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Winning the Cold War at Sea with Reagan-Era Navy Secretary John Lehman

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the pleasure of asking The Honorable John F. Lehman, Secretary of the Navy under the Reagan Administration from 1981-1987, questions on his new book Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea 

Q: Your tenure as Navy Secretary was guided by President Reagan’s new national security strategy. How did the 1980s U.S. Navy operationalize this new strategy?

A: President Reagan was quite clear in his naval strategy and policy. Eight months before his election, he declared “We have to maintain a superior navy. We are a nation with vital interests and commitments overseas, and our navy must stay ahead of the Soviet buildup. This means commissioning the ships and developing technology which will enable the United States to command the oceans for decades to come.”  He believed strongly in the importance of confronting and negotiating with the Soviets from a position of strength – a position based on adequate and appropriate forces as well as the will and capability to use them should that ever be necessary. We in the Navy provided him that strategy. He fully embraced the force goal of a 600-ship Navy and its 15 carrier battle groups and 100 attack submarines, along with the tenets of The Maritime Strategy: Offensive, forward, global operations at sea and from the sea, as a critical component of an aggressive and forward total joint and allied strategy. In this he was fully supported by Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger, myself as Secretary of the Navy, and a succession of Chiefs of Naval Operations. There was no daylight between any of us on these fundamentals.

The strategy was operationalized through accelerating the Navy’s building and deployment program; developing and promulgating suitable concepts and tactics; gaming those concepts and tactics at Newport and other institutions; and – most importantly and centrally – demonstrating, practicing, and analyzing them at sea, forward and throughout the world, from the very moment the President took office in 1981. This involved both a revamped forward exercise program as well as responding to real-world crises globally on a daily basis. In 1987, when the administration published its first formal public statement of its national security strategy, achieving and maintaining maritime superiority was enshrined as one of its bedrock ideas.

Q: How did the Soviets respond to the new Maritime Strategy and how did it influence their operations and diplomacy?

A:  They were aghast. At first, they didn’t know what to make of it, so they responded in kind: Throwing wave after wave of ships and aircraft at us wherever we popped up on their periphery – a periphery that they had long taken for granted as being their own backyard, and as vital launching space for further expansion. We were prepared for this, and indeed welcomed it, using their approaching forces as ‘targeting services’ to help refine our own tactics and to signal to them that the days of a free ride on the world’s oceans had come to an end. They also redoubled their own building program, putting their naval industrial base into overdrive – and in the process helping wreck their own economy. Then, when they saw we weren’t backing down, they began to tend to their own defenses, and started pulling in their horns, circling their wagons. This of course, was exactly what we had in mind, as it eased the pressure they had been putting on Norway, Japan, and other forward allies, and on American and allied forces facing them in Europe and Asia. They were particularly taken aback by the prowess of our commanders at sea in cover and deception operations. To kill a ship you need to find it first, and our commanders stayed up nights thinking up ways to bluff, trick, hide, and conceal their forces at sea so that they couldn’t be found. They also railed against The Maritime Strategy loudly and publicly. “Remarkably odious,” Izvestia snarled. “It is hardly possible to imagine anything worse.”

They had their own tricks, of course, in the form of American spies – sailors and government civilians – who were delivering our plans and orders to them by the trash bag-full. And they exploited these greed-heads to the maximum extent that they could. Finally—and this we hadn’t planned as extensively for – they started a massive propaganda campaign calling for a wide range of naval arms control measures that would barely affect their own capabilities but that would hamstring us to a fare-the-well. Fortunately, not just the U.S. Navy but the U.S. nation rose to that challenge, dismissing their proposals for what they were – ploys to cut and constrain our vital naval capabilities while giving them the protection they now craved, and leaving us vulnerable to Soviet challenges at sea. At the very end of the decade, they began shutting down their far forward operations and facilities in Africa and elsewhere, and scrapping hulls that they had kept in their inventory far past their useful lives. But they continued – right up until the Soviet Union disappeared – to throw a multitude of new well-armed hulls in the water – a challenge we had to pay attention to until their country was no more.

Q: How did American maritime superiority contribute to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union?

A: American maritime superiority made essential contributions. It ensured that their far forward forces – like those in Cuba, Africa, and the Indian Ocean – would not be available in a fight, and that our own considerable allied and forward forces always would be, reinforced and resupplied from North America. Maritime superiority meant we could threaten them from all directions, at once or serially, flexing our forces to come at them in the Norwegian Sea, the Arctic, the eastern Mediterranean, and the western Pacific, and reinforcing their need to protect and defend their forces close to their homeland, instead of surging out into the broad oceans and threatening our own shores. American maritime superiority meant that their strategic ballistic missile submarine force – on which their warfighting doctrine relied as a necessary nuclear strategic reserve – was not going to survive the early days of a war, should our president so decide. Finally, American maritime superiority meant that they could never catch up. We would always strive to be ahead of them – and succeed, no matter how many new ship classes they constructed or spies they paid off. As President Gorbachev plaintively remarked in 1989 to President Bush on board the Soviet cruise ship Gorky off Malta, “We are encircled by your Navy.”

Q: The book takes its title from a major exercise, and it is heavily focused on exercises throughout. Why this specific focus? Why are these exercises valuable for naval forces and national security writ large?

A: The Maritime Strategy included a host of interlocking initiatives, but none were more important than the forward at-sea exercises. Like other exercises, they had a number of vital and worthy goals: To train, to test, to experiment, to practice, to hone. But much more importantly, these exercises – especially the very earliest ones like Ocean Venture ‘81 in the Norwegian Sea and its initial companion exercises in the North Pacific – were designed to – and did – send the most powerful of all signals to the Soviets: Presidential candidate Reagan’s “peace through strength” campaign motto was now firm U.S. policy, not a discarded slogan. They also signaled to the plucky Norwegians, our other NATO allies, the Japanese, the South Koreans and others that we once again “had their back.” We really did. And they signaled to those naysayers among the defeated Democrats and in ground combat-oriented American and allied headquarters to get on board, because this President and his like-minded appointed officials were serious, and in charge.

And yet – despite all that has been written about The Maritime Strategy and its effects – including my own work – there hasn’t been much attention paid to the exercises. Operators go to sea and scribes do the writing, and the scribes – even the operators among them – have short-changed the role of the exercises in favor of learned dissections of the role of secret intelligence or wargaming, or exegeses on the evolution of the documents, or any of the many other elements that came together to comprise the “perfect storm” of The Maritime Strategy. This book is intended to put some balance into what had become an important – but unbalanced – literature (see my bibliography). And to pay tribute to the brave and clever Navy operators who devised and carried out these maneuvers – many necessarily in atrocious weather – in the Arctic, the Barents, the Norwegian Sea, the Med, the Sea of O, the Sea of Japan, and elsewhere.

Q: These exercises were often led and designed by leaders with a wily reputation, leaders like Admirals Hank Mustin and Ace Lyons as you discuss in the book. What distinguishes great operational and tactical innovators such as these men?

A: The U.S. Navy is certainly fortunate to have among its numbers a goodly share of “operators” – seamen, aviators, and tacticians who enjoy going to sea and putting warships, aircraft, and their crews through their paces. For them, it’s the ultimate in “fun and zest,” as my old mentor Admiral Bud Zumwalt used to say. They aren’t hard to find in the Navy – everyone knows who the “sea dogs” and “good sticks” are. But it can be hard to place them in senior operational positions where their talents can shine. One of the most important jobs a Secretary of the Navy has to participate in is the identification of those stalwarts, and then ensuring they get assigned top jobs where they can do the most good. I spent a fair amount of time on that when I was secretary, and I believe most of my choices panned out well. And so did the Soviets (see the vignette in the book where post-Cold War Russian admirals are crowding a window to get a glimpse of Ace Lyons at a conference).

John Lehman (Secretary of Navy) posing beside attack plane & in cockpit after completing regulation training week as Naval Reserve commander at Oceana Naval Air Station. (Photo by Mark Meyer/Time & Life Pictures/)

Speaking of Ace, he illustrates another important point as well: Many of the Navy’s most skilled operators are also among its most well-educated and experienced in naval strategy, policy, and global fleet operations. Again, the trick is to identify these folks early on and develop them with alternating sea and shore tours and repeat tours in plans and policy billets so that they can get the necessary breadth and depth of experience once they reach high flag rank. Ace was a famous ship-driver and deception specialist at sea, but he also had had four tours in OP-06 (today’s N3/N5) before being promoted to flag (well before my time, incidentally), as well as tours as a student at both the Naval War College and the National War College. All that, plus his drive, brains and imagination, made him a formidable Navy leader. Hank Mustin –  the other famed mariner you mentioned – had a similar special background, including student tours at the Naval Postgraduate School and the Naval War College, a combat tour on the rivers of Vietnam, and several OPNAV tours in surface warfare planning and crafting CNO Zumwalt’s Project SIXTY – an ancestor of The Maritime Strategy. So the Navy has these men and women – with the right education, experience, aggressive mindset, and imagination. It’s up to the top leadership to develop their careers sensibly and move them quickly into the most demanding top positions, even if it means goring some sacred cows like cookie-cutter career patterns and “Buggins’s turn.”

Q: You described a “virtuous circle” that kept strategy current and evolving. As described in the book, it consisted of fleet exercises that fed into the work of key institutions like the Strategic Studies Group, the Center for Naval Analyses, the Naval War College, and others, who then informed new fleet exercises. Please discuss how this virtuous circle worked.

A: It worked in a number of ways, all essential. First of all, there were the formal linkages. For example, the Navy’s educated and experienced strategists in OP-603 crafted Maritime Strategy briefings that were used by OPNAV and the Secretariat to kick off the POM development cycle each year. Many OP-603 officers had had Naval War College or similar civilian educations that had taught them the principles of naval strategy. These experts also briefed their products to the CNOs and myself, to the Strategic Studies Group (SSG) and the professoriat at Newport, and to a host of others – in the other services, on the Hill and overseas, for example. They listened as much as they briefed, and brought useful new insights back with them to update and polish their briefings. Meanwhile, I was providing the essential political direction that was sorely needed to shift the Navy to a more aggressive posture, and my staff ensured that my speeches and other emanations found their way to OP-603, the SSG, and other homes to direct and influence the growing strategy and the 600-ship Navy program. It took a couple of years of this iterative process before the ever-changing and ever-improving slide decks could be converted to actual documents, but they eventually were. Having benefitted from all these inputs, they proved extraordinarily influential.

Meanwhile, the SSG used its freedom and high-level access to explore extensions, variants, and alternatives to facets of the strategy, and fed them to myself and the CNOs. Some then found their way into the next iteration of the strategy briefing. The fleet commanders – supported by their seagoing CNA operational analysts – debriefed their strategy-influenced exercises extensively, within the Pentagon and on the Hill. Programmers and budget-crafters thus heard firsthand how the strategy – and their programs – were faring forward at sea, facing off against Soviet Backfire regiments and submarines. And they learned what needed changing. Meanwhile once per year, the Naval War College convened a Global War Game to examine elements of the strategy. Players included SSG staff and fellows, Hill staffers, OP-603 strategists, Naval War College and Naval Postgraduate School professors, unified command reps and, of course, the fleets and others. They took back to their commands and offices and classrooms the insights they had gained from the games, and submitted recommendations to the gamers on what might be done better or different next year – and to OP-603 to revise their baseline. Overlaid on all of this were inputs from the Navy’s intelligence officers and CNA, which injected important and counter-intuitive “Red” views into the strategy concepts and media, and enabled the strategy to be further developed at various levels of classification.

Then too, The Maritime Strategy benefitted from the Navy’s rotation policies – when intelligently applied. Conceptualizers and practitioners swapped positions regularly. Examples abound: Ace Lyons went from running Ocean Venture and other Maritime Strategy exercises to serving as OP-06, responsible for updating the strategy briefings and documents, then on to the Pacific Fleet, to apply what he knew in the waters off Kamchatka and Vladivostok, through imaginative use of a revitalized and forward-operating Third Fleet. Hank Mustin likewise went from running imaginative exercises as COMSECONDFLT/ COMSTRKFLTLANT (“Mustin in the Fjords”) to OP-06. And it wasn’t only the flags: CAPT Larry Seaquist, for example, came down from the SSG to run the OP-603 strategy shop, then went on to command USS Iowa at sea in Maritime Strategy exercises, and then on to strategy staff positions on the Joint Staff and OSD. CDR Ray Conrad – one of the Navy’s pre-eminent NATO experts – moved from OP-603 to a destroyer command in which he “walked the talk” in frigid North Pacific exercises, and then moved on to NATO headquarters where he inculcated a generation of allied officers and civilians in the Maritime Strategy’s principles. He was joined there by Peter Swartz, with whom he had earlier worked in OP-603. Swartz subsequently was picked up by CJCS GEN Colin Powell as a Special Assistant during the Gulf War.

And so it went. By the end of the decade, the upper reaches of the Navy – and the Pentagon and the National Security Council Staff – were shot through with officers who had served in a variety of guises in developing and implementing the Strategy, and who also served as mentors to the follow-on generation.

Q: The Navy of 1980 was in many ways still suffering from a post-Vietnam War malaise and had to shift from a power projection focus toward sea control against a great-power adversary, while still maintaining full-spectrum competence. A similar problem exists today. What did it take to reset the Navy’s mindset and skills to meet this challenge?

A: Well, that’s not quite accurate for the 1980s, although it does square with CNO ADM Zumwalt’s views in the early 1970s. What we faced in the 80s was the need to plus-up and advance both sea control and power projection – and strategic deterrence, strategic sealift, and forward presence to boot. We needed more carriers and strike aircraft, more and better amphibs and landing craft, more attack submarines that could work under the ice, more prepositioning and sealift ships to get the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps where they needed to go. Also, we needed to rapidly introduce into the fleet Tomahawk missiles, Aegis cruisers, Vertical Launching Systems (VLS), and a whole new family of strategic nuclear ballistic missile submarines. We had to do it all. We were up against the Soviet superpower, armed to the teeth and deployed worldwide. And not just their Navy, but the Red Army, Red Air Force, and Soviet allies and clients too.

What it took to reset the Navy’s mindset and skills were three things: 

(1) Development and promulgation of a global, forward, and aggressive Maritime Strategy that laid out what we needed to do and how and where we needed to do it, continually re-conceptualized, exercised, gamed, analyzed, discussed, and improved.

(2) A funded force goal of 600 ships, including 15 carrier battle groups, 4 battleship SAGs, 100 attack submarines, amphibious lift for a Marine Amphibious Force and a Marine Amphibious Brigade, and cruisers bristling with Tomahawks and Aegis.

(3) A vigorous campaign to drive and keep costs down, including restoring accountability and authority to officials, not bureaucracies, fixed price contracting, fostering competition, enforcing contract discipline, using common subsystems, technological innovation through block upgrades, terminating unproductive research and development programs, controlling gold-plating and design changes, and cutting bureaucratic layers.

Q: The United States has long been a maritime power. China, after millennia of focusing on continental power, is only recently but seriously focusing on developing its maritime power as a core component of its rise. Russia’s maritime power is a shadow of its Soviet past. What does history tell us about the value of maritime power for great powers and competition between them?

A: Great powers are not great powers without maritime power. And superpowers are not superpowers without maritime superiority. The United States – and, indeed, the entire world – has benefitted greatly from our acting as a superpower ever since World War II. That continues today. It would be a tragedy of the first order – for ourselves and all others—to allow our position as a superpower to slip. Central to maintaining superpower status, however, is maritime superiority. It is U.S. maritime superiority that guarantees freedom of the seas for the world’s commerce, connects us to our allies and innumerable interests around the world, and enables us to use the seas as a decisive global maneuver space, in peace and war.

In my six years in office, under President Reagan, America was spending almost six percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) on defense per year. That investment contributed mightily to our winning the Cold War. Today we are spending just a little over three percent. Given the plethora of challenges that Secretary of Defense Mattis laid out in his recent National Defense Strategy, it is difficult to understand how we will be able to continue to counter those challenges in the future, absent a deeper financial commitment from the American people and their representatives to maintain our maritime superiority and thus our status as the world’s essential superpower. It is the right and necessary thing to do, for ourselves and the world, and as the richest power on earth we can afford it. America can and should do this.

And that maritime superiority must be exercised worldwide and forward. Nelson beat Napoleon off Egypt and again off Spain, not off England. John Paul Jones fought the British off Yorkshire, not off New York. In the earliest and darkest days of World War II, we launched Army bombers from Navy carriers and bombed Tokyo. We won the Cold War at sea off the Kola, Kamchatka, Vladivostok, in the Eastern Med and under the Arctic ice, not off San Diego or Norfolk. Superpower maritime superiority demands forward operations “in harm’s way.” So we must be manned, trained, and equipped to fight and win globally and forward.

Q: Any final thoughts you would like to share?

A: I write this on Memorial Day. We can never forget those who sacrificed so much to bring us where we are in the world today. Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and civilian government workers and contractors have all given their lives to keep us strong, free, and prosperous. This includes some who died during the very exercises and operations I recounted in my book. They were critical to our winning the Cold War, and we must never forget them.

The Hon. John F. Lehman Jr. is Chairman of J.F. Lehman & Company, a private equity investment firm. He is a director of Ball Corporation, Verisk, Inc and EnerSys Corporation. Dr. Lehman was formerly an investment banker with PaineWebber Inc. Prior to joining PaineWebber, he served for six years as Secretary of the Navy. He was President of Abington Corporation between 1977 and 1981. He served 25 years in the naval reserve. He has served as staff member to Dr. Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council, as delegate to the Force Reductions Negotiations in Vienna and as Deputy Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Dr. Lehman served as a member of the 9/11 Commission, and the National Defense Commission. Dr. Lehman holds a B.S. from St. Joseph’s University, a B.A. and M.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently an Hon. Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. Dr. Lehman has written numerous books, including On Seas of Glory, Command of the Seas, and Making War. He is Chairman of the Princess Grace Foundation USA and is a member of the Board of Overseers of the School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and part of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8: four A-6E Intruders, two S-3A Vikings, six F-14A Tomcats, and four A-7E Corsairs. Second half of 1984. (Newport News Shipbuilding photo)

Declassified: US Nuclear Weapons At Sea

This piece was originally published by the Federation of American Scientists.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read it in its original form here.

By Hans M. Kristensen

ASROC nuclear test.
ASROC nuclear test.

Remember during the Cold War when US Navy warships and attack submarines sailed the World’s oceans bristling with nuclear weapons and routinely violated non-nuclear countries’ bans against nuclear weapons on their territories in peacetime?

The weapons were onboard ballistic missile submarines, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and supply ships. The weapons were brought along on naval exercises, spy missions, freedom of navigation demonstrations and port visits.

Sometimes the vessels they were on collided, ran aground, caught fire, or sank.

Not many remember today. But now the Pentagon has declassified how many nuclear weapons they actually deployed in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean. In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists we review this unique new set of declassified Cold War nuclear history. 

The Numbers

The declassified documents show that the United States during much of the 1970s and the 1980s deployed about a quarter of its entire nuclear weapons stockpile at sea. The all-time high was in 1975 when 6,191 weapons were afloat, but even in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were 5,716 weapons at sea. That’s more nuclear weapons than the size of the entire US nuclear stockpile today.

The declassified data provides detailed breakdowns for weapons in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean for the 30-year period between 1961 and 1991. Prior to 1961 only totals are provided. Except for three years (1962, 1965 and 1966), most weapons were always deployed in the Atlantic, a reflection of the focus on defending NATO against the Soviet Union. When adding the weapons in the Mediterranean, the Euro-centric nature of the US nuclear posture during the Cold War becomes even more striking. The number of weapons deployed in the Pacific peaked much later, in 1987, at 2,085 weapons.

afloat_table
Click to view full size

The declassified numbers end in 1991 with the offloading of non-strategic naval nuclear weapons from US Navy vessels. After that only strategic missile submarines (SSBNs) have continued to deploy with nuclear weapons on board. Those numbers are still secret.

In the table above we have incorporated our estimates for the number of nuclear warhead deployed on US ballistic missile submarines since 1991. Those estimates show that afloat weapons increased during the 1990s as more Ohio-class SSBNs entered the fleet.

Because the total stockpile decreased significantly in the early 1990s, the percentage of it that was deployed at sea grew until it reached an all-time high of nearly 33 percent in 2000. Retirement of four SSBNs, changes to strategic war plans, and the effect of arms control agreements have since reduced the number of nuclear weapons deployed at sea to just over 1,000 in 2015. That corresponds to nearly 22 percent of the stockpile deployed at sea.

The just over 1,000 afloat warheads today may be less than during the Cold War, but it is roughly equivalent to the nuclear weapons stockpiles of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea combined.

Mediterranean Mystery

The declassification documents do not explain how the numbers are broken down. The “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” regions are not the only areas where the U.S. Navy sent nuclear-armed warships. Afloat weapons in the Indian and Arctic oceans, for example, are not listed even though nuclear-armed warships sailed in both oceans. Similarly, the declassified documents show the number of afloat weapons in the Mediterranean suddenly dropping to zero in 1987, even though the U.S. Navy continued so deploy nuclear-armed vessels into the Mediterranean Sea.

During the naval deployments in support of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in early 1991, for example, the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) deployed with its nuclear weapons division (W Division) and B61 nuclear strike bombs and B57 nuclear depth bombs. The W Division was still onboard when America deployed to Northern Europe and the Mediterranean in 1992 but had been disbanded by the time it deployed to the Mediterranean in 1993.

B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.
B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.

As ships offloaded their weapons, the on-board nuclear divisions gradually were disbanded in anticipation of the upcoming de-nuclearization of the surface fleet. One of the last carriers to deploy with a W Division was the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), which upon its return to the United States from a Mediterranean deployment in 1992-1993 ceremoniously photographed the W crew with the sign: “USS John F. Kennedy, CV 67, last W-Division, 17 Feb. 93.” The following year, the Clinton administration publicly announced that all carriers and surface ships would be denuclearized.

afloat_last_carrier_1993
The last nuclear weapons division on the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) is disbanded in February 1993. The following year the entire surface fleet was denuclearized.

Since nuclear weapons clearly deployed to the Mediterranean Sea after the declassified documents showing zero afloat nuclear weapons in the area, perhaps the three categories “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” refer to overall military organization: “Atlantic” might be weapons under the command of the Atlantic Fleet (LANTFLT); “Pacific” might refer to the Pacific Fleet (PACFLT); and “Mediterranean” might refer to the Sixth Fleet. Yet I’m not convinced that organization is the whole story; the Atlantic numbers didn’t suddenly increase when the Mediterranean numbers dropped to zero.

The declassified afloat numbers end in 1991. After that year the only nuclear weapons deployed at sea have been strategic weapons onboard ballistic missile submarines. Most of those deploy in the Atlantic and Pacific but have occasionally deployed into the Mediterranean even after the declassified documents list zero afloat weapons in that region, and even after the surface fleet was denuclearized.

In 1999, for example, the ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) conducted a port visit to Souda Bay on Crete with it load of 24 Trident missiles and an estimated 192 warheads. The ship’s Command History states that the port visit, which took place December 12-16, 1999, occurred during the “Alert Strategic Deterrent Patrol in support of national tasking” that included a “Mediterranean Sea Patrol.”

Risks of Nuclear Accidents

accident_belknap1975_brokenarrowflash

Deploying nuclear weapons on ships and submarines created unique risks of accidents and incidents. Because warships sometimes collide, catch fire, or even sink, it was only a matter of time before the nuclear weapons they carried were threatened, damaged, or lost. This really happened.

During night air exercises on November 22, 1975, for example, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and cruiser USS Belknap (CG-26) collided in rough seas 112 kilometers (70 miles) east of Sicily. The carrier’s flight deck cuts into the superstructure of the Belknap setting off fires on the cruiser, which burned out of control for two-and-one-half hours. The commander of Carrier Striking Force for the U.S. Sixth Fleet on board the Kennedy issues a Broken Arrow alert to higher commands stating there was a “high probability that nuclear weapons (W45 Terrier missile warheads) on the Belknap were involved in fire and explosions.” Eventually the fire was stopped only a few meters from Belknap’s nuclear weapons magazine.

accident_belknap1975
The fire-damaged USS Belknap (CG-26) after colliding with USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) new Sicily in 1975. The fire stopped a few meters from the nuclear warhead magazine.

The Kennedy also carried nuclear weapons, approximately 100 gravity bombs for delivery by aircraft. The carrier caught fire but luckily it was relatively quickly contained. Another carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), had been less fortunate six years earlier when operating 112 kilometers (70 miles) southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A rocket on a F-4 Phantom aircraft exploded puncturing fuel tanks and starting violent fires that caused other rockets and bombs to explode. The explosions were so violent that they tore holes in the carrier’s solid steel deck and engulfed the entire back of the ship. The captain later said: “If the fire had spread to the hangar deck [below], we could have very easily lost the ship.” The Enterprise probably carried about 100 nuclear bombs and was powered by eight nuclear reactors.

accident_enterprise1969
The nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered USS Enterprise (CVN-65) burns off Hawaii on January 14, 1969. The carrier could have been lost, the captain said.

Dozens of nuclear weapons were lost at sea over the decades because they were on ships, submarines, or aircraft that were lost. On December 5, 1965, for example, while underway from operations off Vietnam to Yokosuka in Japan, an A-4E aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled overboard from the Number 2 Elevator. The aircraft sank with the pilot and the bomb in 2,700 fathoms (4,940 meters) of water. The bomb has never been recovered. The Department of Defense reported the accident took place “more than 500 miles [805 kilometers] from land” when it revealed the accident in 1981. But Navy documents showed the accident occurred about 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain, approximately 250 miles (402 kilometers) south of Kyushu Island, Japan, and about 200 miles (322 kilometers) east of Okinawa. Japan’s public policy and law prohibit nuclear weapons. (For a video if B43 aircraft carrier handling and A-4 loading, see this video.)

accident_ticonderoga1965
An A-4 Skyhawk with a B43 nuclear bomb under its belly rises on an elevator from the hangar deck to the flight deck on the USS Independence (CV-62) in an undated US Navy photo. In December 1965, a B43 attached to an A-4 rolled off the elevator on the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) while the carrier was on its way to Yokosuka in Japan.

Three years later, on May 27, 1968, the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) suffered an accident and sank with all 99 men on board in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 644 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of the Azores. The Department of Defense in 1981 mentioned a nuclear weapons accident occurred in the Atlantic in the spring of 1968 but continues to classify the details. It is thought that two nuclear ASTOR torpedoes were on board the Scorpion when it sank.

accident_scorpion1968
The USS Scorpion (SSN-589) photographed in the Mediterranean Sea in April 1968, one month before it sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy later located and photographed the wreck (inserts).

Risks of Nuclear Incidents

Another kind of risk was that nuclear weapons on board US warships could become involved in offensive maneuvers near Soviet warships that also carried nuclear weapons. Sometimes those nuclear-armed vessels collided – sometimes deliberately. Other times they were trapped in stressful situation. The presence of nuclear weapons could significantly increase the stakes and symbolism of the incidents and escalate a crisis.

Some of the most dramatic incidents happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 where crisis-stressed personnel on Soviet nuclear-armed submarines readied nuclear weapons for actual use as they were being hunted by US naval forces, many of which were also nuclear-armed. At the time there were approximately 750 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Less serious but nonetheless potentially dangerous incidents continued throughout the Cold War. In May 1974 the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Pintado (SSN-672) collided almost head-on with a Soviet Yankee I-class ballistic missile submarine while cruising 200 feet (60 meters) below the surface in the approaches to the Petropavlovsk naval base on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The collision smashed much Pintado’s bow sonar, jammed shut a starboard side torpedo hatch, and damaged the diving plane. The Pintado, which probably carried 4-6 nuclear SUBROC missiles, sailed to Guam for seven weeks of repairs. The Soviet submarine, which probably carried its complement of 16 SS-N-6 ballistic missiles with 32 nuclear warheads, surfaced immediately and presumably limped back to port.

accident_pintado1974

On August 22, 1976, for example, US anti-submarine forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean had been tracking a Soviet nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Echo II-class attack submarine for ten days. The Soviet sub partially surfaced alongside the US frigate USS Voge (FF-1047), then turned right and ran into the frigate. The collision tore off part the Voge’s propeller and punctured the hull. The Voge is thought to have carried nuclear ASROC anti-submarine rockets. At the time there were around 430 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. The Soviet submarine suffered serious damage to its sail and some to its front hull section. (For a US account of the incident, see here; a Russian account is here.)

Even toward the very end of the Cold War in the late-1980s, nuclear-capable warships continued to get involved in serious incidents at sea. During a Freedom of Navigation exercise in the Black Sea on February 12, 1988, the cruiser USS Yorktown (CG-48) and destroyer USS Caron (DD-970) were bumped by a Soviet Krivak-class frigate and a Mirka-class frigate, respectively. Both U.S. ships were equipped to carry the nuclear-capable ASROC missile and the Caron had completed a series of nuclear certification inspections prior to its departure from the United States. Yet the W44 warhead for the ASROC was in the process of being phased out and it is possible that the vessels did not carry nuclear warheads during the incident. The declassified data shows that the number of U.S. nuclear weapons in the Mediterranean dropped to zero in 1987. The Soviet Krivak frigate, however, probably carried nuclear anti-submarine weapons at the time of the collision.

accident_blacksea1988
The nuclear-capable USS Caron (DD-970) and USS Yorktown (CG-48) are bumped by Soviet frigates during Freedom of Navigation operations inside Soviet territorial waters on February 12, 1988. For a video of the Caron collision, see here, and the Yorktown collision, see here.

Nuclear Diplomacy Headaches

In addition to the risks created by accidents and incidents, nuclear-armed warships were a constant diplomatic headache during the Cold War. Many U.S. allies and other countries did not allow nuclear weapons on their territory in peacetime but the United States insisted that it would neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons anywhere. So good-will port visits by nuclear-armed warships instead turned into diplomatic nightmares as protesters battled what they considered blatant violations of the nuclear ban.

The port visit protests were endless, happening in countries all over the world. The national governments were forced to walk a fine line between their official public anti-nuclear policies and the secret political arrangements that allowed the weapons in anyway.

Public sentiments were particularly strong in Japan because it was the target of two nuclear weapon attacks in 1945. Japanese law banned the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory and required consultation prior to introduction, but the governments secretly accepted nuclear weapons in Japanese ports.

During the 1970s and early-1980s, opposition to nuclear ship visits grew in New Zealand and in 1984 culminating in the David Lange government banning visits by nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed vessels. The Reagan administration reacted angrily by ending defense cooperation with New Zealand under the ANZUS alliance. Only much later, during the Obama administration, have defense relations been restored.

afloat_SSN604_Oakland1979
The nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed attack submarine USS Haddo (SSN-604) is barraged by protestors during a port visit to Oakland in New Zealand in 1979.

The treatment of New Zealand was partially intended to deter other more important allies in Europe from adopting similar anti-nuclear legislation. But not surprisingly, the efforts backfired and instead increased opposition. In Denmark the growing evidence that nuclear weapons were actually being brought into Danish harbors despite its clear prohibition soon created political pressure to tighten up the ban. In 1988, this came to a head when a majority in the parliament adopted a resolution requiring the government to inform visiting warships of Denmark’s ban. The procedure did not require the captain to reveal whether his ship carried nuclear weapons, but the conservative government called an election and asked the United States to express its concern.

afloat_DDG17_Aalborg1988
The crew of the nuclear-armed destroyer USS Conyngham (DDG-17) uses high-pressure hoses to wash anti-nuclear protestors off its anchor chain during a standoff in Aalborg, Denmark, in 1988.

Across the Danish Straits in Sweden, the growing evidence that non-nuclear policies were violated in 1990 resulted in the government party deciding to begin to reinforce Sweden’s nuclear ban. The policy would essentially have created a New Zealand situation in Europe, a political situation that was a direct threat to the US Navy sailing its nuclear warships anyway it wanted.

These diplomatic battles over naval nuclear weapons were so significant that many US officials gradually began to wonder if nuclear weapons at sea were creating more trouble than good.

After The Big Nuke Offload

Finally, on September 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced during a prime-time televised address that the United States would unilaterally offload all non-strategic nuclear weapons from its naval forces, bring all those weapons home, and destroy many of them. Warships would immediately stop loading nuclear weapons when sailing on overseas deployments and deployed vessels would offload their weapons as they rotated back to the United States. The offload was completed in mid-1992.

Two years later, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, decided that all surface ships would loose the capability to launch nuclear weapons. Only selected attack submarines would retain the capability to fire the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack sea-launched cruise missile (TLAM/N), but the weapons would be stored on land. Sixteen years later, in 2010, the Obama administration decided to retire the TLAM/N as well, ending decades of nuclear weapons deployments on ships, attack submarines, and on land-based naval air bases.

After the summer of 1992, only strategic submarines armed with long-range ballistic missiles have carried U.S. nuclear weapons at sea, a practice that is planned to continue through at least through the 2080s. These strategic submarines (SSBNs) have also been involved in accidents and incidents, risks that will continue as long as nuclear weapons are deployed at sea. Because secrecy is so much tighter for SSBN operations than for general naval forces, most accidents and incidents involving SSBNs probably escape public scrutiny. But a few reports, mainly collisions and groundings, have reached the public over the years.

accident_VonSteuben1968
USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) after collision with tanker Sealady.

During a strategic deterrent patrol on August 9, 1968, the USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) was struck by a submerged tow cable while operating submerged about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the southern coast of Spain. As it surfaces, the submarine collides with the tanker Sealady, suffering damage to the superstructure and main deck (see image right). The submarine carried 16 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with 48 nuclear warheads.

Two years later, on November 29, 1970, a fire breaks out onboard the nuclear submarine tender USS Canopus (AS-34) at the Holy Loch submarine base in Scotland. Two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657) and USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645)) were moored alongside Canapus. The Francis Scott Key cast off, but the Polk remained alongside. The fire burns out of control for four hours killing three men. The submarine tender carried nuclear missiles and warheads and the two submarines combined carried 32 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with a total of 96 nuclear warheads.

Four years later, in November 1974, after having departed from its base at Holy Loch in Scotland, the ballistic missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) collides with a Soviet submarine in the North Sea. The collision left a nine-foot scrape in the Madison, which apparently dove onto the Soviet submarine, thought to have been a Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. The Madison carried 16 Poseidon (C3) ballistic missiles with 160 nuclear warheads. The Soviet submarines probably carried nuclear rockets and torpedoes. Madison crew members called the incident The Victor Crash. Two days after the collision, the Madison enters dry dock at Holy Loch for a week of inspection and repairs.

accident_madison1974
The missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) in dry dock in Scotland in 1974 only days after it collided with a Soviet Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine in the North Sea.

After nuclear weapons were offloaded from surface ships and attack submarines in 1991-1992, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines have continued to run aground or bump into other vessels from time to time.

On September 24, 1993, for example, after conducting a medical evacuation for a suck crew member, the ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN-738) ran aground at Port Canaveral, Florida. The submarine was on a strategic deterrent patrol with 24 missiles onboard carrying an estimated 192 warheads. The Maryland eventually pulled free and continued the patrol two days later.

On March 19, 1998, while operating on the surface 125 miles (200 kilometers) off Long Island, New York, the ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) was struck by the attack submarine USS San Juan (SSN-751). The Kentucky suffered damaged to its rudder and San Juan’s forward ballast tank was ruptured. In a typical display of silly secrecy, the Navy refused to say whether the Kentucky carried nuclear weapons. But it did; the Kentucky was in the middle of its 21st strategic deterrent patrol and carried its complement of 24 Trident II missiles with an estimated 192 nuclear warheads.

accident_kentucky1998
In 1998, the USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) carrying nearly 200 nuclear warheads collided with an attack submarine less than 230 miles (378 kilometers) from New York City.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Obama administration has made an important contribution to nuclear policy by declassifying the documents with official numbers of US nuclear weapons deployed at sea during the Cold War. This adds an important chapter to the growing pool of declassified information about the history of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The new declassified information helps us better understand the extent to which nuclear weapons were involved in day-to-day operations around the world. Every day, nuclear-armed warships of the US and Soviet navies were rubbing up against each other on the high seas in gong-ho displays of national determination. Some saw it as necessary for nuclear deterrence; others as dangerous nuclear brinkmanship. Many of those who were on the ships submarines still get goosebumps when they talk about it and wonder how we survived the Cold War. The tactical naval nuclear weapons were considered more acceptable to use early in a conflict because there would be few civilian casualties. But any use would probably quickly have escalated into large-scale nuclear war and the end of the world as we know it.

The declassified information, when correlated with the many accidents and incidents that nuclear-armed ships and submarines were involved in over the years, also helps us remember a key lesson about nuclear weapons: when they are operationally deployed they will sooner or later be involved in accidents and incidents.

This is not just a Cold War lesson: thousands of nuclear weapons are still operationally deployed on ballistic missile submarines, on land-based ballistic missiles, and on bomber bases. And not just in the United States but also in Britain, France, and Russia. Some of those deployed weapons will have accidents in the future. (See here for the most recent)

Moreover, growing tensions with Russia and China now make some ask if the United States needs to increase the role of its nuclear weapons and once again equip aircraft carriers with the capability to deliver nuclear bombs and once again develop and deploy nuclear land-attack sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines.

Doing so would be to roll back the clock and ignore the lessons of the Cold War and likely make the current tensions worse than they already are.

Instead, the United States should seek to work with Russia – even though it is challenging right now – to reduce deployed nuclear weapons and jointly try to persuade smaller nuclear-armed countries such as China, India, and Pakistan from increasing the operational readiness of their nuclear forces. That ought to be one thing Russia and the United States could actually agree on.

Background information:

Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists where he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons.

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Reviewing Charles Glasers’ “China-U.S. Grand Bargain”

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Peter Marino

In May of this year, the PLA released its most expansive defense White Paper ever. Having now firmly left in the past the original missions of the PLA simply to defend the Chinese mainland, the paper imagines a solidly regional, and even global, role for its armed forces to protect Chinese vital interests in economics and politics. This has understandably put additional pressure on US and Western defense planners to review their own strategic postures towards China and reassess how they intend to position themselves against it, as the post-First Cold War international architecture breaks down and a Second Cold War seems to be coming into focus. Squarely in the middle of any reassessment of U.S. strategic posture towards China would undoubtedly be Taiwan policy. Should the US hold to its commitments under the 1979 Taiwan Relations act? Should it strengthen these commitments? Or should it abandon them altogether? China specialists across the spectrum are weighing in. Today, I take a moment to review one such proposal, by Professor Charles Glaser of the Elliott School.1

[1] Charles L. Glaser. “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain? The Hard Choice between Military Competition and Accommodation.” International Relations 39, No. 4, Spring 2015, 49-90.

Peter Marino holds an MSc in Global Politics from The London School of Economics and is a graduate of Norwich University. He lived in Shanghai from 2003 to 2008 and served as head of China development for London-based Aurigon, Ltd. He founded and sold Quaternion, a political risk startup, and is currently establishing a new Think Tank for International Affairs aimed at promoting engagement with the “Millennial Generation.” He also produces Globalogues, a video blog with commentary on global politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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Avoiding Conditions for an Asia-Pacific Cold War

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Jack McKechnie

The People’s Republic of China’s new Military Strategy white paper indicating China’s military strategy is a positive step towards transparency, but comparison with the recent U.S. National Military Strategy (NMS) reveals a significant difference and ominous implications of future paths. Should China and the U.S. pursue their stated military strategies, a period of increasing tension and force buildup will ensue as the U.S. and allies seek to maintain an absolute advantage over a rising Chinese regional advantage. While the national leaderships of China and the U.S. will likely strive to avoid the use of force, miscalculations can occur and attempts at reassurance can fail with severe, complicating, and long-lasting consequences for everyone involved. A future strategy by China that reassures the rest of the world that its rise is peaceful is necessary to avoid this situation.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, Reuters
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, Reuters

Although both documents appear to portray each country’s military strategies, there is a key difference that makes this an imperfect comparison. While the U.S. president is both commander-in-chief of the U.S. military as well as party chief of his political party, the U.S. military is not a party army, and the U.S. NMS has no mandate to keep the Democratic Party in power. Xi Jinping is both chairman of the China’s central military commission as well as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), but the PLA is a party army, and the PRC defense white paper declares that “China’s armed forces will unswervingly adhere to the principle of the CPC’s absolute leadership” and “remain a staunch force for upholding the CPC’s ruling position.”

Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People, CNN.com
Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People, CNN.com

The PRC defense white paper articulates a response to security threats to the CPC, not China, and there are circumstances in which a move benefitting the CPC does not benefit China. A fixation to remain in power and a tendency to exaggerate threats to party rule may lead the CPC to assume a more aggressive posture resulting in higher risk of conflict than the actual security threat to China would justify. The risk of a serious conflict, which would be devastating for the Chinese people, warrants consideration of an assuring and less threatening stance instead. The CPC’s aggressive rhetoric regarding Taiwan, Japan, and the South China Sea may be intended to bolster domestic support for the CPC, but should miscalculation and conflict occur, the impact to China’s growth could be severe. Ironically, these economic consequences of conflict may cause the CPC to face a primary concern, disorder at home, and which they may hope to forestall by rallying their populace with assertive foreign policy.

From the perspective of the CPC, this makes reassurance and the avoidance of miscalculation critical, but the difference in objective for the PRC defense white paper contributes to difficulties in reassuring the U.S. and other countries that China’s rise will remain peaceful. The U.S., distrustful of authoritarian governments and wary of attempts to unilaterally disrupt the international order by a rising power, would need enhanced reassurances from China.

Dale Copeland describes the commitment problem as the inability of one state’s leadership to convince another state’s leadership that promises made today will be kept. In this case, the U.S. may not only be concerned that China may have a change of heart later once they have more relative power, but also that new leaders in China may adopt very different policies.1 Ambiguity in the PRC defense white paper regarding how they intend to safeguard Chinese maritime interests and address the issue of Taiwan fails to ease the U.S. and regional states. And while principles of defense, self-defense, and post-emptive strike are declared, other countries have little assurance that these principles will be adhered in the future.

U.S. Navy Photo
U.S. Navy Photo

The ambiguity in the PRC’s strategy, in conjunction with an alarming, sustained military buildup at a time when China’s mainland has never been safer from invasion, may be construed as a more or less direct contradiction of reassurances that China does not pose a security threat. Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese military strategy explicitly discusses force posture, but the fact that the U.S. is transparent with products such as the U.S. Navy’s 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan to Congress, a document that describes long-term future fleet composition, while China has no overt guidance for their desired size for their rapidly-growing military does give cause for concern by the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The strategies executed together produce the conditions for an Asia-Pacific Cold War in the future security environment as described by a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Deepening regional bipolarization and militarization, driven by a worsening U.S. – China strategic and economic rivalry in Asia.”2 Arms races, military crises, and increasing tension regarding Taiwan reunification could result in a period of constant tension while the U.S. and regional allies balance the increase of Chinese capabilities to preserve an absolute advantage that, they hope, deters conflict. China’s lack of articulation regarding the intended future size of their military and the failure to provide reassurance for exclusively peaceful means to handle their concerns with Taiwan, Japan, and with other claimants in the South China Sea do not reassure the U.S. and other countries, and the likely result will be continued arms build-up and increasing tensions.

The deliberate use of lethal force by China in pursuit of territorial claims, whether for a coercive reunification of Taiwan or establishment of solid control over the nine-dash line, will result in dramatic changes around the world. A loss of confidence in Asia will cause multiple, independent actors to react in unforeseen ways which may have a dramatic effect on Asian commerce. Moreover, the CPC may not understand the potential resolve of the U.S. and other democracies to resist lethal aggression and what actions they may take against China and what consequences, economic and otherwise, they are willing to impose. While growth and stability of the entire world would be profoundly affected, China, with its high growth dependence on foreign trade and commerce, could face the most serious consequences. The results within China would ironically jeopardize the social and political order the CPC may have used to justify aggression in the first place.

ASEAN Member States, Public Domain.
ASEAN Member States, Public Domain.

To best serve the security interests of China and maximize economic potential while minimizing threat of war, there are measures the CPC might pursue to assure the rest of the world while remaining in power. As stated by James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, China can better reassure the U.S. and regional countries by leveling military budget growth at approximately half of the U.S. level and scaling back missile deployments and other military capacities directed at Taiwan, commit to exclusively peaceful means towards Taiwan, and join in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Code of Conduct with a commitment not to use or threaten force to resolve territorial disputes.3 As a revisionist power, assurance is incumbent on the Chinese, and only positive measures such as these will provide the necessary assurance to regional and global powers that China’s intent is peaceful and will minimize the risk of miscalculation and the associated social, economic, and military consequences.

Jack McKechnie is a Commander in the U.S. Navy currently assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He was a former U.S. Seventh Fleet operational planner, Japan country officer, and assistant director for theater security cooperation from Oct 2011 to July 2014 and a Federal Executive Fellow with Johns Hopkins University APL from Aug 2014 to July 2015. The views expressed in this article are his own.

[1] Dale Copeland. Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton University Press, 2015), 41.

[2] Michael Swaine et al. Conflict and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Strategic Net Assessment (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C., 2015) 167.

[3] James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon. Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S. – China Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2014), 209-210.

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