Is Santa Monica in danger of a nuclear strike from Russia? Not likely.
But the ongoing war in Ukraine does have implications for our small town, from our ability to help ease a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Europe to the potential for “irregular warfare” like hacked Internet or jumbled cell signals. That’s according to national security expert and retired Naval Captain Bob Wells, Samohi class of 1972, who recently talked with the Daily Press about the current situation in Ukraine and how his upbringing in Santa Monica set the stage for his adventurous life.
“Growing up in Santa Monica, it was a great town, and a great time that I grew up during — that period,” Wells said.
Wells went from Samohi to Santa Monica College, where he studied political science, before earning his bachelor’s degree from UCLA. Then he joined the U.S. Navy, where he served for 30 years, including during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, in a maritime task force during the Bosnian War of the 1990s and during Operation Enduring Freedom (post-9/11), commanding the Lake Champlain, a guided missile cruiser.
On assignment with the Navy, Wells attended MIT as a Navy fellow and went on to serve in the White House as a special adviser on national security affairs for the Office of the Vice President under Dick Cheney.
Now retired from the Navy, Wells is an international business consultant and adjunct professor, a published author and an expert on foreign affairs, appearing on networks like Fox News and the BBC to weigh in on conflicts and current events.
Most recently, Wells has appeared on Fox News to share his knowledge of Russia’s nuclear arms and shed light on Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has been raging for nearly three weeks after Russian soldiers invaded the country on Feb. 24.
U.S. strategy in Ukraine
Speaking to the Daily Press on Friday, March 11, Wells said he believed the Biden administration should “do more” and “be more imaginative” when it came to both the security assistance and refugee support offered during the current war. According to Wells, the United States should focus on offering additional weaponry as well as food and emergency supplies to the millions of Ukrainians fighting for their country. He pointed to the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which was an effort to contain communism by offering political and military support for Greece and Turkey, which were located on the Soviet border, as well as the Berlin Airlift, which provided resources like food and fuel to those in West Berlin.
“We have a duty to protect and help Ukraine protect the population. We should open and continue the security assistance to support the Ukrainians. I like what President Biden is doing with regard to the economic attrition that has been undertaken,” Wells said. “I don’t think it will provoke; I think the United States has other methods and back channels as well as direct communication with the Russians to communicate our intent. I don’t think it’ll provoke a broader conflict.”
When asked if he felt the United States should have accepted an offer of war planes from Poland to send to Ukraine, Wells said Biden should have.
“I think obviously, the President’s been very careful,” Wells said. “He’s getting counsel from the Secretary of Defense. However, this is a war of aggression. This takes extraordinary measures by the world community, not just the United States, to deal with Mr. Putin and Russia.”
As to whether such a move would prompt an escalation by Russia, Wells said that was not likely.
“I think it’ll take more than planes to provoke Putin,” Wells said. “This is a war. He is a very clever, particular leader.” When it came to Putin announcing he was putting Russian nuclear weapons on alert, Wells said that was particularly in reference to Ukraine, not Western allies or other nations.
More than anything else, Wells stressed he did not believe the Ukraine war would be over any time soon.
“This is a long, slow burning fuse that will not end with the capitulation of Kyiv, or the Russians declaring any type of victory,” Wells said, adding that Putin may have a “Pyrrhic victory” in Ukraine, essentially meaning he could win the war but at a greater cost than the war itself was worth.
Threats at home
Any owner of a world map can see Russia’s relative proximity to Los Angeles — and, by extension, Santa Monica — but Wells said there was virtually no possibility of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) hitting his hometown.
Firstly, the United States and its allies track indications and warnings of potential nuclear threats, which would show if there was an escalation — ”a stepping up of nuclear readiness” — in Russia, which there has not been. Secondly, an ICBM would be fired over the North Pole, and the United States’ strategic nuclear defense would intercept it. Thirdly, and most crucially, Wells said, “it’s a zero sum, lose-lose proposition.” Putin knows if he strikes the U.S., Moscow will be immediately hit. So, no need to dig a shelter in your backyard.
“I think any type of threat to my hometown of Santa Monica would be principally irregular warfare,” Wells said. He said that would most likely come in the form of cyber attacks on infrastructure like water, oil pipelines or the electricity grid.
When it comes to developing “hard targets” — meaning, building up defense against irregular warfare — Wells said U.S. Homeland Security and the U.S. Armed Forces are already working on it.
“You have a level of readiness, as they call it, and I think people should rest assured that we do have pre-planned responses and we have dedicated professionals in government and in the private sector that do have courses of action,” Wells said. “Those types of threats occur — they happen every day.” So far, the U.S. has been successful in deflecting such attacks, but we need to “step up our game” as threats continue to come in from Russia.
“This is the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II,” Wells said in describing the millions of refugees flooding out of Ukraine and into neighboring countries like Poland, Slovakia and Romania. “It has a lot of similarities with the German invasion of Poland [in 1939] — the German attempt to pretty much exterminate the Jews in Eastern Europe. If you look at what the Russians are doing, indeed, they are creating this humanitarian crisis. As the Ukrainians have talked about it, it really is a cultural genocide against the Ukrainian people.”
Wells said he was reminded of similar tragedies; not only the Holocaust but the more recent humanitarian atrocities of the Syrian civil war and the genocide in Darfur.
For Santa Monica residents who have resources, Wells said there are plenty of international aid organizations worthy of financial support including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UN World Food Programme, as well as nonprofits like the Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse, which Wells said his family has given money to since the start of the war in Ukraine.
“So, for Santa Monicans, if you could do your part, a little bit goes a long way,” Wells said, adding, “Pray, have a moral empathy for a common humanity of the people of Ukraine — they’re great people.”
Life in Santa Monica
Wells grew up in Santa Monica in the 1960s and ’70s, fishing off the Pier with his dad and grandpa, playing trumpet in the Santa Monica College Corsairs band and watching Apollo 11 land on the moon using technology partially developed by his friends’ parents at Douglas Aircraft, just a few blocks up the road from where he lived at Pico Boulevard and 23rd Street.
“It was the home of Douglas Aircraft, which is the home of the DC-3,” Wells said in a recent conversation with the Daily Press. “Growing up, they had the space program, so you had Douglas manufacturing components for the Mercury, the Gemini and Apollo [space missions], and we used to watch the planes take off.” Wells said some of his classmates had moms and dads who worked at Douglas Aircraft or Rand Corporation, while other classmates were the kids of movie stars in Malibu, all attending class together at Samohi. Wells was the son of a Korean War vet who served in the Navy and the grandson of a battleship sailor who had been stationed in San Pedro.
“There’s a lot of Navy salt in my blood,” Wells remarked. There’s also a fair bit of Santa Monica salt in his blood: Wells’ grandparents were married in Santa Monica and his father was a school principal for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Wells attended Will Rogers Elementary, John Adams Middle School and Samohi, graduating in 1972.
Wells described the Santa Monica of the late ’60s and early ’70s as a combination of a beach town and an aerospace hub during the era of the space race; it was a thrilling time to live in Santa Monica and it set the foundation for his life to come.