In early 2021, the Doomsday Clock, maintained since 1947 by members of the Atomic Scientist’s Science and Security Board, was set at 100 seconds until midnight, or nuclear Armageddon, the closest it has ever been. The clock is a symbolic representation of the likelihood of a man-made nuclear disaster, and not that many are aware of it; however, those few seconds are the most important tick-tocks in your life – or death. 

Did you notice that when his aides were ushering Vice President Pence to safety during the recent Senate riots, an Air Force officer, carrying a black briefcase, was right behind him, sticking closer than a brother? Well, that briefcase was the “President’s Emergency Satchel,” the “Button,” the “Black Box,” the “Biscuit,” the “Atomic Football,” the “Nuclear Football,” or just the “Football.” Its contents are used by either the president or the vice president to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers. There are actually three, the other being in storage at the White House. 

The football supposedly contains four things: a list of classified site locations, a description of procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System, a list of missile launch authentication codes and a list of sites around the country where the president could be taken in an emergency. On some occasions, a small radio antenna has been seen protruding from the bag. Interestingly enough, two presidents, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, decided to carry all this paperwork around in their coat pockets. In fact, after the 1981 assassination attempt against him, when his clothing was cut off by the hospital trauma team, some of the secret documents ended up on the operating room floor and in his shoe. This led to the urban myth that Reagan carried the launch codes around in his sock.

As I see it, President Biden has inherited two nuclear-related foreign policy conundrums in which a strong Navy will inevitably play a part: North Korea and Iran. First of all, somebody needs to clue Kim Jong-Un in about the Cold War concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). He is apparently suffering from we may charitably refer to as cognitive dissonance. If one of his Hwasong 14 ICBMs should manage to chug the 5,600 miles across the globe and cause us harm, everything north of the 38th Parallel will be lit up like a Christmas tree within 20 minutes. Of course, we are glibly talking about the beginning of World War III, the death of countless millions, nuclear winter and the end of civilization as we know it. On the other hand, he may be wily as a fox. He has managed to maneuver us into an asymmetrical situation that allows him to punch far above his weight. Who knows? He might even be using President Nixon’s “Mad Man Theory” of strategic unpredictability against us. 

As far as Iran, the ayatollahs are watching all of this closely, and as soon as they get their own bomb, we will have two rogue nations to worry about, although Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently went on record as saying that Iran “would never be permitted to get a nuclear bomb.” Judging from how the Mossad recently took out Iran’s top nuclear scientist as he drove down a road on the outskirts of Tehran, I’d put my money on the Israelis. I hope Biden doesn’t give in to the pressure to lift the economic sanctions on Iran because they will keep developing their bomb no matter what we do. We don’t need John Kerry to send them another boatload of money, either. 

While we have had our share of wars, the reality is that we have rarely been invaded or had our home islands threatened in an existential way. You can almost count the attacks on one hand: the War of 1812, when the British burned down Washington, D.C.; Poncho Villa’s overnight raid into the town of Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916; Pearl Harbor; the Japanese fire balloon attacks on America’s West Coast in 1945 in which a total of 9,000 incendiary balloons started a few forest fires in California and killed five children and a pregnant woman in Oregon. 

Other than the disaster of 9/11, perhaps the most serious attacks we’ve ever experienced on or near the mainland were the German U-boat attacks on merchant shipping in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. Our Navy eventually put a stop to this. 

If we do stumble into another war, I predict that the Navy and ships will play a major role because that’s the way America projects its power. Regarding the size of the Navy, it’s too early to predict the course that the Biden administration will take. The way the national defense budget works, it’s easier to decommission ships in the short term than it is to plan to add them in the out years. Aircraft carriers are now the centerpiece of our Navy (we are down to 11), and our newest one, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), which was commissioned in 2017, came in at an astounding $13.3 billion dollars, the most expensive ship ever built.

In all my years at sea, I never served on an aircraft carrier, by choice, always preferring to ride smaller ships or “small boys” in the parlance of the trade. I considered myself a “tin can” sailor. Really floating cities, sometimes carrying more that 4,000 people when the airplanes are onboard, we used to joke that carriers are so big that they actually have hidden wheels and just roll along the bottom of the sea. I know I always hated to be in a foreign liberty port with a carrier: prices ashore went up; fights multiplied; and the liberty boat landing became so congested it took forever to get back to your ship. It’s tough duty, more like being in a floating industrial zone, and since all of our carriers are now nuclear-powered, they are at sea forever. Those “bird farm” sailors have my respect.

The average person probably doesn’t know it, but every time one of our aircraft carriers gets underway, it is closely tailed by a Russian attack submarine whose raison d’etre, in the event of war, is to lob a few nuclear-tipped torpedoes into it, rendering it helpless. But, wait, we are not stupid; we have our own attack submarines tailing their submarines tailing our carriers. 

Unfortunately, they are not stupid, either; they have submarines tailing our submarines tailing their submarines tailing our carriers. Things will obviously get pretty messy if the balloon goes up. Have you ever read Joseph Heller’s World War II novel, “Catch 22,” published in 1961?

While our aircraft carrier numbers are down, we do have 9 or 10 large amphibious assault ships that would be classified as aircraft carriers in most foreign navies. In the midst of his “sturm and drang,” President Trump laid down a marker to increase the Navy to a total of 350 ships.

It never happened.

We only have around 274 commissioned warships today that are considered “deployable.”

You will see some lists as high as 440, but it’s a Potemkin fleet that includes Ready Reserve ships, “mothballed” vessels sometimes referred to as the “ghost” fleet, auxiliary or service ships organized and operated by the Military Sealift command, which are denoted “USNS,” and some ships that are under construction.

Apparently, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783,” (1890) is required reading for aspiring presidents because when Ronald Reagan took office, he announced that he was going to create a 600-ship Navy.

Mahan said that “Whoever rules the sea rules the world.”

Reagan didn’t succeed and neither did Trump. Other than the tremendous cost involved in constructing new warships, another serious problem is the lack of shipyards capable of building them. Although any small yard can “ramp up” if the money is right, there are probably no more than five shipyards in the United States today that are capable of building a large warship, especially nukes, from the keel up, including National Steel in San Diego, the only one on the West Coast; the Huntington-Ingalls conglomerate on our Gulf Coast; Newport News Shipbuilding in Norfolk; Electric Boat for submarines in Connecticut; and Bath Iron Works in Maine, which is Ingalls’s chief competitor. All the old standbys are gone: Mare Island in San Francisco; the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York; the Boston Naval Yard in Charlestown, etc. They are all closed with the grounds converted to parks and industrial incubators or sold to real estate developers for condos and boutiques.

Sailors usually hate shipyards. You are generally worked to death or bored silly based on your rate. Unless your skill set has something to do with shipbuilding or overhaul, you are often “farmed out” to another ship underway or to some menial job at the local shore station. For example, when one of my ships spent a year in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs, I spent that year in the New York City Armed Forces Police because the local trade unions wouldn’t permit a Navy electronics technician to do repair work on his own ship. I guess breaking up fights in the five boroughs of the city was better than pulling cables. As far as my policeman duty, the Bronx was the worst. I knew about Fort Apache before it was Fort Apache.

Nuclear-capable shipyards are to be avoided because security is so tight.

The Marines on the gate will dump the contents of your sea bag out in the street just because they can. Nuclear aircraft carriers only have to refuel about every 25 years, but it takes years to accomplish. There are two basic reasons the fuel needs to be replaced on nuclear reactors, and the carriers usually have at least eight: the uranium-235 is used up, and the fission product poisons have built up and have to be removed. That’s where the “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) factor comes in. Nobody wants that nuclear waste, with a half-life lasting until the Second Coming, in their backyard, although our local politicians did volunteer the Richton Salt Dome a few years ago. Once refueled, however, the nukes can literally steam forever. Compare that to the range of the fossil-fueled Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, many built at Pascagoula, which are the mainstay of our current Navy fleet. They can cruise about 4,400 miles on a full tank of gas. I slept over a nuclear reactor for three years on one ship. That’s the reason my wife says I glow in the dark.

Early in my career, I was on a ship in a civilian yard in Charlestown, Massachusetts. It was obviously a case of the lowest bidder getting the contract because everything was done on the cheap. For example, once the water was pumped out of the dry dock, the ship was sitting at least 30 feet above the deck. The yard didn’t even provide a brow or walkway between the ship and the pier.

To go on and off the ship, you had to walk a wooden plank, with only a slack manila hawser for a handrail. I noticed that it did sober up inebriated shipmates when they had to come back aboard late at night, carefully focusing as they put one foot in front of the other, eyeing the 30-foot drop into the empty dry dock. When I stood the junior officer of the deck watch on the quarterdeck, I would often help them back aboard. 

Now they would be cashiered out of the “New Navy” for drunkenness. 

On July 16, 1945, in the aftermath of the explosion of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory that developed the bomb, remembered a line from Hindu scripture which came to him unbidden: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of worlds.”

He knew, perhaps better than anyone else, that the nuclear genie was out of the bottle, and there was no putting it back in.

He could just as well have quoted these words from the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (1131):

 

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having

Writ,

Moves on, nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of

It.”

 

As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said in another great anti-war novel, “Slaughterhouse Five “(1969): “All this happened, more or less.”

Light a candle for me.

 

Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: villefranche60@yahoo.com.

 

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