The single largest weapons platform in the US military, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) anchored offshore of Santa Barbara from January 11-14. Given shore leave, the ship’s 5000 sailors descended on Santa Barbara to party and partake in many of the events planned for them by city boosters before they head out again for deployment to the Persian Gulf war zone.
The USS Reagan is an aircraft carrier powered by twin nuclear reactors. It can sail for over 20 years before needing to refuel. Aboard it’s hangers and flight deck are more than 90 warplanes and helicopters divided among 8 squadrons of FA-18 Super Hornets, and Seahawks among other weapons platforms. Assembled by Northrop Grumman corporation, the nation’s 3rd largest weapons manufacturer, it cost more than $4.5 billion to build, is roughly the size of the Empire State Building tipped on its side, and weighs more than 100,000 tons. It is the most advanced of 11 aircraft carriers in the US Navy and according to Wired Magazine’s Douglas McGray, “is the Navy’s first carrier explicitly built with future upgrades in mind, from gigabytes of extra network capacity to plug-and-play spaces for weaponsâ.”
On what the Navy called its first â€œmaidenâ€ deployment, the USS Reagan was sent to the Persian Gulf. Miles off of the Iraqi coast the ship launched round the clock sorties of bombing missions in support of the Bush administration’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom.â€ Captain Terry Craft, the ship’s ranking officer, explains that, “In the Persian Gulf, we’re [also] very involved in maritime security operations and that is to also deny the maritime environment for the use of any terrorist organization and to guarantee the free flow of commerce throughout the region.”
In essence, the USS Reagan’s main mission has been to prosecute the Bush administration’s war and occupation of Iraq including the recent troop “urge,” and secondarily to ensure that flows of petroleum extracted from the region are uninterrupted.
The USS Reagan’s official ship motto is “peace through strength.” This motto reflects ex-president Reagan’s militaristic initiative to enormously boost spending on advanced weapons systems and especially to create a 600-ship Navy. In 1981, Reagan’s Defense Secretary claimed that the Soviet’s had built a 3000 ship navy in order to justify their own desires for a conventional arms race (in fact the actual numbers of ships on each side were roughly equivalent, and most Soviet ships were inferior in technological terms to existing US vessels). Reagan’s 600-ship Navy quest coincided with several other major multi-billion dollar weapons programs including the Strategic Defense Initiative, a boost to nuclear weapons spending, and development of the B-1B bomber.
The USS Reagan is in spirit the culmination of his arms buildup, which was exuberantly resumed by George W. Bush upon his ascendancy to the White House in 2000.
The ship’s visit to Santa Barbara is not without precedent. It docked off shore once before in 2005. Shows of force by the Navy have a much longer tradition in this city though. Exactly 100 years ago the Great White Fleet (the newly built Atlantic Fleet’s ironic nickname) composed of 16 battle ships and dozens of accompanying support ships set sail around the world. It was to be America’s first imperialist projection of power. The US had just conquered the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico in its 1898 war with Spain and was embarking on a period of overseas aggression.
The Great White Fleet sailed across the Pacific explicitly to serve as a message to the Japanese state which had just defeated Russia in war and was attempting to expand its imperial reach. The West Coast stops also had the effect of stoking anti-Japanese racism from Seattle to San Diego. The next several decades would see anti-Asian racist laws passed in California and various cities. This would all culminate in 1924 with federal laws cutting off virtually all Asian immigration to America, and then during World War II’s internment of Japanese Americans. Following Santa Barbara’s 1925 earthquake this city’s Chinese population would be expelled, more racist attacks against Asians as part of a larger patter involving US military expansion.
Santa Barbara was one of the Great White Fleet’s West Coast stops. This city’s leaders mandated an enormous welcome for the fleet including parades and all sorts of pomp. The sailors, all 16,000 of them, enjoyed several days of revelry in the city. This year’s anchoring of the USS Reagan is the biggest “invasion” of Santa Barbara since 1908. Headed up by the Naval League’s local chapter the welcome committee organized everything from wine tours and â€œadopt a sailor” dinners, to warplane fly-overs and a “Young Sailor’s Concert at the Arlington Theatre.” Although many in Santa Barbara embrace these periodic visits with patriotic glee, there is much opposition. Anti-war organizers in Santa Barbara report doing “troop outreach” to the sailors to talk about the war, how to end it, and how to bring US soldiers and sailors home once and for all.