US Navy re-establishes Atlantic fleet as Russian submarine activity surges

‘Our sea control and our power projection, two vital elements of our national security, are being challenged by resurgent foreign powers, namely Russia and China’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 5:38pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 10:05pm

This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Wesley Morgan on on August 24, 2018.

The US Navy has formally reactivated the cold war-era naval command it relied on for decades to confront adversaries in the waters off North America – the latest in a series of efforts to check Moscow's military expansion.

The move comes as Russian submarine activity surges in the Atlantic.

The 2nd Fleet in Norfolk, Virginia, which was deactivated in 2011, will once again be assigned ships, aircraft and Marine landing forces for potential operations along the East Coast and in the North Atlantic, where melting Arctic ice has also heightened the competition for natural resources.

“We as a Navy, as a nation, have not had to confront such peer competitors since the cold war ended nearly three decades ago,” one of the Navy’s top officers, Fleet Forces Command chief Admiral Chris Grady, said during a ceremony on Friday in Norfolk aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

“Our sea control and our power projection, two vital elements of our national security, are being challenged by resurgent foreign powers, namely Russia and China,” he added.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, who issued the order earlier this year to re-establish the 2nd Fleet, stressed that the US Navy is not “looking for a fight”.

But he said realities demand that it maintains “a large-scale ocean manoeuvre warfare” unit in the Atlantic region.

Earlier this year, Richardson told reporters that Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic is “more than we’ve seen in 25 years”.

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The 2nd Fleet, according to the US Navy, “will exercise operational and administrative authorities over assigned ships, aircraft and landing forces on the East Coast and the North Atlantic”.

It will also supply ships to other commands worldwide.

The US Navy first indicated it was re-establishing the fleet last spring, asserting it was needed “to better respond to the changing security environment.”

That was an apparent reference to an aggressive Russian military build-up that led Defence Secretary James Mattis to issue a new National Defence Strategy in January.

The strategy shifted the Pentagon from focusing primarily on counterterrorism to “great power competition”.

“This move is driven by Secretary Mattis,” said retired Admiral Melvin Williams, who led the 2nd Fleet from 2008 to 2010.

“He came out with a defence strategy that shifted focus to major competitors, so 2nd Fleet, as they come back, will be more involved in the basics of dealing with a major competitor, be it Russia or China.

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“Whereas after 9/11 a lot of our emphasis was on dealing with terrorism and piracy and supporting operations in the Middle East,” he added.

“That’s the back to the future aspect of it.”

Indeed, while it will be much smaller in scale than its cold war predecessor, the new 2nd Fleet will very much reflect its historic role.

From its founding in 1950 through the end of the cold war, 2nd Fleet was responsible for keeping tabs on Russian submarines and securing passage of allied forces across the Atlantic in the event of war.

Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, the fleet remained a substantial force.

Williams recalled in an interview that he commanded “on the order of 130 ships and submarines”, including aircraft carriers and amphibious landing vessels, and 90,000 sailors, marines and US Navy civilians.

But at least initially, the new fleet will be a shell of what it was.

Vice Admiral Andrew “Woody” Lewis, who took command of the new headquarters Friday in Norfolk, said he and his staff will “aggressively and quickly rebuild this command into an operational warfighting organisation”.

But Lewis does not actually control any ships yet, nor many personnel.

US Navy spokeswoman Lieutenant Commander Ashley Hockycko called his outfit a “lean” headquarters that has yet to reach its planned manning level of 250.

The fleet “will not immediately have oversight over assets until they reach initial and full operational capability at a future date to be determined, as they are being established using a phased approach,” she said.

Over time, ships from other units will be folded into the 2nd Fleet. Hockycko added that the fleet’s first “high-end” training is scheduled for early next year.

The move is one of several the US and its allies have made in recent months to strengthen naval and air forces in the Atlantic.

Last month, the United Kingdom's Royal Navy announced plans to establish its own new headquarters with a similar role as 2nd Fleet, citing Russia’s military “resurgence”.

Nato formalised plans in June to establish a new Atlantic Command, which would bring together the naval assets of the alliance in the same area 2nd Fleet is charged with patrolling, and the Pentagon has offered Norfolk as a likely headquarters site.

It’s unclear what the relationship will be between the new US fleet and the new Nato naval headquarters.

But during the cold war, 2nd Fleet played a key role in Nato’s Atlantic Command structure, with the 2nd Fleet commander also serving as the head of the alliance’s Striking Fleet Atlantic.

Nato’s old Atlantic Command was disbanded in 2003 and 2nd Fleet gave up its Nato strike role in 2005.