Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Um, Remember Pearl Harbor?

During the Cold War, if my memory serves me, we scattered our aircraft carrier home ports to limit the scope of damage of any enemy surprise attack. Pearl Harbor was strong in our memory. Does our Navy still remember that day of infamy?

Am I the only one who finds this picture disturbing rather than cool?

NORFOLK (Dec. 20, 2012) The aircraft carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), USS Enterprise (CVN 65), USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), and USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) are in port at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., the world's largest naval station. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ernest R. Scott)

How special. Five of our super carriers lined up in one port. Plus four of our amphibious carriers. Which in other countries' navies would be huge.

The world's largest target-rich environment, eh? I'd say I'm being unduly worried, but in a year when our enemies launched surprise attacks on our diplomatic outposts on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and when our top military leaders insist that it is unreasonable to expect our military to be tethered to the defense of those outposts--even on September 11th--I don't think I worry enough.

Remember, they're called "surprise" attacks because we don't expect them.

Oh well. If I'm right about super carriers being a declining asset for sea control missions in war time, an enemy success at Norfolk might be as significant as wrecking our battleship row on December 7, 1941.

UPDATE: Thanks to Instapundit for the link.

The Insta-Prof wonders how well our ports are defended today. I don't know, but I know that on the morning of December 7, 1941, our Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was defended by anti-submarine patrols, new radar, 231 Army aircraft, 250 Navy and Marine Corps planes, and Marine and Army ground garrisons (large enough for 226 Army personnel to die--Marine losses are lumped in with the Navy losses, totaling more than 3,000 dead). And the Japanese didn't have this weapon.

UPDATE: John M. emails that it at least looks like a torpedo net is strung out to protect the ships. He could be right. It would also protect against a Cole-type suicide boat attack, too, wouldn't it? Unless it was a boat without a propeller to foul in the net.

And welcome The Politics Forums readers.

UPDATE: Welcome Darwin Central readers. As to what century I live in? Silly me. Like anyone would attack our Navy in a port in the 21st century. Unless I'm addressing someone who annoyingly insists that an error in our first century must be carried through every century (and decades, too) for the rest of time rather than writing off the first century as a 99-year anomaly.

UPDATE: Charles F. emails to remark that Enterprise is inactive and to be decommissioned. I knew that, but forgot. And it is likely that most of the ships there are present only for a short period. We plan on spreading some of the ships out,too, he notes.

Doug O. rejects my Pearl Harbor analogy. I appreciate his taking time to set our his reasons. Let me, in fairness, reproduce his entire email (since I annoyingly don't enable comments):

Using Pearl Harbor as an analogy is incorrect.

There is certainly a large percentage of our fleet concentrated in one place, but as for the base being in danger from anything short of a nuclear strike I would have to think not. The harbor is extremely well protected from attack from the sea, or should I say under the sea. There is not much of a reason for large conventional defenses since no other nation in the world can project power to our coastline. BTW, those are not anti-torpedo nets, but an anti-boat barrier that also acts as a containment system to stop oily waste from the ships from escaping into the ocean.

The crime committed at Pearl Harbor was not that the fleet was concentrated nor a lack of defenses, but the poor choices by the local army and navy commanders. The navy knew a carrier strike was a possibility. We had attacked Pearl before during exercises gaining complete surprise. Our carriers also staged raids on the Panama Canal, theoretically destroying it, as well. Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short ignored that lesson and instead focused on defending against sabotage. Hence, the reason our planes were lined up neatly so they could be so easily destroyed from the air.

The commanders poor choices included not launching a search of the area, not having any fighters on standby alert nor bothering to listen to the radar operators who spotted the first Japanese attack wave. None of these errors are being replicated off our East Coast.

The US has a defensive early warning system around the country to spot air attacks and uses satellites to also keep an eye on the ocean. Plus the area is protected by Air Force and Naval Air Stations. The fleet is safe. That is unless a Bayliner armed with a tactical nuke sneaks inside, and if al Queda gains a nuke it is going right up the Potomac or into NY harbor.

I'm well aware that no fleet will be projected to our shores. I've yawned when the Russians sent a couple ship out our way. And it is helpful to note that the booms are not anti-torpedo nets. But it is helpful that Doug explicitly notes that the analogy isn't to be taken strictly to mean we should worry about a similar attack. But that wouldn't be a surprise, would it?

Arguing that our fleet is secure because it is well protected ignores that our fleet was well protected on paper in 1941. Saying only poor decisions allowed the Japanese to succeed implies that we will not make poor decisions in defending the fleet.

Remember, our commanders didn't sit down and think "I'm going to make a really bad decision about securing Pearl Harbor. Alice, take a memo ... " No, the decisions made sense based on their assumption about what the enemy could do and what they could not do. One of the poor decisions in 1941--in addition to the mistakes noted above--was failing to note the British success at Taranto a year earlier using aerial torpedoes and assuming Pearl Harbor was too shallow for the Japanese to use this weapon.

Look, I'm not expecting an enemy navy to approach our shores undetected and attack us. From that kind of threat, I agree we are safe. Even the Chinese would have trouble surviving a thousand miles from their coast for long in the face our our air and naval power--and they'd have trouble facing just the Japanese, for that matter. So I'm not arguing we should put up 24/7 combat air patrols or treat the bases as fortresses in case that happens.

But I assume we face enemies who can see how we defend--or don't--and figure out ways to get around our defenses.

Avoiding surprise is more than just preparing for every possible attack. It includes minimizing the impact of being surprised in case you haven't actually prepared for every possible method of attack. If we start getting bad habits like massing our high value naval assets, sloppiness in a lot of areas will likely proliferate. Bad habits can seem logical after years or decades of nothing bad happening. Then we're a few poor choices (in retrospect) from a disaster. A surprise disaster.

What if an enemy didn't need to destroy our carriers but just keep them in port for weeks or months beyond our normal reaction time to surge carriers in a crisis?

How long would it take to clear mines dropped by a merchant ship to block Norfolk? How long would it take to clear large civilian ships scuttled to do the same? Could someone hit the ships with persistent nerve agents? Just how long would it take to decontaminate a ship struck that way?

What happens in the combat theater while our ships sit in port unable to sortie?

We can be surprised. Or are we to assume no terrorists would dare attack us on the anniversary of 9/11 since we'd be ready for something that obvious?