Not to Worry
A pair of Russian Akula-class attack subs are currently patrolling off the eastern seaboard, but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff isn't particularly concerned.
Admiral Mike Mullen tells the Washington Times that the submarine deployment does not represent a resurgence of the Cold War:
"I don't consider it a resurgence of the Cold War piece," Adm. Mullen said of reports of Russian submarines off the Atlantic coast. "I'm not alarmed by it. I'm very mindful of it and keeping an eye on it."
Two Russian nuclear submarines have been spotted in recent days. They have not crossed into U.S. territory, which extends 12 miles from shore.
When asked why Russians would do this, Admiral Mullen replied: "Some of this is to show that [Russia] can."
He said Russia is clearly invested in their strategic forces and any global power does a certain amount of investment to sustain their own needs.
In a conversation with reporters and editors at the paper, Mullen said that U.S. military officials have worked "diligently" to improve communications with their Russian counterparts. The JCS Chairman stated that he remains in contact with a number of Russian military officials, including armed forces Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn.
But apparently, there are limits to that relationship. While Moscow did not inform the United States about the submarine patrol (hardly unexpected), it was a departure from last year's highly-publicized deployment of Russian naval vessels to Venezuela. According to Admiral Mullen, Russia's Defense Ministry notified him, in advance, of plans to send the ships to South America.
Unwittingly, Mullen's attempt at reassurance acutally highlights growing shortfalls in U.S. defense capabilities. Since the end of the Cold War, our anti-submarine warfare (ASW) have declined dramatically. In an essay published last September's edition of Armed Forces Journal, Professor Milan Vegon noted that the Navy's approach to ASW has devolved into a "purely tactical and technological approach to the mission. At the same time, the number of anti-submarine platforms continued to decline, and those that survived were given additional assignments, most of which had nothing to do with their core mission. As he wrote:
Attack submarines are the Navy’s principal ASW platforms. They can also carry out other missions, such as covert surveillance/reconnaissance, anti-surface warfare, offensive mining, strikes against land targets and insertion of Special Forces teams. By the end of fiscal 2007, the attack submarine force stood at 53 boats: 47 Los Angeles-class subs and three each of the Seawolf and Virginia classes.
The number of land-based Navy maritime patrol aircraft has been steadily reduced since 1991. Today, the Navy can deploy only three P-3C squadrons with a total of 24 aircraft. The average age of the P-3Cs is approaching 28 years and some aircraft are more than 40 years old.
The P-3’s replacement, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon multimission maritime aircraft, will carry out ASW, anti-surface warfare, and broad area maritime and littoral armed surveillance. The first P-8As are scheduled to enter service in 2013, with the last P-3C replaced in 2019. The Navy will have no more than 50 P-8s to do the job formerly done by 200 P-3Cs.
As for ASW from aircraft carriers, in 2004 the Navy began retiring its S-3B Vikings after changing their primary mission to anti-surface warfare. The last S-3B is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2010. There are no plans to replace the S-3B with a new aircraft dedicated to long-range ASW missions from carriers. That will further weaken the Navy’s already inadequate ASW broad-area surveillance.
In response, the Navy would say that its current ASW forces are adequate, given the decrease in the number of submarines deployed around the world. But the boats that remain are much more capable, and pose a greater threat, to naval forces, merchant fleets, seaports and shore installations, particularly in forward areas.
And perhaps, here at home. Given Hugo Chavez's fondness for Russian weaponry, it wouldn't surprise us to see advanced diesel-electric boats eventually show up in Venezuela. Or, if he really wants to take the plunge, Mr. Chavez could follow the lead of India, which leased a Charlie-class attack boat from Moscow in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and launched its first, indigenously-produced nuclear sub last month. Armed with cruise missiles, a nuclear sub (or a diesel-electric model) could threaten the Panama Canal, or even portions of the CONUS.
There's also the matter of China, which is rapidly expanding its sub fleet and moving toward a true, blue-water capability. Beijing's cruise missile subs and ballistic missile boats already pose a growing threat to U.S. possessions in the Pacific, and their ability to strike the homeland will improve substantially over the next decade.
Meanwhile, other elements of our military--those assigned to defend against aerial threats to the homeland (including cruise missiles) have taken hits as well. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office notes that the Air Force has not yet implemented the 140 actions required to make Air Sovereignty Alert (ASA) a "steady state" mission, one that is continuously maintained at prescribed levels.
One reason? The USAF has been pre-occupied with other tasking, including combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the ASA mission faces other problems, most notably a drop in the number of available fighter aircraft. The Air National Guard (which handles the air defense mission) is retiring older F-15 and F-16 airframes, and there's nothing in the pipeline to replace them. In fact, the GAO warns that 11 of the 18 ASA alert sites could be without aircraft by 2020, if current fighters are not replaced (emphasis ours).
Apparently, Admiral Mullen didn't mention these disturbing trends in his conversation with the Times. In the interim, perhaps the JCS chairman will keep working on those vaunted channels of communication. That way, the Russians will call before their next sub deployment to the east coast, and terrorists will notify us of plans hijack airliners and fly them into U.S. targets.
Not much of a strategy, but it's a lot cheaper than rebuilding our ASW capabilities, or replacing those aging air defense fighters.