Trump’s military nostalgia (or victory at sea all over again)

If you are an American male of a certain age – Donald Trump’s age, to be exact – you are likely to have vivid memories of Victory at Sea, the Emmy award-winning NBC documentary series about the U.S. Navy in World War II that aired from October 1952 to May 1953. One of the first extended documentaries of its type, Victory at Sea traced the Navy’s triumphal journey from the humiliation of Pearl Harbor to the great victories at Midway and Leyte Gulf in the Pacific and finally to Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Drawing on archival footage (all in black and white, of course) and featuring a majestic sound track composed by Richard Rogers of Broadway musical fame, the series enjoyed immense popularity. For many young people of that time, it was the most compelling, graphic imagery available about the epic war our fathers, uncles, and classmates’ dads had fought in.

Why do I mention this? Because I’m convinced that President Trump’s talk of rebuilding the U.S. military and “winning wars again” has been deeply influenced by the kind of iconography that was commonplace in Victory at Sea and the war movies of his youth. Consider his comments on February 27th, when announcing that he would request an extra $54 billion annually in additional military spending. “We have to start winning wars again,” he declared. “I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war, remember?”

Now, recall that when Trump was growing up, the United States was not winning wars – except on the TV screen and in Hollywood. In the early 1950s, when Victory at Sea was aired, America was being fought to a standstill in Korea and just beginning the long, slow descent into the Vietnam quagmire. But if, like Trump, you ignored what was happening in those places and managed to evade service in Vietnam, your image of war was largely shaped by the screen, where it was essentially true that “we never lost a war, remember?”

Trump similarly echoed themes from Victory at Sea on March 2nd in a speech aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, America’s newest aircraft carrier. There, clearly relishing the opportunity to don a Navy bomber jacket – “They said, here, Mr. President, please take this home, he quipped happily. “I said, let me wear it” – he extolled the carrier fleet. “We are standing today,” he commented stirringly, “on 4.5 acres of combat power and sovereign U.S. territory, the likes of which there is nothing to compete.” Then, as part of a proposed massive build-up of the Navy, he called on the country to fund an enormously expensive 12th carrier on a planet on which no other country has more than two in service (and that country, Italy, is an ally).

The new president went on to discuss the role of U.S. aircraft carriers in World War II – yes, World War II! – a key turning point in the naval war against Japan. “You’ve all known about the Battle of Midway, where the sailors of the U.S. Navy fought with the bravery that will be remembered throughout the ages,” he noted. “Many brave Americans died that day, and, through their sacrifice, they turned the tide of the Pacific War. It was a tough tide, it was a big tide, it was a vicious tide, and they turned it.”

Again, Donald Trump (not exactly a well-read military historian) undoubtedly was recalling parts of Victory at Sea, or perhaps Hollywood’s 1976 version of the same, Midway (with its all-star cast of Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, and Cliff Robertson, among others). Both portrayed the famous battle in exactly this fashion: as the “turning of the tide” in the war against Japan. Yes, a speechwriter probably penned Trump’s lines, but they were spoken with such gusto that you could feel how heartfelt they were, how much they reflected his imagined “experience” of that war.

Trump’s attachment to these “memories” of America’s glory days at war helps explain his approach to military policy and defense funding. Typically, when proposing major increase in military spending, American presidents and their secretaries of defense have articulated grand strategic reasons for doing so – to contain Soviet expansionism, say, or accelerate the global war on terror. Trump’s White House doesn’t bother with such rationales.

Other than speeding up the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, a war launched two and a half years ago by President Obama and now apparently nearing its official completion date, President Trump’s only justification for throwing tens of billions of dollars more at the Pentagon is to overcome a supposed deterioration of U.S. military capabilities and to enable the Armed Forces to start “winning wars again.” Otherwise, the rationale seems to boil down to something like the following: let’s rebuild the Navy that defeated Japan in World War II so that we can win battles like Midway all over again.

Trump’s naval fixation

During election 2016, Donald Trump’s only extended statement on defense policy came in a campaign speech delivered in Philadelphia on September 7th. He began with his promise that, if elected, “I will ask my generals to present to me a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS.” (Those actual options, delivered by “his” generals more like 40 days into his term, seem to involve a modest strengthening of already existing Obama-era plans for crushing the Islamic State’s main strongholds in Iraq and Syria.) He also reiterated his campaign tropes that “immigration security is a vital part of our national security” and that NATO members must contribute more to the common defense. Then he began speaking in more concrete terms about his plans for repairing the U.S. military and his fixation on naval strength quickly came to the fore.

He first chastised the Obama administration for allowing the Navy to shrink to “the smallest it has been since 1915.” When Ronald Reagan left office, he continued, “our Navy had 592 ships.  When Barack Obama took office, it had 285 ships.  Today, the Navy has just 276 ships.”

Now, it’s possible to quibble about the importance of numbers versus quality, though most naval professionals would say that today’s fleet of advanced carriers, cruisers, and submarines (many of them nuclear-powered) packs a far greater punch than the larger but less capable Navy of the Reagan era. Still, the key point here is Trump’s obsession with size. Admittedly, he also spoke about the deterioration of the Army and the Air Force, but in that speech in Philadelphia he almost obsessively kept returning to the size of the Navy. Once elected, he promised, he would ask Congress to eliminate the defense sequester, an automatic cap on military spending, and pony up massive additional funds to rebuild the military, with the Navy getting preference in the allocation of those funds. “We will build a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines,” he insisted. No strategic rationale was provided for that increase of 74 ships, save the intimidating effect they might have on potential adversaries. “We want to deter, avoid, and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength,” he asserted.

Trump returned to these themes in his remarks aboard the Gerald R. Ford. “Our Navy is now the smallest it’s been since, believe it or not, World War I,” he declared, again ignoring the fact that no naval officer in their right mind would trade today’s fleet for the 1918 one. “Don’t worry,” he continued, “it’s going to soon be the largest it’s been. Don’t worry. Think of that. Think of that.”

He then went on to extol the virtues of aircraft carriers in particular before plugging for number 12.  “Our carriers are the centerpiece of American military might overseas,” he exclaimed. “This carrier and the new ships in the Ford class will expand the ability of our nation to carry out vital missions on the oceans to project American power in distant lands. Hopefully, it’s power we don’t have to use, but if we do, they’re in big, big trouble.”

Trump did not bother to say who “they” are because that’s not the point. Once America’s expanded carrier fleet is roaming the high seas, no foreign power would be foolhardy enough to challenge the United States in a conventional military duel, or so the Trumpian logic evidently goes. “There is no competition to this ship,” he said of the Gerald R. Ford, which, once launched, will be America’s 11th carrier. “It is a monument to American might that will provide the strength necessary to ensure peace.”

A strategy for victory – in last-century wars

While touring the Ford, Trump insisted yet again that the goal of his multibillion-dollar defense buildup is to ensure the military’s success in future wars. “We will give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing – you know what that is? Win! Win! We’re going to start winning again.”

But what kind of wars does he have in mind? Trump often speaks of his determination to defeat ISIS and other “radical Islamic terrorists” as his primary strategic objective. But it’s hard to see how an increase in the Navy’s fleet from 276 to 350 ships could possibly contribute to that endeavor. True, aircraft carriers are already being used to mount airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria, but they are hardly essential for that purpose as the U.S. can use air bases in neighboring countries to conduct such strikes.  Most other U.S. warships – cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and the like – have had little or no role to play in the counterterror operations of the last 15 years (except on rare occasions as temporary prisons for terror suspects).

Trump also aims to acquire more combat planes and to form additional Army combat brigades, but again such assets are unlikely to be crucial to the defeat of ISIS or other terrorist groups, though the new administration is now sending small numbers of conventional troops into Syria in addition to Special Operations forces. Given America’s painful experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade and a half, there is visibly little appetite among the American public for the deployment of significant U.S. ground contingents in extended conflicts across the Greater Middle East or North Africa, and President Trump has made it clear that he will respect that preference. Accordingly, no matter how much he may decry President Obama’s methods, he appears inclined at the moment to merely bolster and accelerate his predecessor’s reliance on drone strikes, special ops forces, and proxy forces like Kurdish and Syrian rebel groups to combat ISIS and other terrorist organizations. No 12th aircraft carrier is needed to pursue such goals.

Nor is the weaponry on Trump’s wish list, including advanced bombers and submarines, needed to ensure success, for instance, in that unique post-modern form of combat, the kind of hybrid warfare that’s been perfected by the Russians in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and now Syria. Combining conventional and unconventional modes of combat along with cyberwar, propaganda, and psychological warfare, hybrid operations have proven successful indeed in situations where the Russians have sought to achieve localized victories without precipitating intervention by the major powers. To counter such operations, the U.S. and its allies would have to become far more adept at detecting these unconventional modes of attack and rendering them harmless. No doubt some specialized new capabilities would be needed for this purpose, but it is unlikely that aircraft carriers and much of the rest of Trump’s wish list will have any significant role to play.

What about a war with a “rogue state” like North Korea or even Iran? These countries could, of course, pose a significant threat to their neighbors or even, to a lesser extent, to any American forces stationed in their vicinity. But in both cases, their conventional forces are mainly equipped with tanks and planes several generations older and less sophisticated than those in the U.S. arsenal and would not survive any encounter with the American military. The United States can also rely on allies with advanced weapons of their own to assist in any conflict with these countries.

There is, of course, the peril of nuclear proliferation. Fortunately, the 2015 nuclear accord that the Obama administration helped broker with Iran (plus Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union) eliminates any such threat from that country for the time being. Were President Trump to scrap the deal, as he suggested during the election campaign, this would only put U.S. allies and forces at greater risk. North Korea, of course, already possesses nuclear weapons and Trump will somehow have to find a strategy for mitigating that danger, but building more big ships and the like won’t be it.

What good, then, is our new president’s vast program to pump up the U.S. military with yet more ships, planes, and troops paid for, in part, by cuts to domestic programs that actually do provide Americans with genuine “security”? What wars will they “win”?

Their only real utility would be in a classic twentieth century conventional contest with a major power along the lines of the anti-German and anti-Japanese campaigns of World War II. In other words, as with so much else in his program to “make America great again,” the important word is again and the key frame of reference is the America of the 1950s. President Trump, like candidate Trump, clearly wants to plunge the country once again into a version of Victory at Sea, perhaps with the D-Day landing at Normandy thrown in.

If you happen to believe that either China or Russia, with its significantly more modest forces (each has a single aircraft carrier in operation), would be prepared to launch a new Pearl Harbor against the U.S. or its allies and then bring to bear what ships and planes are at its disposal (ignoring, of course, the world-ending nuclear arsenals all three countries possess), then count on the U.S. military, with an extra $54 billion in its pocket (or even without it), to have a definite combat advantage.

However, the leaderships of China and Russia would have to be stark raving mad to take such a course of action. Their militaries are instead developing “asymmetrical” modes of warfare intended to eliminate some U.S. advantages in conventional firepower in any future regional clash, including a heavy reliance on attack submarines, anti-ship missiles, and (in Russia’s case) tactical nuclear weapons.  They know – who wouldn’t? – that they could never win another World War II-like encounter with the U.S. military and so aren’t even thinking about preparing for one. They know that victory in tomorrow’s wars, whatever that may mean, will require a whole new toolkit and playbook.

The one key figure who doesn’t seem to grasp this is, not surprisingly, Donald J. Trump. For him, Victory at Sea still seems to define the global battlespace, and the goal of any major power is still to possess sufficient air and sea power to vanquish a rival in a World War II-like clash of heavy metal. He reminds me of someone stuck in the age of the dreadnoughts, those giant battleships of the pre-World War I era, heading into World War II. More than anything else, though, I imagine him as an avid fan of the board game “Battleship,” a favorite pastime for teenagers in his schoolboy years. Sink enough enemy ships, the game taught you, and victory is yours. (“Win! Win! We’re going to start winning again.”)

The problem with all this, of course, is that it is exceedingly dangerous to impose fantasies of World War II on the realities of tomorrow’s battlefields. The pursuit of victory in fantasy wars via the building of elaborate weapons systems won’t just leave the U.S. unprepared for real threats like hybrid warfare and strain the country’s finances; it might also help trigger a heavy metal response, both excessive and inappropriate, as well as deeply dangerous in a nuclear age, to a minor challenge or even perceived challenge by a rival power – say, China in the South China Sea.

End the U.S. policy of perpetual war:

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250 protestors demand Enbridge pipeline shutdown over concerns of Great Lakes oil spill

Officials from Enbridge Energy Partners insisted on the structural safety of its 64-year-old pipelines that passes under the Straits of Mackinac even though a company-commissioned study found that the lines’ protective coating has deteriorated in some areas.

“I believe this pipeline is in as good of condition as it was on the day it was installed,” Enbridge’s director of integrity programs Kurt Baraniecki said at a Pipeline Safety Advisory Board meeting in Lansing, Michigan on Monday.

But the 250 protestors who showed up to the meeting responded to the comments with “derisive howls and laughter,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

The meeting was centered around the Canadian oil transport company’s heavily contested Enbridge Line 5 that lies just west of the Mackinac Bridge and carries roughly 23 million gallons of crude oil and liquid natural gas each day.

Built in 1953, the 645-mile, 30-inch-diameter pipeline runs from Superior, Wisconsin, across Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas before terminating in Ontario, Canada. As it travels under the Straits of Mackinac, a narrow waterway that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, Line 5 splits into twin 20-inch-diameter, parallel pipelines.

The straits’ strong currents reverse direction every few days and a spill would quickly contaminate shoreline communities miles away, a University of Michigan study commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation found.

Not only that, opponents cite Enbridge’s numerous and well-documented spills. The company was responsible for more than 800 spills between 1999 and 2010, totaling 6.8 million gallons of spilled oil. Most notoriously in 2010, an Enbridge line spilled more than 800,000 gallons into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan – creating the biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

A protestor named Fred Harrington and his 8-year-old grandson Riley Sargent of Petoskey showed up to the meeting covered in brown cake batter to make a point.

“We wanted show you what the birds will look like, what the fish will look like, what the shoreline will look like if that pipeline breaks,” Harrington said at the meeting. “If we continue to let it run and run and run year after year, it will break.”

Last September, Enbridge filed a work plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifying 18 “holidays” on Line 5 – an oil and gas industry term that refers to areas on a pipeline where anti-corrosive coating is missing

But Baraniecki, the company’s integrity programs director, said at the meeting that the report used imprecise language.

As the Detroit Free Press reported:

What was actually identified on the underwater pipes were 18 locations where an outer, glass-fiber coating has come off that doesn’t provide corrosion protection, he said.

Referring to those spots as holidays, exposed areas of pipe, in the company’s Biota Investigation Work Plan “was incorrect,” he said.

“The consultants had generalized this,” Baraniecki said. “These were locations we have identified that could potentially have coating holidays.”

But opponents are calling foul on the oil company’s claims.

“Enbridge began by saying Line 5 is as good as the day it was constructed 64 years ago. Then they went on to admit the protective coatings are peeling off while saying it really doesn’t matter,” David Holtz, executive committee chair of the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club, told EcoWatch.

“This is the same company that claimed their pipeline 6B near Marshall Michigan was safe just weeks before it ruptured more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River,” Holtz continued.

Environmental advocates are also calling on Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette to decommission the line.

“Oil pipelines don’t belong in the Great Lakes and the governor needs to begin the process now to decommission Line 5 before there’s a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes,” Holtz said.

The Pipeline Safety Advisory Board is expecting reports from two independent contractors by June. The contractors will assess worst-case-scenarios from a Straits pipeline leak and analyze safer alternatives to transport oil and gas around the Great Lakes.

Holtz said that the Sierra Club plans to continue citizen pressure on Gov. Snyder and AG Schuette as the state prepares for public comment on the reports.

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Trump’s defense secretary cites climate change as national security challenge

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has asserted that climate change is real, and a threat to American interests abroad and the Pentagon’s assets everywhere, a position that appears at odds with the views of the president who appointed him and many in the administration in which he serves.

In unpublished written testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee after his confirmation hearing in January, Mattis said it was incumbent on the U.S. military to consider how changes like open-water routes in the thawing Arctic and drought in global trouble spots can pose challenges for troops and defense planners. He also stressed this is a real-time issue, not some distant what-if.

“Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” Mattis said in written answers to questions posed after the public hearing by Democratic members of the committee. “It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.”

Mattis has long espoused the position that the armed forces, for a host of reasons, need to cut dependence on fossil fuels and explore renewable energy where it makes sense. He had also, as commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in 2010, signed off on the Joint Operating Environment, which lists climate change as one of the security threats the military expected to confront over the next 25 years.

But Mattis’ written statements to the Senate committee are the first direct signal of his determination to recognize climate change as a member of the Trump administration charged with leading the country’s armed forces.

These remarks and others in the replies to senators could be a fresh indication of divisions or uncertainty within President Donald Trump’s administration over how to balance the president’s desire to keep campaign pledges to kill Obama-era climate policies with the need to engage constructively with allies for whom climate has become a vital security issue.

Mattis’ statements on climate change, for instance, recognize the same body of science that Scott Pruitt, the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, seems dead-set on rejecting. In a CNBC interview last Thursday, Pruitt rejected established science pointing to carbon dioxide as the main driver of recent global warming.

Mattis’ position also would appear to clash with some Trump administration budget plans, which, according to documents leaked recently to The Washington Post, include big cuts for the Commerce Department’s oceanic and atmospheric research — much of it focused on tracking and understanding climate change.

Even setting aside warming driven by accumulating carbon dioxide, it’s clear to a host of experts, including Dr. Will Happer, a Princeton physicist interviewed by Trump in January as a potential science adviser, that better monitoring and analysis of extreme conditions like drought is vital.

Mattis’ statements could hearten world leaders who have urged the Trump administration to remain engaged on addressing global warming. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to meet Trump on Friday.

Security questions related to rising seas and changing weather patterns in global trouble spots like the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa are one reason that global warming has become a focus in international diplomatic forums. On March 10, the United Nations Security Council was warned of imminent risk of famine in Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan.

As well, at a Munich meeting on international security issues last month, attended by Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, European officials pushed back on demands that they spend more on defense, saying their investments in boosting resilience to climate hazards in poor regions of the world are as valuable to maintaining security as strong military forces.

“[Y]ou need the European Union, because when you invest in development, when you invest in the fight against climate change, you also invest in our own security,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a panel discussion.

Concerns about the implications of global warming for national security have built within the Pentagon and national security circles for decades, including under both Bush administrations.

In September, acting on the basis of a National Intelligence Council report he commissioned, President Obama ordered more than a dozen federal agencies and offices, including the Defense Department, “to ensure that climate change-related impacts are fully considered in the development of national security doctrine, policies, and plans.”

A related “action plan” was issued on Dec. 23, requiring those agencies to create a Climate and National Security Working Group within 60 days, and for relevant agencies to create “implementation plans” in that same period.

There’s no sign that any of this has been done.

Whether the inaction is a function of the widespread gaps in political appointments at relevant agencies, institutional inertia or a policy directive from the Trump White House remains unclear.

Queries to press offices at the White House and half a dozen of the involved agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense, Department of Energy and Commerce Department — have not been answered. A State Department spokeswoman directed questions to the National Security Council and the White House, writing:

“We refer you to the NSC for any additional information on the climate working group.”

Mattis’ statements were submitted through a common practice at confirmation hearings in which senators pose “questions for the record” seeking more detail on a nominee’s stance on some issue.

The questions and answers spanned an array of issues, but five Democratic senators on the committee asked about climate change, according to a government official briefed in detail on the resulting 58-page document with the answers. The senators were Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Excerpts from Mattis’ written comments to the committee were in material provided to ProPublica by someone involved with coordinating efforts on climate change preparedness across more than a dozen government agencies, including the Defense Department. Senate staff confirmed their authenticity.

Dustin Walker, communications director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said responses to individual senators’ follow-up questions are theirs to publish or not.

Here are two of the climate questions from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, with Mattis’ replies:

Shaheen: “I understand that while you were commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command you signed off on a document called the Joint Operating Environment, which listed climate change as one of the security threats the military will face in the next quarter-century. Do you believe climate change is a security threat?”

Mattis: “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”

Shaheen: “General Mattis, how should the military prepare to address this threat?”

Mattis: “As I noted above, climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of government response. If confirmed, I will ensure that the Department of Defense plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects.”

In a reply to another question, Mattis said:

“I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Here’s some recommended reading for those seeking more depth:

Here’s How U.S. Allies Are Trying to Convince Trump To Take Climate Change Seriously

UN Dispatch, Feb. 22, 2017, by John Light

Mattis on Military Energy Strategy

New America, Jan. 13, 2017, by Sharon Burke

Climate and Security Advisory Group: Briefing Book for a New Administration

The Center for Climate and Security, Nov. 14, 2017

(The Center for Climate and Security also has a helpful chronology of U.S. defense and intelligence output on these intertwined issues.)

A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks

A 2015 report commissioned by the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven

The National Security Case for Funding the EPA

The Hill (opinion), March 11, 2017, by Sherri Goodman (a deputy undersecretary of defense from 1993 to 2001)

Also, I ran a discussion on the subject at the Washington offices of the Hoover Institution last month with retired Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, who was chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011; Alice Hill, who directed work on the intersection of climate and national security policy at the National Security Council during the Obama administration; and David Slayton, a retired Navy officer who is now at Hoover tracking Arctic security and energy policy. Watch the video.

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