The Location of America’s Nuclear Submarines Isn’t Really a Secret
Donald Trump’s mistake wasn’t lack of discretion. It was being too clever by half.
First things first: Donald Trump didn’t reveal the location of U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarines in his phone call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Trump comes off as a braggart and bully in the transcript, but what he said about submarines is far less interesting than our reaction to it.
It’s clear that whatever signal Trump was trying to send got fouled up. But that shouldn’t make us angry about the Trump administration’s clumsiness. It should make us wary about the overconfidence of all policymakers who think they can use the deployment of military forces to signal resolve to adversaries and allies without getting the rest of us killed.
Trump did say a fair number of awful and stupid things to Duterte. He told him that his campaign of extrajudicial executions was working (it isn’t) and that North Korea’s missiles are crashing (they aren’t). But on the subject of submarines, Trump is blameless. Here is what he said in reference to North Korea:
We have a lot of firepower over there. We have two submarines — the best in the world. We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all.
It is entirely unclear where Trump thinks “over there” is, but in recent days U.S. Pacific Command had announced two port calls for nuclear-powered submarines, one in South Korea and another in Japan.
But then someone in the Defense Department freaked out. Three someones, actually. “We never talk about subs!” three anonymous officials told Nancy Youssef of BuzzFeed News. Oh, you don’t? Then maybe someone should tell the Navy — because it blabbers on and on about submarines.
Contrary to the exclamations of the three anonymous officials, the Navy releases this kind of information all the time. Submarine Force Pacific even has a webpage on which it publicizes submarine port calls, including the two Trump referenced, as a matter of routine. I counted 20 announced port calls in Japan and South Korea alone in 2016 — plus additional calls in Singapore and Australia, among other locales. Last I checked, 20 a year is more than “never.”
This is not surprising. Forward-deployed military forces, like a doomsday device, don’t provide much deterrence if you keep them secret. And, frankly, how secret is a 6,000-ton nuclear-powered submarine sidling up dockside and unleashing more than a hundred sailors on port call? (Like how I kept that G-rated?)
Some of the reaction to Trump’s alleged indiscretion is a product of partisanship run amok — a kind of lefty version of the asinine “Hillary revealed nuclear launch procedures!” nonsense that sent Republicans into spasms of stupidity. But it’s important to remember that some of the reaction is probably also by design. Even before anyone knew about Trump’s phone call, U.S. Pacific Command was tweeting pictures and giving interviews about the submarines, explicitly stating that such port visits “demonstrate [the Navy’s] commitment to our regional allies.” Trump may have been showing off or hoping Duterte would pass the message along to Kim Jong Un. Either way, Trump wanted a reaction. Just not quite the one he got.
Still, the reaction to Trump’s comments reveals a broader gullibility about how we collectively respond to the government’s public messaging about military deployments. As someone who studies nuclear weapons — and is deeply skeptical about using military forces to send messages to adversaries — the reaction to this nuclear submarine story is a cautionary tale.
After all, ship deployments are planned long in advance, and these two submarines are probably no exception. The Navy keeps a schedule for deployments that takes into account crew rotations, needs for maintenance, and so on. While there is flexibility within that schedule, port calls at places like Busan and Sasebo aren’t usually a spur of the moment event.
The U.S. military is conducting an enormous number of military exercises and operations around the world at any given moment. Instead of dramatically changing carefully planned schedules to chase one crisis or another, someone (more often than not, the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center in San Antonio) looks at the list of exercises, ponders the global situation, and decides how to “frame” existing deployments and exercises in terms of current events to send the right signal to adversaries and allies. And reporters eat it up.
This year, the United States conducted a long-planned Minuteman III launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The headlines — “U.S. Test Fires Boeing’s $40M Missile in Message to North Korea” — predictably framed the test as a message to Kim Jong Un. Every reporter with whom I spoke about that event started by asking that same question. I responded by pointing out that Minuteman launches are scheduled 3-5 years in advance — long before the current crisis began — and the planning for a launch can take a year.
But this time, they overdid it. The United States conducted a second Minuteman test a few days later, and, for whatever reason, the Air Force didn’t like the idea that two intercontinental ballistic missiles had been tested in a single week as a warning to North Korea. Officials dutifully explained to reporters that it was a coincidence that the two tests were so close to each other — the first test had long planned, while the other had been delayed from the fall due to a wildfire. None of which changed the headlines spurred by the initial “framing” of the initial launch.
But that raises the question of why the public hasn’t learned its lesson. Why do we consistently fall for spin? The answer is that human beings have a bad habit of inferring causation from correlation. And so a missile test planned months ago can be sold as a response to events from last week, even though that is patently absurd. Similarly, the regular series of port calls by U.S. submarines in South Korea and Japan can be explained as an extraordinary response to a crisis.
The funny thing is, there just isn’t much reason to think that these signals make much of a strategic difference beyond winning mostly friendly headlines. Defense experts, policymakers, and military officials are all confident that they can message like this effectively to deter adversaries and reassure allies. But I think the misreading of Trump’s remarks suggests that they aren’t nearly as good at messaging as they think. This is the second time that the Trump administration has clumsily tried to use naval forces to send a message to Kim Jong Un. And, like the public messaging about a change to the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, it was a fiasco.
The Barack Obama administration wasn’t much better. It fell in love with bomber overflights. In 2013, the Pentagon flew two B-2 bombers to South Korea. It was so pleased with this signal that it did a B-52 flight in January 2016. And then a B-1 in September. The Defense Department was doing so many bomber flights that South Korea proposed a permanent rotation of bombers and other assets. There was another bomber overflight in May — not that anyone noticed.
It’s not surprising that these signals have little effect. The academic literature on signaling is too complicated to fairly represent in a few paragraphs, but a basic point is that fundamental capabilities and interests tend to matter more to crisis outcomes than bluffing. To the extent that signals matter, they need to be costly to the one sending them. And my own observation is that the best stories told by practitioners about great moments in the history of nuclear signaling usually turn out to be based on fairly tendentious interpretations of historical events. It would be nice to subject policymakers to the same data-driven scrutiny that has suggested that other traditional by-the-gut actors, like baseball managers or campaign gurus, tend to overstate their own impact on events.
There is no reason to think the Trump administration is any more adroit at using military deployments to send signals than more competent White Houses. Which raises a thought — how about we stop trying to signal with forces and use words instead? We have diplomats, led by a secretary of state who I have been assured is still alive. So rather than pointing to a submarine, missile, or bomber, how about we simply say what we mean?
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