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As Navy Mulls Ship Cuts, New 2nd Fleet Opens For Business

190916-N-PC620-0930 ATLANTIC OCEAN (Sept. 16, 2019) The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60), front, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, USS Farragut (DDG 99), left, USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98), right, and USS Lassen (DDG 82), back, steam in formation during while transiting the Atlantic. Normandy is operating in the Atlantic as part of a Surface Action Group in support of naval operations to maintain maritime stability and security in order to ensure access, deter aggression and defend U.S., allied and partner interests. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael H. Lehman/Released)

The 2nd Fleet says it’s ready to hunt Russian subs and start pushing into the Arctic. But it can only do that if the Navy can spare the ships.

By   Paul McLeary on December 31, 2019 at 1:54 PM 4 Comments19Shares

Guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy in the North Atlantic with destroyers USS Farragut, USS Forrest Sherman and USS Lassen. (US Navy photo)

PENTAGON: The Navy’s new fleet command designed to confront Russia in the North Atlantic and push more ships into the Arctic is fully operational as of today. 

The 2nd Fleet, which has been in the works since May 2018, recently wrapped up an Iceland-based exercise that tested the concept of establishing small, temporary command posts on land to run operations. The novel structure is part of an operating concept intended to keep staffing to a minimum while allowing commanders to exercise command and control over sea and air assets on the move in unpredictable environments.

“We talk about mission command quite a bit, being able to issue orders and issue changes to the on-scene commanders,” fleet commander Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis told reporters during the September exercise. He said the 2nd Fleet’s purpose is to push the idea as far as possible.

In a statement released today, Lewis added that his command will operate “within an increasingly complex global security environment, [where] our allies and competitors alike are well aware that many of the world’s most active shipping lanes lie within the North Atlantic.” 

Together with the opening of waterways in the Arctic, “this competitive space will only grow, and 2nd Fleet’s devotion to the development and employment of capable forces will ensure that our nation is both present and ready to fight in the region if and when called upon,” Lewis said.

One of the missions at the top of the 2nd Fleet’s list will be tracking Russian subs sailing out of the northern Kola Peninsula into the Barents Sea along the Norwegian coast on their way to the North Atlantic.

Last month, 10 Russian subs cruised through the waterway in one of the biggest undersea exercises since the Cold War. That prompted a flyover by three US B-52s, and the very public docking of the USS Minnesota, a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine, at Haakonsvern Naval Base on Norway’s west coast. The US 6th Fleet tweeted photos showing an MK-48 Advanced Capability torpedo being loaded aboard the boat. The 6th Fleet also touted a port visit by the guided-missile destroyer USS Gridley in Tromso, Norway before it participated in a multinational exercise off the Norwegian coast.

Those moves will fall squarely within the 2nd Fleet’s purview moving forward, though the command won’t act with any hard and fast boundaries for where in the North Atlantic it will command ships, sharing space with the 6th Fleet as needed.

State Department map

Lewis and his command will also integrate with NATO allies in order to increase the maritime punch on both sides of the Atlantic. “We tirelessly work with our partner and NATO alliances to strengthen our deterrence and defense efforts,” said Lewis, “to ensure there is no seam in the Atlantic for our adversaries to exploit.”

The fleet’s statement confirmed the command will “primarily focus on forward operations and the employment of combat-ready naval forces in the Atlantic and Arctic, and to a smaller extent, on force generation and the final training and certification of forces preparing for operations around the globe.”

In other words, it’s an operational command that will control ships only when they enter the North Atlantic and high north for limited periods of time, often on specific missions.

After Lewis and the 2nd Fleet commanded the massive Baltops exercise in the Baltic Sea this spring to test some operational concepts for the first time, he then led September’s Iceland exercise. That included about 30 sailors staffing the operations center on shore, where they guided ships, and pushed information to Norfolk Va. and the 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy. That’s a significant drop from the 500 people aboard the command ship Mount Whitney, from which they led  Baltops. Recommended

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While the 2nd Fleet is a harbinger of a more sustained US presence in the waters of the North Atlantic, the US is also working to expand and upgrade runways at an Icelandic airfield, allowing the Navy to fly more P-8 surveillance sorties from the country and widening the strip to accommodate C-5 Galaxy cargo planes.

The 2nd Fleet is standing up at a difficult time for the Navy, however, as the service spars with the White House and Pentagon over fleet size and shipbuilding budgets.

Adding the Arctic mission and an increased presence in the North Atlantic won’t come cheaply, and will likely require more ships in order to not detract from other missions in Asia and the Middle East.

A recent plan Navy leaders sent to the Office of Management and Budget, obtained by Breaking Defense, suggested buying a dozen fewer ships, slashing its shipbuilding budget, and possibly decommissioning 12 more hulls over the next four years. The proposals would not move the service any closer to its goal of having 355 ships by 2034, as the fleet would actually fall to 298 ships in 2025 — down from the 292 it has today. OMB appears to have rejected the moves, however, and directed the Navy to come up with a plan to get to 355 ships, including unmanned vessels, by 2030.

The Navy and Marine Corps are currently working on a new force structure plan due in mid-January, but given the back-and-forth with the White House on budgetary issues, it’s not clear if that plan will come out on time, or be revamped.

A report released today by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments documented some of the Navy’s struggles to modernize for confrontation with more advanced threats from China and Russia.  

The service “has been slow to address the changing threat environment,” authors Bryan Clark and Timothy Walton write. “As a result, today’s surface force lacks the size, resilience, and offensive capacity to effectively support the U.S. National Defense Strategy’s approach of deterring aggression by degrading, delaying, or defeating enemy attacks.” Given the new generations of medium and long-range precision weapons developed by both countries, “for the first time in more than a generation, the U.S. military’s ability to project power around the world is not assured,” the report says. 19Shares

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