PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Some veterans of the Navy’s “Silent Service” are cringing at news that President Donald Trump disclosed the whereabouts of two submarines that are part of an undersea force that prides itself on stealth.
While Trump did not give up the subs’ precise location, his telling the president of the Philippines of the submarines’ presence in a private conversation startled many in a community that has long abided by the adage “Loose lips sink ships.”
“The only thing that saves our lives is people not knowing where we are,” said T. Michael Bircumshaw, a retired Navy master chief and former commander of the United States Submarine Veterans, Inc. He said telling anyone anything about where U.S. submarines are is “pure, unadulterated, criminal stupidity.”
Security experts say such disclosures are rare. One breach that’s bitterly remembered in the submarine force came in 1943 when Kentucky Congressman Andrew J. May revealed that submarines were escaping Japanese attacks because the charges they were dropping were exploding at too shallow of a depth, Bircumshaw noted. Japanese forces adjusted and U.S. submarines were hit.
Trump’s reference to the submarines was made during an April 29 call that touched on the North Korean threat. Trump revealed the U.S. had two nuclear submarines in the region and did not want to use them, according to a leaked transcript of the conversation with Rodrigo Duterte.
“I didn’t see any foul there, and those people making it a foul are a bit ridiculous,” said retired Vice Adm. Al Konetzni. “We have submarines operating, thank goodness, we have them operating in all of the trouble spots of the world.”
Thomas Fedyszyn, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, could not recall a U.S. president ever making such a disclosure.
“It was an extremely rare, unlikely and uncommon statement by a senior political leader,” he said.
The Navy generally does not describe where submarines are patrolling until after they’ve returned home or they’re calling on a port. It announced a visit by the USS Michigan to Busan, South Korea, days before Trump’s call with Duterte.
Deen Brown, who conducted submarine war patrols for the Navy during World War II, said he was not concerned about the disclosure, and the subs may not even be where Trump said they were.
“But even if they are there, they’re not going to be there very long,” said Brown, 94, of Oakdale, Connecticut.
Bud Atkins, who served on 10 submarines and retired as a command master chief, was incredulous. He said Trump should “keep his mouth shut, to put it bluntly.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it,” said Atkins, also of Oakdale.
American submarines carrying nuclear warheads patrol the world’s oceans to deter a nuclear attack. Their locations are kept secret to ensure the U.S. can strike back if attacked. Attack submarines also need to stay hidden for their missions, from destroying enemy ships to sending special operations forces ashore and collecting intelligence.
While opinions varied about the significance of Trump’s disclosure, the submariners all spoke of stealth as a principle advantage.
“We spend all those years training to keep quiet under the water. We build machines to do specifically that,” said submarine veteran Ray Hamilton, of New London, Connecticut. “And we stay hidden, until the president says, ‘Hey we’re hiding them over there!”
James H. Patton Jr., a retired Navy captain, said it should come as no surprise that there are submarines operating in that part of the world, and Trump didn’t give a precise location or ship names. But he wondered whether it was an intentional statement vetted by his advisers, perhaps to reassure allies, or something spontaneous.
“If he was blurting out information he knew, that’s worrisome,” said Patton. “If it was a consciously thought out statement, I have no issue.”