Welcome to another issue of SEA STATE!
Jack Cheever’s book Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo, details North Korea’s capture of U.S. intelligence-gathering ship USS Pueblo in 1968. Pueblo was a converted Army cargo ship from World War II whose wardroom consisted of only four SWOs and a cryptologic specialist. Shipyards hastily welded a prefabricated, makeshift intelligence “hut” to the ship’s weather deck to house intelligence equipment and pronounced her seaworthy despite objections from the crew. Her steering gear faulted over ten times each day as she crossed the Pacific, and different commands loaded her down with so much classified material that her Captain estimated it would take over 12 hours to burn all of the documents if they came under attack. The Navy denied all subsequent requests for additional emergency destruction material and steering gear repairs.
In 1968, Pueblo was on her first electronic snooping mission some 16 nautical miles from the North Korean coast. Her sister ship, Banner, had conducted over half a dozen of these patrols with no backlash from their surveillance target, and Pueblo’s crew felt safe under the protections of international law.
The eventual North Korean attack on Pueblo thus came as a surprise. The assault, made by a submarine chaser and six gunboats, brought Pueblo to all stop less than an hour after initial contact. Pueblo surrendered much of her classified material, generating a massive intelligence coup for the red side of the Cold War.
Today, Pueblo’s name is often mentioned with derision – she is still the only American warship to be taken without a fight. However, I think a bigger lesson lies here for the junior officer.
The crew was underequipped and undertrained for the mission, and Seventh Fleet provided no supporting assets or intelligence analysis. Pueblo was armed with only two rusted machine guns--not nearly enough to defend against the North Korean attack--and was left to rely on Captain Pete Bucher’s knowledge of international affairs. The situation was one with which many Division Officers in today’s Navy are familiar.
It is a fact that Captain Bucher surrendered his ship without a fight, an abhorrent act to the professional Naval Officer. If Bucher had followed orders and gone down in a blaze of glory, he would have likely been commended with a statue at his elementary school and a Navy Cross. However, pursuing that alternative may have resulted in the opening act of World War III. The sinking of a US warship would have probably prompted retaliatory strikes and a possible break of the Korean truce. From there, it is not hard to imagine the dominoes continuing to fall.
Bucher was in a position in which many other Naval Officers (perhaps including some reading this newsletter) have found themselves -- balancing the global political climate against the inherent right of self-defense.
Act of War was a poignant reminder to me that our jobs, while often drudging, mundane, and frustrating, sometimes put us at the nexus of tactical, operational, and strategic decision-making. And sometimes, in that nexus, we have nothing but our background knowledge of the world to aid us.
So, I guess I’ll keep reading the news.
SEA STATE Team Member
NEWS THIS WEEK:
“Russia’s activity on the Ukraine border has put the west on edge” (The Guardian): Russia’s recent military buildup no longer mirrors that of its buildup in the early spring, as evidenced by an estimated 90,000 troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders. Experts see technical departures from the spring buildup as cause for concern: T-72B and T-72B3 tanks have been spotted sporting slatted armour, intended to disable or misdirect anti-tank missiles such as the Javelin missile, which Ukraine received as part of US aid packages. While Ukraine is not a NATO member and therefore does not enjoy Article 5 protections, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated Wednesday morning that Moscow should expect economic backlash if it decides to expand the conflict in Ukraine. Despite the stark difference in posturing and rhetoric from Russia now as opposed to the spring, some argue that Russia’s aim is still most likely diplomatic (though other Russia military experts disagree).
Russia and Ukraine have been at war since 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in response to the Revolution of Dignity, which began in November 2013 when then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decided to reject the EU-UA Association Agreement and pursue closer economic relations with Russia within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU brokered a deal in February 2014 that resulted in the ousting of Yanukovych, who fled to Russia; on February 25, “little green men” appeared in Crimea. Shortly thereafter, separatists and Russian military forces began war in the Donbas region, where the war continues to this day, having claimed over 13,000 thousand lives and displaced over a million as of 2019. Attempts to end the conflict, including the Minsk Agreements, have ultimately failed, and a low-intensity “frozen conflict” persists, though that will change if Russia opts to escalate.
The extent to which a full Russian invasion will affect US service members will depend on how Western policymakers choose to respond. NATO and US leadership has signaled much of the same – economic sanctions, arms deals, and statements of “iron-clad” commitment to Ukraine. It is probable that US and NATO forces will be on high alert through this crisis period, and US warships will continue to frequent the Black Sea. If this does not deter Russian troops from pushing further into Ukraine, Western policymakers may then decide to become militarily involved, though current signals do not suggest such action will be taken.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Blinken met with his Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Lavrov who claimed that Russia would soon put forth proposals for a new European security pact that restricts NATO’s eastern expansion and includes security guarantees for Russia. President Putin described NATO’s deployment of certain offensive missile capabilities on Ukrainian soil as a “red line” and has characterized military aid to Kyiv and foreign military activity in and around Ukraine as “unacceptable” to Moscow.
Since 2014, Washington and Brussels have attempted to balance a stable, workable relationship with Russia with their aspirations for Ukraine’s integration into Western institutions. These efforts have struggled to produce clear end results, as positive Russian relations so far appear to be mutually exclusive with Ukrainian integration. While the “frozen conflict” has become the status quo, the thorniness of the situation has left the West struggling to find a diplomatic solution that does not sever its relationship with either Russia or Ukraine. In the meantime, Russia has gained the initiative to escalate the conflict in hopes that it may end it on terms favorable to Moscow.
“Iran nuclear talks on brink of crisis as they adjourn until next week” (Reuters): Senior officials from France, Britain, and Germany express dismay over ongoing negotiations to salvage the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. Iran’s newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, had delayed the talks with Western negotiators since June. “Over five months ago, Iran interrupted negotiations. Since then, Iran has fast-forwarded its nuclear program. This week, it has back-tracked on diplomatic progress made,” said the Western delegation, citing new excessive demands from the Iranians, including a lifting of all current sanctions imposed on Iran as well as a commitment that no sanctions would be imposed in the future. Western negotiators aim to use the original deal as a baseline, but the severe erosion of that original deal makes returning to the goalpost difficult. Negotiations will continue in Vienna this week.
“Covid: Germany puts major restrictions on unvaccinated” (BBC): In an attempt to lessen the severity of a fourth wave of Covid infections, Germany has banned unvaccinated individuals from most aspects of public life, including restaurants, shops, and movie theaters. Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel said hospitals were struggling to bear the load caused by the new Omnicron variant, and compulsory vaccination may be an appropriate measure to stop the spread. 68.7% of German citizens are already vaccinated, a relatively low rate for Western Europe, and vaccinations may be made mandatory by February, 2022.
“Taliban Decree an End to Forced Marriages in Afghanistan” (The New York Times): The Taliban has issued a decree stating, “Both [women and men] should be equal… no one can force women to marry by coercion or pressure.” The decree attempts to ban the practice of forced marriage, which has become more common during the recent decades of war, since displaced families can negotiate a daughter’s marriage for a bride-price, which can then be used to pay debts or buy necessities. Taliban leadership may have issued the decree in an attempt to attract international aid, since many foreign governments have ceased aid out of concern for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Although the decree is a nominal signal towards more equitable treatment for women, it is difficult to say how it will be practically enforced.
IN DEFENSE NEWS
“U.S. Military Explosives Vanish, Emerge in the Civilian World” (AP): For all of the military’s myriad accountability mechanisms, this AP investigation argues that the tracking of explosives can be surprisingly lax. Unlike weapons, which must be checked out from an armory, explosive materials are distributed at ammunition supply points with the assumption that they will either be expended on the range or turned back in. For the vast majority of explosives, that is exactly what happens. This story covers the rare, foolish, and potentially malicious circumstances in which service members take those materials home instead -- a sobering reminder for any JO involved in accountability of sensitive or dangerous equipment.
“Pentagon Announces Completion of Global Posture Review” (USNI): The Department of Defense released results of a long-term study aimed at deciding how the military should allocate its personnel and resources across the world. There were no drastic changes in troop levels in any AOR, despite a general sentiment that the military must focus its efforts on the Indo-Pacific. Significant changes do include upgrading base infrastructure in Guam and Australia, permanently assigning helicopter and artillery assets to South Korea, and reversing a previous decision to reduce troop levels in Germany. The marginal changes in the Global Posture Review highlight the difficulty in reorienting the entire defense enterprise toward new priorities.
“MQ-25A Unmanned Prototype Now on Carrier George H.W. Bush for At-Sea Testing” (USNI): The T-1 prototype of the MQ-25A, an unmanned refueling tanker, is onboard the George H.W. Bush for its carrier qualifications. This refueling technology will help to increase the operating range of aircrafts and has been proven effective in overland tests with the F/A-18F, E-2D, and F-35C. Upon implementation of the tanker, the intent is for the MQ-25A to augment the air wing and enable a much further reach for ISR efforts.
“America wants a stronger navy to face China. Can it build one?” (The Economist): As competition between the U.S. and China grows, Congress and the defense establishment have called for the construction of more ships. The bulk of this work falls to shipyards such as the Newport News Shipyard, which is operated by Huntington-Ingalls Industries. The increase in demand has created worries about the shipyard’s capacity to fulfill its requests, as years of neglect and budget decisions focusing on the Global War on Terror have taken their toll. Further complicating issues is a lack of concrete direction; decisions on what type of ships, how many, and how advanced their technology should be, are causing delays in production. Regardless, building a bigger fleet can only be done on the backs of the shipyards.
OPINION: “Op-Ed: Abortion restrictions widely punish military women” (Los Angeles Times): Women in the military, especially those stationed in Texas or in foreign countries without abortion services, face unique obstacles to abortion access, thus undermining their right to an important health service. With the Supreme Court set to rule on the most significant challenge to Roe vs. Wade in a generation, many women in the military may stand to bear the burden of new policy, as finding the timely opportunity to take leave or save money to effectuate the procedure can be impossible. As we consider the potential ramifications of an America without the precedent of Roe, our sisters in arms, both at home and deployed abroad, are not to be overlooked.
A LONG READ FOR YOUR WEEKEND
“The Middle East: exploring the limits of pragmatism” (International Institute for Strategic Studies) by John Raine
The Middle East has long been a focal point of U.S. foreign and defense policy, as political, religious, and social differences have continuously led to conflict within the region. Raine, a senior advisor for geopolitical due diligence at the IISS, argues that the causes for conflict are shifting: economic and technological motivations have begun to overpower the ideological motivations for violence. Raine bluntly states, “the visions that dominate the region are now economic rather than political.” This shift in vision is apparent in agreements such as the Abraham Accords and in meetings between leaders of opposing ideologies such as Jordan and the Assad regime. Raine’s analysis gives junior officers a perspective on both historical causes for war in the Middle East as well as what to expect in the coming decades.
PODCAST EPISODE OF THE WEEK
“Of Boats and Boxes” - Planet Money
This twenty-three minute episode does what Planet Money does best: it takes a current event and explains the economics behind the headlines. This episode tackles shipping slowdowns at major ports, as hosts Erika Beras and Mary Childs explore the intricacies of port operations. Beras describes, “when people talk about the problems in the ports, it's a million different little problems. The system is this enormously disconnected series of things in an incredibly delicate balance.” With the most busy shopping month of the year upon us, stories about congestion in our ports will likely continue; this short listen will leave you better informed to understand why these backups are occurring.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
— Mark Twain, 1901
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This issue of SEA STATE was written and edited by Nate Bermel, Julie Stabile, Emma Quinn, Madison Sargeant, Jeremy Gerstein, Nick Romanow, Brian Schmid, Madison Wagner, Christian Hoffman, Michael Lemonick, and Sarah Claudy.
SEA STATE is not affiliated with the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, or the Department of Defense. All views expressed or shared in this newsletter are the authors’ own and not necessarily endorsed by the U.S. government or any military entity.