Lurking beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean is a threat that has not been the focus for national security strategists in the United States since the end of the Cold War: Russian submarines.
The vessels are quiet, hard to detect, and an asset in which the Russian military has continued to invest. During the last several years, Russia has sent submarines farther into the North Atlantic and Mediterranean and Black seas. They are a growing concern for the United States as Russia attempts to stretch its power and influence around the world.
The U.S. Navy’s answer to the increased maritime competition with Russia is the re-establishment of its 2nd Fleet, which declared initial operational capability this week, meaning it can start commanding and controlling forces in the Atlantic Ocean.
The U.S. military has pivoted in the last two years from focusing on a counterterrorism to what the Pentagon calls “great-power competition” with several nations. The biggest challengers to the United States are the Russians and Chinese. With Russia’s increasingly aggressive posturing, the feeling in the U.S. military has been to meet this new challenge with a mindset similar to its Cold War stance when the two nations went head to head around the world.
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2nd Fleet’s return marks the Atlantic Ocean as an operational area, instead of just an area of transit for ships.
“That is, that there may be real world, peace time and wartime operations going on there. And that tracks to the revival of Russian military activity in the Atlantic,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You know they’re sending submarines out again. You can see that they are reasserting military power again. So the Navy felt that it needed to recreate this fleet in order to be able to respond operationally.”
Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, the 2nd Fleet commander, told an audience at a CSIS event in November that “the Russian undersea threat is real and they are very competent and very operationally capable,” adding a U.S. submarine group had also been re-established on the East Coast and he is working in coordination with the commander on the anti-submarine warfare mission.
The Fall and Rise of 2nd Fleet
Why 2nd Fleet was shut down in 2011 and then had to be brought back seven years later is a story very familiar to the military: downsizing and changing priorities.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration was pivoting to the Pacific Ocean as it was pulling forces out of Europe, and drawing down forces in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cancian said.
“Well if you’re going to do that, then of course the Atlantic becomes much less important,” he said.
That drop in importance also affected its standing when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted to cut Pentagon overhead costs, so the military looked to reduce its number of headquarters, according to Cancian. The Atlantic was a major focus of anti-submarine warfare during the Cold War, but that threat had been diminishing, so 2nd Fleet was disbanded, with its personnel, responsibilities, and assets moved under U.S. Fleet Forces, according to a Navy release at the time.
But in early 2014, Russia invaded Crimea and started a war in eastern Ukraine. Europe once again became an area of heightened concern for the United States and its NATO allies, as Russia looked to re-assert itself in Eastern Europe.
“So the thinking in the Obama administration about Russia changes at that point. Previously Russia had been seen as you know sort of partly adversary, partly partner, depending on the issue,” Cancian said. “And after 2014 it was clear that the Russians were going to be very aggressive and they were not going to be partners.”
More so, by 2018, the counterterrorism strategy of the past 15 years was surpassed by the growing concern for Russian resurgence as well as China’s desires to unseat the United States as the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific. The Pentagon under President Donald Trump’s administration, then led by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, drew up the National Defense Strategy that put Russia and China front and center of the military’s renewed focus on great-power competition.
Last August, the Navy held a re-establishment ceremony to bring back 2nd Fleet officially to meet the needs of defending the Atlantic Ocean as far north as the Arctic. It was also tasked to develop concepts that test the Navy’s warfighting abilities in various scenarios and conditions.
2nd Fleet is again based at Naval Station Norfolk on the coast of Virginia, considered the largest U.S. naval base. Lewis said during a recent visit by reporters to the Norfolk base that the fleet has been designed to be “lean, agile and expeditionary.” The fleet’s staff of officers and sailors will stay relatively small, currently at about 100, and will likely double as it reaches full operational capability in December, according to Lt. Marycate Walsh, a 2nd Fleet spokeswoman.
“But the ultimate size of the staff will be a number that is fit for its purpose and fit for its time,” she added.
Unlike other fleet commands, 2nd Fleet will not be constrained to a specific geographic area, operating missions in the Atlantic Ocean and up to the Arctic and reporting to either U.S. Naval Forces North or U.S. Naval Forces Europe.
The commands of NAVNORTH and NAVEUR divide the Atlantic Ocean along an imaginary line from the southern tip of Greenland down to about the Caribbean Sea. But 2nd Fleet will be able to conduct a change of operational control, or CHOP, shifting the control of a ship between NAVNORTH and NAVEUR based on mission requirements and not geography, according to the Navy.