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.