Article Published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch
It’s remarkable how important Virginia remains to the nation’s military security and tradition. The lynchpin of Colonial America’s struggle against the British Empire, the focal point of the Civil War, and home to the greatest assemblage of naval power the world has ever known, the commonwealth of Virginia continues to be the heartland of the U.S. armed forces.
After nearly 400 historic years, the spirit of Virginia will spearhead U.S. national security efforts during the early years of the 21st century and beyond. With such a proud heritage as foundation, it is no accident that the first of the Navy’s next-generation New Attack Submarines will be christened the U.S.S. Virginia.
The richest cross-section of America’s military history exists on a narrow strip of land between the York and James rivers in southeast Virginia. Bordered by Richmond to the west and Hampton Roads in the east, this peninsula is the site of many historic events the founding of Jamestown, the political enlightenment of Williamsburg, the British defeat at Yorktown, and the defense of Richmond during the Civil War. But it is in the waters surrounding this historic land that America’s naval heart and soul exists.
Here is where the first ironclads clashed during the Civil War, ushering in a new age of naval warfare. Two decades later, in 1886, a small shipyard called the Chesapeake Dry Dock and Construction Company began operation on the James river’s north bank above Hampton Roads. A few years later, that company changed its name to honor its hometown, thus becoming the Newport News Shipbuilding Company.
So important had that shipyard quickly become that in 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt ordered his “Great White Fleet” on its global tour, seven of the fleet’s 16 battleships had been built at Newport News. Less than a generation later and just a few miles offshore, Army maverick Billy Mitchell showed how vulnerable such dreadnaughts could be to airpower by sinking the captured German vessel Ostfriesland during the first demonstration of precision aerial bombing.
In the 1930s, Newport News delivered the Navy’s first real aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Ranger; in the 1940s, eight Essex-class aircraft carriers were constructed there, as was the first armored aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Midway. With the atomic-age, the shipyard produced the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers led by the U.S.S. Enterprise and the last conventionally-powered carrier, the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Newport News produced all of the Navy’s Nimitz-class aircraft “supercarriers,” and many of the service’s existing 688-class submarines, including its lead ship the U.S.S. Los Angeles. Many of these ships came to be stationed nearby at the Navy’s huge complex just across the James River at Norfolk, and they, along with the Air Force’s jets from Hampton’s Langley AFB, surged into the Persian Gulf to defeat Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
More recently, Newport News has delivered the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman the newest Nimitz-class aircraft carrier to the Navy and is hard at work on the next carrier, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan. At the same time, the company is wrapping up its design efforts on the Navy’s Seawolf-class of submarines, while preparing for the construction of the new Virginia-class attack subs.
Based on this storied history, a casual reader might think of Virginia is a “Navy” state, but that is untrue. In a recent issue of Armed Forces Journal International, Jason Sherman described the commonwealth’s relationship with the American military as “purple,” meaning that it is home to and supports the efforts of all branches of the U.S. military. In addition to the Navy’s bases, Virginia is home to the Army’s 29th Infantry Division at Fort Pickett and that service’s Training & Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe.
The Eastern Seaboard’s most important Coast Guard base is in Portsmouth, and the Marine Corps has a significant operation at Quantico where it both produces new Marine officers and houses the President’s helicopters. And of course, there is the Pentagon, which resides on the Potomac river’s left bank yet inaccurately holds a Washington, D.C., mailing address.
Most remarkable is that Virginia is now home to the most powerful naval force in history. That is because the Navy’s leaders, along with their Marine Corps counterparts, have positioned the service to be America’s military force of choice for at least the next generation. While the Army must struggle to get its divisions to the battlefield, and the Air Force is impeded by declining access to foreign bases, the Navy-Marine Corps team is ready to America’s potential enemies with near impunity.
Soon to be armed with a new generation of revolutionary weapons, it will fall to the Navy and Marine Corps to defend America’s vital interests. Through the perfect hindsight of history, we can now see that the Navy’s determination to fight for its F/A-18E/F attack jets, Aegis-class cruisers, Virginia-class subs and the Marine Corps’ V-22 tiltrotor aircraft has been vindicated by the uncertainties inherent to the post-Cold War world.
At a time when fewer public servants have military experience, Virginia is fortunate to have two U.S. Senators with military backgrounds. Senator John Warner (R) served in the Navy during World War II and in the Marine Corps during Korea, before becoming the Secretary of the Navy under President Nixon. After 20 years on Capitol Hill, Warner is now expected to continue Virginia’s centuries’ old military tradition as the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Along with Senator Charles Robb (D), another Marine officer and influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Warner will play a pivotal role in the future preparedness of the American military. Senators Warner and Robb undoubtedly will see to it that the fates of Virginia and the U.S. armed forces remain intertwined and inseparable.
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