American taxpayers pay billions of dollars for the best submarine fleet in the world. But this huge national investment is at risk if Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, as reported in the Washington Post, shrinks two large marine national monuments the deep Pacific Ocean and opens the rest to an undefined mix of commercial and traditional activities. These remote ecological backwaters are coveted for their resources, but, as potentially critical future operational areas for U.S. submarines, America’s five big marine national monuments merit the very strongest in federal protections.
The economic investment in U.S. undersea supremacy eclipses any economic activity planned for these remote preserves. Every year, America buys a pair of Virginia-class attack submarines for $2 billion apiece, and the planned procurement of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines will cost the nation over $100 billion. Billions more goes into the missiles, torpedoes, unmanned undersea vehicles and other specialized undersea equipment.
But technical investments alone will not be enough; protected Marine National Monuments may provide U.S. subs that extra layer of protection they will need in a rapidly changing sea. And with fewer than six dozen very expensive submarines in the American arsenal, Navy submariners need all the help they can get. Just like the endangered marine life and the unique undersea features America’s marine sanctuaries protect, American subs are threatened by a rapidly changing technological and geopolitical climate.
Today, oceans are very different from the empty Cold War-era seas that welcomed America’s first nuclear submarines. In 1954, when the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus (SSN 571) was commissioned, seas were mysterious, unknown places, where long-ranged nuclear submarines could roam free. Those days are gone. As rivalries with China and Russia heat up the seas, ocean habitat safe for American submarines is shrinking away. Though the underwater world is not entirely transparent, more and more governments and other organizations are watching and listening to the ocean than ever. The elite club of 41 countries that operate some 416 military submarines is growing, and fleets of unmanned subhunting sensors and craft are just around the corner.
Having a relatively protected sea to hide in near a supply base makes a submarine’s life far easier. During the Cold War, as a superior U.S. fleet lurked outside of Soviet submarine bases, the Communist Navy cobbled together large undersea refuges, hiding their strategic ballistic missile submarines behind a protective barrier of coastal defense missiles, ships and aircraft. Some analysts believe China is doing the same thing today in the South China Sea, complicating American efforts to track and monitor an expanding PLA(N) submarine fleet.
America’s Marine Monuments are ecological wonderlands, but they are also strategically located along key U.S. submarine operational areas. In the Atlantic, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument may, in time, help the 13 attack submarines based at Groton, Connecticut, sneak into the deep Atlantic. West of Hawaii, the seamount-dotted Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument may offer sanctuary to America’s 18 Pearl Harbor-based subs, helping these high-tech “fish” train and make their stealthy way into the deep Pacific.
At Guam’s Apra Harbor, near the Marianas Trench National Monument, four Guam-based Virginia-class attack submarines jostle for space as other visiting submarines restock food, supplies or munitions. In 2016, Trident-armed Ohio-class missile submarines made their first Guam port call in nearly three decades. Guam is set to be critical submarine territory, and the unique hydrological features protected by the nearby marine monument may help American submarines slip into striking positions off North Korea, Taiwan, or elsewhere.
The remote Pacific Islands Marine National Monument and Rose Atoll offer potential sanctuary for dispersed naval resupply activities. Wake Island has a century-long record of supporting military activities, recently serving a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) test site, and Johnson Atoll grew from a reef to a full-fledged airbase, ending its military life as a chemical weapons demilitarization site in 2003. Baker, Howland and Palmyra islands host decommissioned World War II-era airstrips and, if required, can provide temporary shelter for both submarines and surface vessels.
Put bluntly, the Marine National Monuments have as much potential as strategic national security assets as environmental ones, and almost certainly more than as commercialized ocean. Put another way, while America peacefully consolidated governmental control over more than a million miles of strategic seabed, China is risking war to impose control upon a similarly sized stretch of the South China Sea. The value of these territories is less in their economic contribution than their strategic potential.
Ceding federal control of strategic territory that is larger than the Louisiana Purchase would be an epic strategic blunder. Outside Washington, only American rivals would cheer the demise of America’s Marine Monuments. Stripped of added federal protections and opened to “traditional activities” or “commercial fishing”, the vast Pacific Monuments will be open to easy exploitation by China’s far-ranging and semi-militarized commercial fishing fleet. Those vessels won’t just poach fish from U.S. waters. They’ll dilute American sovereignty by sowing sensors, surveying and ultimately wresting away control of areas that may prove critical to the long-term security of the U.S. submarine fleet, and put eyes on potentially sensitive activities at some of the unorganized and unincorporated territories protected by the Marine National Monument designation.
While a Marine National Monument designation permits overt military and scientific activities by any nation, commercial fishing, resource-extraction and unapproved sensor placement are highly regulated. These simple measures keep vessel traffic low, making it far easier for an already underfunded and overtasked U.S. Coast Guard to track and identify foreign interlopers, keeping China’s fleet of surveillance and militarized commercial vessels at bay.
Maintaining a million square miles of empty, relatively sensor-free seabed is a small price to pay for American security. If these strategic areas are opened to commercial activity, foreign rivals will spare no expense to undermine America’s massive investment in undersea defense.