has always been a force both good and bad, unavoidable in any bureaucracy.

Our Armed Forces are being unnecessarily abused by time, circumstance and politics. I come to this sad conclusion reluctantly, and I hope someone can prove me wrong. But if veterans like myself don’t speak out, who else will? Certainly not the 71% of the public who freely admit that military life is strange to their experience, and certainly not Congress, less than 25% of whom ever served in any capacity, including in the Reserves.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Speaking Of War

  1. John Erickson says:

    Would it not make more sense to keep the attack subs “in business”, even at the cost of some of the “boomers”? I would think the need for a submarine-based deterrent is not as critical in these post-war days as is the need for protection, both for our shores and our vessels at sea. I could even make the case (not willingly, but possibly) of a deactivation of most of the SSBN fleet, since the chances of a large-scale full;-on nuclear war are rather slim these days, and any “rogue state” launching a missile or two at us could be easily smothered by both land-based missiles and air-launched systems.
    As to the “disconnect” of the people to the military, I can’t help but think part of it is the extreme secrecy that has cloaked the military from civilian eyes. Even at the height of the Cold War, I could go pretty much anywhere around the AFRES base at O’Hare with only a driver’s license, and large parts of the base were open for public exploration on Armed Forces Day. Today, (if the base were still active) you’d be met at the gate with drawn weapons, and civilians are carefully herded around selected areas of any field displaying aircraft or other military hardware. While I understand the nervousness brought about by incidents like the Times Square bomber-wannabe and the Fort Hood shootings, the military could be more open and welcoming to the civilian population. And the proponents of military spending could be a bit less harsh in their rhetoric, avoiding “us versus them” terminology when lobbying for (admittedly) scarce Federal funds.
    Though all those points are viewed through biased eyes, my being (as described elsewhere) a “military groupie”! 😀


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      John, neither I nor anyone else is advocating eliminating attack submarines, at least as far as I know. What is at issue is the mysterious need to extend deployments of these special assets away from their home ports for even greater than the six months which has become standard, but which I consider excessive. As for the SSBN’s, we only have 14 of them, not counting 4 large boats converted specially for cruise missiles. When you consider requirements for overhaul, maintenance and training, these can not be on station all the time. In fact, I’m guessing it’s half the time only, even with the two crews that each has.

      I too have thought about the reasons for the disconnect between the civilian population and the military and I really believe it has nothing to do with secrecy. Secrecy is way overdone in my opinion, as you might know, but I think the reason is simply the absence of a draft and the absence of any sense of danger from military attack. The secrecy and paranoia are, again IMO, the result of the explosion of bureaucracy enabled by 9/11 and weak leadership at the top after 9/11. The book, Top Secret America, makes the case in spades.

      Thanks for your detailed comments. I wish more people were as interested in the problem as you are.


  2. Jennifer Lockett says:

    I have taught a number of young men and women returning from duty in Iraq in Afghanistan. I always said that military students were the best to teach – always prepared, respectful, attentive, and appreciative. I second that they were under-valued and under-appreciated. Several of the men and women I met suffered from PTSD and often lamented that they didn’t receive much care and support (this got better later one).

    In terms of society as a whole not valuing our troops – I readily agree with that. My personal opinion is that unlike previous generations (WWII and Vietnam), we have no mandatory or obligatory service. At one point, *anyone* could be required to serve – there was a greater appreciation and understanding of the sacrifices entailed in military service. Now, we seem to have developed a ‘class’ notion of the military. As such, it’s easier to dismiss our obligation to them, their sacrifice, and needs.

    The call to eliminate their health care in favor of a spouse’s private insurance is criminal. I remember when there was a big push for that about two years ago – one of m students told me that if that happened, he and his wife were seriously considering a paper divorce (a ‘divorce of convenience’) as they couldn’t afford his medical bills on her insurance (he had severe PTSD – counseling, medication, evaluations, etc). Our troops get hurt defending our freedoms, we pay for it – seems like the fairest system in the whole world.


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To all

    Jim raises a huge point in the overall “direction” in his blog. Several blogs of some length would be needed to response with real substance. I will try to confine my comment ONLY to attack submarine deployments greater than six months in length.

    But before doing so, let me response to the idea of no more SSBNs, the nuclear ballistic missile carrying submarines designed primarily for strategic detterence against a nuclear attack. Are we in danger today of a single nuclear ballistic missile being used against the U.S. homeland? Tough question. But without strategic deterrence we stand a much greater chance of having such an attack, one “bomb” goind off over DC for example. Are land based, long range bombers (B-2s) or land based silos with nuclear missiles enough to make such deterrence credible? Maybe, probably yes. But once you “do away” with sea based deterrence, how long would it take to reconstitute such forces? Not only do the ships and men go away but the industrial base does so as well.

    Are you willing to take such risks today. Better think before you make such a decision, very, very carefully.

    Now attack submarines. They are NOT part of our strategic deterrent force structure EXCEPT they can quickly eliminate such a sea based force from ????, China maybe who is building and operating SSBNs as we speak.

    No, attack submarines are part of our SEA CONTOL force structure, like keeping the Straits of Hormuz open if Iran goes nuts. Put about 10 or so Iranian diesel subs in those Straits for long to sink anything “floating through there” and the world goes into a panic. By and large our attack submarines are the only credible force to prevent that from happening and for a long time you have not seen many Iranian submarines “lurking” outside of their own territorial waters.

    BUT it does NOT take a lot of attack submarines to create a “sea control deterrent”. Given a relatively small number of attack submarines we can patrol and counter “choke points” affecting sea control at various points around the globe.

    But we CANNOT do THAT, AND, send two or three attack submarines with every carrier battle group deployed today to protect those battle groups. THERE is your “overload” in my view today in attack submarine deployments.

    The SINGLE BIGGEST THREAT to an open ocean carrier battle group has now long been an enemy nuclear attack submarine. During the Cold War, ONE such Soviet nuclear submarine in the Med for example could raise hell with ANY carrier battle groups ANYWHERE in the Med, or Westerm Pacific open ocean or……

    Well how many open ocean nuclear submarines operate today coming from “potential enemy home ports”. Zero as far as I know unless China is becoming more active in that regard. Do we have U. S. nuclear subs “lurking” off Chinese submarine homeports today to see what is happening. I bet we do, at least one or two at any given moment in time. We used to have 5 or 10 such U. S. submarines, there, going or coming from such deployments during the Cold War off Soviet home ports in the Baltic and Westerm Pacific. And we always had several U. S. nukes in the Med as well keeping tabs on deployed Soviet nucs in that stratigic location as well.

    Keep up that kind of “forward presense” by American nuke attack submarines, maybe 10 or 15 acutally forwarded deployed at all time during the Cold War and you need a force structure of about 100 attack submarines to keep up the pace with six month deployments which were routine during the Cold War. The goal for such crews was 50% of the time any crew would be in their own “homeport” . But they were still “working” while at “home” getting the ship maintained and trained for another deployment down the line. Tough job for sure and not a lot of men could take that pace for a career nor could their families.

    The solution for the current deployment problems with American attack submarines is to stop trying to cover all the bases that we used to cover. An attack submarine should be deployed against known threats TODAY, which protection of carrier battle groups from “enemy nukes” is NOT an issue today.

    If I was “incharge” of American attack subs today I would be saying NO time and time again when someone asked me to “stend a nuke” to them for////////. I would hold sacrosanct the six month deployment cycle by saying NO to additional dleployments. But stop maintaining a core base of attack and SSBN American submarines. No way. The risk is too great, today and tomorrow and once we “give up that base” we will NeVER reconstitute it for DECADES.

    Consider “mothballing” Electric Boat in Groton where almost all subs are constructed today. How much time and money would it take to bring it back on line and where would you find the “engineeris” and skilled labor to do so in the future, much less finding the other men to go to sea to operate such ships?

    We had best eliminate, entirely, nuclear weapons around the world before we take that chance for future generations. THEN and only then would I give up all of our “nukes” (submarines or weapons or carrier battle groups for that matter). Sea Control and the ability to project power from the Seas has ALWAYS been an American defense priority, always. I would disband the entire American army before I gave that strategic posture away.

    We can reconstitute an Army with a draft a helluva lot faster than we can do so with a navy. And any threat to the American homeland MUST come from on, over or under the seas around us except for Mexico and Canada. That my friends is truly our last line of defense unless you want to just fall back to our beaches!!! Lincoln said and I agree, we will never have to worry about that threat against our beaches. We will collapse from within before that happens.


    PS: Jennifer. I has taken me a long time to diagnose myself, but I believe today that I “suffer” from PTSD (by modern terms) JUST from my time at USNA, the four most miserable years of my life and with dreams from those years taht still affect my sleep. But I don’t need any therapy to “help” me either. But again such views would take servarl blogs to explain in any detail and would be far too “personal” to go into such detail. But I also think that Jim knows about which I “hint” in such regards as well. Most USNA grads that I have met “suffer” from some “shadows” from that difficult time in their lives. And THAT is JUST a college, a tough one but still…..!


  4. sekanblogger says:

    The stress of repeated deployments has to be overwhelming.
    I can’t imagine suffering the horrors of ground combat, then returning to civilian life with another deployment already scheduled. Just the anticipation would be more than most people could live through without suffering some mental anguish.
    This conflict needs to end for many reasons, and the welfare of those fighting is paramount.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ sekanblogger,

      Right. I can vividly recall the exquisite agony of family separation during back-to-back WestPac deployments in 1969-1970. Our sons were still pre-teens then. In those days there was no email, nor satellite video, only snail mail and queuing up for land lines when in some ports. Still, I was on a heavy cruiser then and not dodging bullets and shrapnel, not seeing the bodies that our shore bombardment produced.

      Human beings can endure a lot of stress, but time intensifies it until eventually it is disabling.


  5. ansonburlingame says:


    Your reaction to long deployments is very “American”, particularly liberal American in tone and you have every right to that view. To a degree I share your concern but do not turn “anti-war: in doing so.

    Today’s American military is the finest war fighting “machine” seen in the world since the Roman Empire of very long ago. NOTHING could stand against Rome. That empire simply overhwhelmed any resistance with raw military power personified by Roman Legions. Rome also did not conern itself with terrorists to any degree as well. They crucified them.

    I would suggest today the same applies to American military power, including nuclear military power. No country or region can withstand the onslaught of such power if it is truly unleashed. Simply stated the American military establishment KNOWs how to fight a war.

    Yet we now lose wars all the time today.

    It is the POLITICS of war that is not understood today in America and that alone causes now multiple loses in wars, Vietnam, Afghanistan and maybe Iraq as only examples. We could add in Somalia, the Balkans etc as well.

    America cannot fight, in fact does not know how to fight a ten year war. But a short war like the First Gulf War we know quite well how to fight such a conflict. it is called the Powell doctrine and when applied correctly it worked, once. But since then we have left that doctrine in the wake of our war machine as well and we are on a path to now dismantle that war machine in a dangerous world, just like Rome ultimately did so. But it took Rome about 600 years to do it. We are going to do it in after about 50 years of trying to be the world’s policeman, which Rome certainly was for about 600 years. And then we encountered the Dark Ages.

    You metaphoically “gape in awe” at a 15 month wartime deployment today for troops in Afghanistan. My long dead now father in law had a 3 YEAR war time deployment and did not see his first child for all those years. But he and many others “did it” and won the war. Go watch Band of Brothers.

    Our warfighting expertise is unquestioned today. But the politics of war is terrible in America today and has been for decades now. And we keep on losing wars because of those politics which are driven by liberal sentiments, legitimate liberal sentiments today. Go read my blog RESTREPO if you want more detali on such ideas from me.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.