The Navy’s senior submariner breaks down the present and future of underwater war games.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
The highest authority on America’s deepest weapons steered his ship into Monterey last week to deliver the keynote at a Naval Postgraduate School Submariners’ Ball. During the visit, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, number-two man in the Navy as vice chief of naval operations and the highest-ranking submariner in the sea – though his post docks him at the Pentagon – sat down for an exclusive interview with the Weekly to talk everything from sneaky recon to China’s military machinations.
The trip that brings you here also takes you to bases in Hawaii and San Diego, among others, to visit “family readiness” centers. How is the Navy doing on that front?
The family readiness programs we have, we’ve had for a long time. I am talking about childcare, bachelor support, moral welfare, recreation programs, but also counseling sessions, stress reduction – which has become much more important – and counseling for finance, child advocacy, sexual assault.
Over the last eight years, since we’ve been at war, the most dramatic changes have been in the Army. Soldiers hadn’t in the past deployed as a matter of their culture, or deployed for [such] long periods of time. In the last four or five years it has been pretty well documented that the Army is on what we call a one-to-one rotation: Over for a year, back for sometimes less than a year. The stress they get, it’s inevitable – post-traumatic stress, sometimes – [and] stress gets back to the family. That’s where it ends up, the parents, the fiancé, the wife and kids and it manifests through them.
We’ve always had a culture of deploying, but now we’re deploying longer. Initially it was six-month deployments; now it’s frequently seven or 7.5-month deployments. That’s not the norm, that is not what our target is, but we have had to do it for support.
We want to get ahead of this. We want to see if we have the right stress programs in place. Are we evolving our readiness programs to meet the challenges put on our families? The best way for me to do this is to see what are the various programs around the country at our Navy bases, and do they make sense for the challenges we are facing today. Sit down with the counselors, say, “What are you seeing today? Are you seeing increased alcohol incidents, abuse here or there, financial problems?” A lot of times we call those indicators of the tone of the force, and that’s the kind of stuff that gives you headway before you have issues of reduced retention and bigger problems.
What will you cover with the talk you give at the ball tonight?
I like to talk a little bit about heritage: There’s an old saying: The further back you can look at whatever it is you’re doing, the further ahead you can look. Because you have a lot of legacy behind it. Not everything has been done before, but we have been through tough times before. In World War II, the way we operated submarines was fundamentally different. We never thought of them as a war machine. They were coastal defense. After Pearl Harbor, we had no surface fleet; the only thing we had left to fight the Japanese with was submarines. So we said, “You go out and do the best you can.” And they were pretty amazing. They held the Japanese Navy back while we rebuilt. So a lot of times, kids don’t understand that. Nuclear power is now 50 years old-plus, but yet it was a game changer. The ability to go fast underwater and never have to come up and to recharge batteries and things like that, remains a game changer.
THE ABILITY TO GO FAST UNDERWATER AND NEVER HAVE TO COME UP REMAINS A GAME CHANGER.
In the future [we will have] unmanned underwater vehicles. We’re building them today. Also, the submarine missile fleet is still our best [nuclear] deterrent today, because it’s survivable. It’s the only survivable part of the nuclear triad we call bombers, ICBMs and submarines.
And people. We still have the brightest darn kids. Fortunately the submarining attracts them.
So the role of the submarine continues to shift. For a long time that role was clear: deterrent for nuclear war with a peer threat, the Soviets. Now, absent a peer, the present role isn’t as clear. Can you speak to that?
There are a number of missions we do today. You can’t see a lot of them because, well, it’s undersea. A primary mission today we call gathering ISR: intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance… There’s a voracious appetite to be able to send something that you don’t want people to know is there, and to put up the antenna, a very small antenna, and be able to sample the environment without people being able to know you’re sampling that environment. There’s a lot of chit-chat going on around the world today. The airwaves are full of it, as we all very much know. So they are very effective in that way. It’s pretty powerful for future operations, for folks we’re going to send in, anyone from the Army, Marines or Air Force…
The submarine community and special forces are in a marriage. We can put ashore SEALs in fairly large groups nowadays. We have converted four large missile submarines – 600 feet long – and they can fit a couple of SEAL platoons with boats, and they can launch what are called SEAL delivery vehicles…
They launch tomahawk missiles. It was submarines, for what it’s worth, that started both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was the launching of those tomahawk missiles to knock off the anti-air radars and all that before our airplanes went in to do the operation.
Speaking of future environments and peers, China’s naval ambitions grow. What’s that going to mean in oceans where the U.S. has traditionally been dominant?
China, as we all know, has dramatically improved their armed forces. Some would say, and it’s probably not untrue, it would be a logical outtake from their economic improvement. They are a much greater economic power, why would they not have an increased military? But the things they are buying are sending a signal we don’t quite understand. They propose in their strategic documents, and their discussion with us, that they are a very defensive-minded country and only interested in protecting what’s theirs in and around China, but they have vastly expanded their submarine fleet and amphibious fleet to do amphibious operations, and it makes you wonder, to what end? They have bought – and are building indigenous – submarines, [both] nuclear and diesel. They’re pretty good. They’ve bought quite a few from Russia, diesel submarines, not nuclear, so that they have a formidable number.
In comparison to where the Soviet Union was at one time, and where we are, it is probably rudimentary in nature. However, if you look at the trend, the trend is in an increasing direction of modernization and improving their tactics. So we need to keep an eye out.