Russia’s shot across the bow

A Russian Akula-class cruise-missile attack submarine recently transited the  North Atlantic and operated undetected in the Gulf of Mexico for an undeclared  period of time. The United States did not find out until after it left. This  should not have come as a surprise.

The naval resources we once had that implemented the Navy’s Maritime Strategy, a major factor in winning the  Cold War, have been decimated. President Reagan’s 600-ship Navy has been allowed to atrophy to about 285 ships. To  put that number in perspective, that is approximately the number of ships I had  under my command of the Pacific Fleet. With the current anemic shipbuilding plan  forced on the Navy by the Obama  administration’s drastic budget cuts, we are headed for the smallest Navy since World War I.

The argument that our ships are so much more capable today that we don’t need  as many is pure nonsense. The world hasn’t shrunk. If an objective look is taken  at the realigned geographic boundaries assigned our combat commanders (COCOMs)  as a result of Sept. 11, 2001, it should become clear how a Russian Akula  submarine can transit the North Atlantic and operate in the Gulf of Mexico  undetected.

The Atlantic Ocean is divided up into four sectors, with responsibility  shared by four COCOMs — U.S. European  Command, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Southern Command, and U.S.  African Command. Previously, the Atlantic was under a single U.S.  Atlantic Command, with the commander of the U.S. 2nd Fleet as both the  operational commander and the NATO  Striking Fleet commander. That command has been disbanded. Today, the U.S.  Northern Command, with headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., carries that  responsibility with U.S. Fleet Forces  Command as its naval component commander based in Norfolk, Va.

While it is quite possible that two-thirds of the Akula’s transit took place  in the European Command’s area of  supervision, that should give no comfort because that command lacks the naval  resources to carry out its responsibility. In a recent conversation with me, a  former commander of the Northern  Command expressed the same sentiments. He never had the naval resources to  carry out his duties.

The undetected Akula cruise-missile submarine deployment is compounded by the  fact that Iran already has established missile bases  in Venezuela that can reach a number of  American cities. In his best appeasement rhetoric, President Obama has stated  that he does not think “what Hugo Chavez has  done in the last several years has had a serious national security impact on  us.” I doubt the American cities that are within range of those Iranian missiles  would share that view, particularly if they understood the seriousness of our  vulnerability.

What Iran is doing in Venezuela  today is what the Soviet Union tried to do  in Cuba in 1962. The principles of the Monroe  Doctrine prevailed then under the leadership of President Kennedy, backed up by  a massive deployment of naval ships to impose a quarantine around Cuba.  Our national security was preserved by having the Soviets withdraw their  missiles from Cuba. Nothing less is acceptable  today. When the 4th Fleet, the naval component for the U.S.  Southern Command, states that its most pressing security issue is crime, we  have a problem. If there is no implementation of the Monroe Doctrine to force  the removal of the Iranian missiles from Venezuela, rest assured that longer-range Iranian  missiles will find their way there, putting more American cities at risk.

With the current impasse over the Iranian nuclear weapons program, a U.S. or  Israeli military strike becomes a real possibility to eliminate Iran’s  nuclear infrastructure. In such a scenario, Iranian missiles remaining in Venezuela clearly are unacceptable. If the Monroe  Doctrine is not invoked to remove them, they must be destroyed. Furthermore, we  must expedite plans to provide defensive coverage of our exposed southern flank  on an expedited basis with an Aegis anti-ballistic-missile system, which can be  a combination of land- and sea-based systems.

Russia’s assertive Akula deployment follows a  June exercise of its strategic bombers and support aircraft in the Arctic,  simulating strikes against Alaska. Then in July, a Russian Bear H strategic  bomber most likely simulated strikes against California from the Gulf of Alaska.  It was intercepted before, hopefully, it was able reach its simulated  missile-launch position. The questionable new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty  (START) with Russia requires 14-day advance  notification when such bomber exercises are conducted. No notification was  given. This requirement creates a false sense of security because it certainly  could be used for deceptive purposes. As a commander, you always want to retain  the initiative and thereby keep your potential enemies off balance. You want to  remain unpredictable. In that way, you raise the level of deterrence.

So much for the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia. That nation clearly has been  given new marching orders by its recently inaugurated President Vladimir Putin  at a time when our national leadership is perceived to be weak. Social  engineering imposed on our military by the administration has not enhanced our military  capabilities. Our military has been involved in two wars over the past decade  and has been run hard and put away wet.

These factors, when combined with looming, draconian budget cuts, will weaken  our military capabilities and our ability to deter aggression. Our potential  enemies see these growing weaknesses as opportunities to be exploited. There is  no question that we are being challenged.

Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific  Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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