17 Feb 2020

America works to win hearts and minds with expanding presence in Pacific

4:00 pm on 17 February 2020

As disputes over incursions by fishing fleets spread south through the Pacific Ocean, so too the face of maritime patrols is changing. Cook Islands News editor Jonathan Milne reports from Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i.

The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Tuscon (SSN 770) transits the East Sea while leading a 13-ship formation.

The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Tuscon (SSN 770) transits the East Sea while leading a 13-ship formation. Photo: US Navy

I lower myself through the black hatch on the top of the USS Tucson Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine, and carefully climb 10 feet down the iron ladder into the half-light inside.

Waiting below, a submarine officer laughs. "Yeah, I still don't like that bit, I don't like heights."

It seems incongruous. To most of us, these are not heights - they're depths. I'm now below the sea, with more stairs that will take me down deeper still into the cramped confines of this 110-metre long triumph of maritime war technology. This officer may not like heights; for the rest of us, it is the depths these submarines dive to that are terrifying.

This sub carries 21 torpedoes and 10 water-to-air Tomahawk guided missiles - but hopefully, they will never be needed.

The war the US is fighting in the Pacific is a different one: it is a battle to win hearts and minds in a new cold war - this time against the People's Republic of China.

It entails health and education support; helping build infrastructure; turning the ships and planes of the Pacific Fleet to new purposes helping small island nations patrol their waters in search of drug traffickers, human traffickers and illegal fishing operations.

And it involves a PR campaign - and that's why I, an overseas journalist from Cook Islands News, am being flown to Hawai'i at US taxpayer expense and given the once unthinkable opportunity to go inside a high-tech nuclear submarine and talk candidly with its crew.

The Americans hope articles like these will demystify their defence operations in the region and show a warmer, more friendly face than some in the Pacific may expect.

The 12 berths in the executive officers' bunkroom are stacked three high. Most are plain, sparse, but a couple have photos of wives and children tacked to the walls.

These senior officers are the fortunate ones: they don't have to "hot-rack" like the enlisted men. There are nearly 150 sailors crammed like sardines into the submarine, but barely half as many bunks; they take turns in the bunks when they are off-watch.

Right now, they're back in their home port of Pearl Harbor, after a seven-month deployment in the western Pacific. That means they've taken out the 21 six-metre MK48 torpedoes - even torpedoes need maintenance. The men have put mattresses in their place, in the torpedo racks, just to have a little

more breathing space for a few months. (Yes, they are all men on the Tucson, though some other subs have women in the crew).

To most of us today, in this inter-connected, ever-present age, what these sailors do is incomprehensible. For six or seven months at a time, they disappear into the depths of the Pacific.

They may come to the surface once a day, or once a week, to send and receive communications - but only the radar and radio aerials peek above the waves. The 7000-tonne tin-can and its human sardines remain below. In its last seven-month deployment, the crew surfaced only four times for port calls.

"One of the things with going down for long times is, you come up and the sun burns your eyes."

The officer who's showing me around is married with two young children. Those are probably his photos in the berth. Birthdays? Anniversaries? School performances and prizegivings? Below the ocean he can't even patch in by phone or Skype.

"I deploy for six months," he tells me. "I hate it. I hate saying goodbye."

No caption.

Photo: US Navy

Having grown up in New Zealand, I have a vexed relationship with nuclear power plants. There's that pesky little issue with our nuclear-free policy, leading to the demise of the ANZUS defence treaty with USA and Australia.

So have you taken the sub down into New Zealand waters, I ask, somewhat provocatively. No, the officer replies. What about, say, the Cook Islands?

He starts to get uncomfortable with my line of questions. Details of deployments are classified; they can't even tell their wives. "Maybe," he says. "Maybe not."

It's hard to ignore the fact I'm beneath the surface of the sea with just a few sheets of metal separating us from the nuclear fusion reaction that can drive this sub round and round the planet like something close to a perpetual motion machine.

And for those like me who have watched Netflix's Chernobyl series lately, it's hard not to imagine the threat to communities and the environment if there were to be an accident. Let us not forget the Kursk: the Russian nuclear sub that sunk in the Barents Set in the year 2000, claiming the lives of all 118 personnel onboard.

The submariners, though, are utterly blase about any risk. This is what we're trained to do, they say.

"You probably get less radiation from this than you do from the sun," says the dad-of-two who's more scared of a 10-foot ladder than of the single-shaft nuclear reactor on the other side of the wall.

And that much is certainly true: months away from the sun means they're a pallid bunch, these submarine force sailors. When the rest of us are paying the price for years of sun worship, perhaps these men will have the last laugh.

Spend a week talking with US military top brass in Hawai'i, and you'll hear a lot about a free and open Indo-Pacific. And you'll hear a lot about partnerships, and inter-operability.

Inter-operability means the US Army and Navy and Air Force and Coastguard can work together; that the over-sized Lego blocks of their military machine can clip together. But more, it means they can work with the New Zealand Defence Force, or the Samoan health ministry, or the Cook Islands Police Service.

That is important to Pacific nations, because it allows them to work together on disaster response operations, or air missions, or patrolling vast areas of ocean.

An example is New Zealand upgrading its six aged Air Force Orions to four new P8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.

These are the same planes used by the US Navy - so New Zealand and the US will soon be able to clip their Lego blocks together. They can more easily cooperate on projects like patrolling the 2 million square kilometres of the Cook Islands exclusive economic zone, or the high seas to the south.

Of course, it also suits America's economic interests if New Zealand buys its hardware from US companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, rather than from the Russian or Chinese. My American hosts make no secret of that.

Former US President Barack Obama announced a "pivot to the Pacific". That has continued under Donald Trump. More and more soldiers and sailors and pilots are being deployed to San Diego, Hawai'i, Guam, the Philippines and others bases across the Pacific.

Just yesterday, I explored the USS Kimball, one of two brand new high-spec US Coastguard cutters posted to Pearl Harbor. Its captain, Holly Harrison, is awaiting word of their first deployment - and she's optimistic. "I might see you soon in New Zealand," she says, laughing.

This week, I've heard the same line from one military briefer after another: the US Indo-Pacific command focus reaches from Hollywood to Bollywood, from polar bears to penguins.

Not since World War II has the United States been so utterly fixated on, so besotted with, the vast blue continent that is the Pacific.

Back on land, standing by the clipped lawns outside his office, Rear Admiral Kevin Lunday looks proudly over the USS Kimball and three or four other new ships moored at the dock outside. Harrison's boss is the Coastguard's Pacific commander: he has oversight of 36 million sq km of sea.

America is "doubling down" in Oceania, he says. From president down, the US is making a clear statement that the United States is a Pacific nation and their presence in the Pacific is more important than ever.

Cook Islands News editor Jonathan Milne travelled to Hawai'i as a guest of the US State Department.

- This story first appeared on the Cook Islands News website.