NORFOLK, Va. — It was the U.S. Navy’s storied 2nd Fleet that stared down Soviet nukes during the Cuban Missile Crisis more than a half-century ago. Now, the Pentagon has brought the fleet back to counter an increasingly aggressive Russian military around the world.
The 2nd Fleet “was born by virtue of a dynamic event,” said Adm. John M. Richardson, chief of naval operations. He said the fleet holds a legendary role in preventing the Cold War from turning hot and is well-postured to curb Russian expansionism today.
“You do get a sense of the gravity of this moment,” Adm. Richardson said Friday aboard the USS George H.W. Bush at a ceremony marking the fleet’s return to combat operations after nearly a decade of dormancy.
The ceremony was held at the 2nd Fleet’s Norfolk headquarters just days before Russia announced plans to hold its biggest war games in nearly four decades. The Russian military will hold massive exercises next month with the Chinese and Mongolian armies.
Although the Russian announcement Tuesday caused a stir at the Pentagon, U.S. officials said their decision to reinstate the 2nd Fleet — a development that was months in the making — was driven mainly by a need to undergird American naval dominance in the Atlantic.
Russian naval activity has surged on and below the North Atlantic and through the Arctic Circle in recent years. With the 2nd Fleet disbanded since 2011, the job of matching and countering Russian operations in those regions has fallen almost solely on the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, whose responsibilities were already stretched between European and North African waterways.
Top U.S. and NATO leaders agreed that the 2nd Fleet’s reactivation was overdue. “It’s about time,” Adm. Richardson said Friday. “It may have been too long.”
NATO is bolstering the development by creating the Joint Force Command-Norfolk, the alliance’s counterpart to the 2nd Fleet, which is set to break ground in the coming weeks. Representatives from several NATO nations who will be based at the command attended Friday’s ceremony.
Both establishments will spearhead U.S. and allied efforts to curtail Russian operations in the Atlantic, with Washington and Brussels keeping a wary eye on Moscow’s fleet amid rising concern about the prospect of an event similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Officials say an increase in Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic, combined with reports that Moscow is testing a long-range, nuclear-powered missile in the Barents Sea — a waterway in the Arctic between Russian and Norwegian waters — are signs that Russia is pushing to expand its operational boundaries in both regions.
The challenge posed to the U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic, specifically, has made the region “the most rapidly changing national security [situation] in recent years,” said Adm. Richardson. “The Navy is responding.”
Adm. Christopher W. Grady, chief of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said the reinstated 2nd Fleet “will not simply pick up where we left off” when the fleet was disbanded seven years ago. He asserted that the fleet’s initial slate of operations will include missions extending across the Atlantic.
Lt. Cmdr. Ashley Hockycko, command spokeswoman, told The Washington Times that officials were still determining specifics on the size of the fleet as well as the types of submarines, warships and aircraft that will be at its disposal.
Toward the Arctic
A surge in Arctic Circle activity by Russian submarines — by far the most potent segment of Moscow’s naval fleet — has sent U.S. officials scrambling to respond in recent years.
Sources say the Pentagon’s concern centers on the potential threat that the Russian subs pose to some 550,000 miles of underwater fiber-optic cables that crisscross the Atlantic and Arctic ocean floors and transmit some of America’s most sensitive military secrets.
While that hung in the backdrop at Friday’s ceremony, Adm. Richardson signaled that the 2nd Fleet’s initial mission will likely be to address a separate burgeoning threat: long-range weapons that Moscow seeks to field in the near future.
“A new 2nd Fleet increases our strategic flexibility to respond, from the Eastern Seaboard all the way to the Barents Sea,” the top Navy officer said during a speech.
A growth in U.S. Navy operations in and around the Barents, which abuts Russia’s northern coastline, suggest a growing desire at the Pentagon to contain Russia’s naval operations space and to tighten the noose around any long-range missile development by Moscow.
Both will play significant roles in the development of the 2nd Fleet as it moves toward becoming fully operational in the next year, said retired U.S. Adm. James G. Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander.
“The new battle space for 2nd Fleet reflects two critical elements: The first is Russia’s desire to extend the distance over which its fleet can roam,” he told USNI News. “The second is new long-range attack technologies that allow Russia far greater maritime standoff distance.”
U.S. intelligence officials claimed in early-August that Moscow was in the midst of a search and recovery mission for a nuclear-powered, long-range missile test fired into the Barents Sea. It was one of four such missiles tested by Moscow in November and February, according to a report by CNBC.
The new weapon was one of several touted during a March speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who claimed it possesses unlimited range. Western analysts read the declaration as a veiled threat to European capitals intent on curbing Russia’s activities in Ukraine and the Baltics.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment last week on the report that Moscow had engaged in a recovery mission to salvage one of the missiles. “In contrast to the U.S. television network, I have no such information,” he said, according to the Russian state news outlet TASS. “I advise you to contact our specialists concerned at the Defense Ministry.”
Russia has conducted several tests of its Kalibr cruise missile in the Barents Sea and elsewhere in the North Atlantic. The Kalibr has been used by Russian warships moored off the Syrian coastline in long-range strikes against Islamic State and others inside Syria.
Vice Adm. Andrew “Woody” Lewis, who has been named commander of the 2nd Fleet, declined on Friday to indicate how active the fleet may become in the Arctic region but said it will “be able to operate in all environments.”
With regard to the Arctic specifically, he said, the region “is a priority focus, [but] whether or not it will be the No. 1 focus, it remains to be seen.”
The U.S. has about 14 attack submarines and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines patrolling the world’s waterways, although officials rarely divulge details on submarine positioning and areas of operation.
Regardless of where fleet commanders decide where to set their sights with the 2nd Fleet, Navy leaders must be ready to adapt to the “dynamic security environment” posed by Moscow, Adm. Richardson said.
In the North Atlantic alone, he said, the Russian navy is sailing at “an operational tempo we have not seen in the last 25 years.”