From rental cars to fishing boats to autonomous delivery robots, fleets encompass groupings of vehicles operating together or managed under the same ownership. The term most often is used to describe a large grouping of naval vessels under the command of a flag officer.
The U.S. Navy’s operational forces are divided into numbered fleets that—with one exception—are organized into geographic areas of responsibility in which they operate.
Because fleet operational areas are static, individual ships are assigned to the appropriately numbered fleet as they move from one geographic area of responsibility to another. A destroyer assigned to Second Fleet while operating out of her home port of Norfolk, for example, might be deployed to the Mediterranean Sea for several months, where she would operate as part of Sixth Fleet. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean to return to Norfolk, she would again become part of Second Fleet.
Numbered fleets are established and disestablished according to operational needs. The apparent gaps—today, there is no First Fleet, for example—are not an oversight, but are the result of historical evolution. For example, Tenth Fleet was created in 1943 as an organizational clearinghouse for coordinating antisubmarine warfare and convoying activities during the Battle of the Atlantic. Disestablished in 1945, it was resurrected in January 2010 to “plan, coordinate, integrate, synchronize, direct, and conduct the full spectrum of cyberspace operational activities across all of the Navy’s warfighting domains.”
The numbered fleet system the Navy uses today was first put in place on 15 March 1943, when Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King announced a redesignation of the Navy’s operating forces. He declared that fleets associated with the Atlantic would be given even numbers and those of the Pacific would be given odd numbers. The system was complex by necessity; it designated four fleets in the Pacific—First, Third, Fifth, and Seventh—and four more—Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Eighth—in the Atlantic (which included both African and European waters). A Ninth Fleet also was created that had components in both major oceans and included the Naval Transportation Service—a forerunner of today’s Military Sealift Command—which coordinated the transport and delivery of personnel, equipment, and supplies.
Of particular interest to naval historians are World War II’s Third and Fifth Fleets. These were actually one gigantic fleet, unofficially known as “Big Blue.” As World War II progressed, the fleet changed its designation with alternating operations depending on who was commanding—Admiral William Halsey had command of Third Fleet and Admiral Raymond Spruance commanded Fifth Fleet. Spruance, for example, commanded “Big Blue” as Fifth Fleet at the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, and Halsey commanded it—operating as Third Fleet—at the Battle Leyte Gulf in October 1944.
The numbered fleet system was disestablished after World War II but periodically reactivated thereafter, and was made permanent in 1986.
An entire fleet is too large to be used for most specific operations, but a particular task may require more than one ship. To better organize ships into useful groups, the Navy developed an organizational system that has been in use since World War II. Fleets can be divided into task forces (TFs); they can be further subdivided into task groups (TGs). If there is a need to further subdivide a task group, task units (TUs) can be created, and these can be further subdivided into task elements (TEs).
Sixth Fleet, for example, might be divided into two task forces numbered TF 61 and TF 62. If TF 62 needed to be divided into three separate entities, they could be task groups numbered TG 62.1, TG 62.2, and TG 62.3. If TG 62.3 needed to be subdivided, it could be broken into task units numbered TU 62.3.1 and TU 62.3.2. Further divisions of TU 62.3.1 could be task elements TE 184.108.40.206 and TE 220.127.116.11. This system can create virtually any number of task forces, groups, units, and elements—limited only by the number of ships available. Ships, though, are not the only entities that can be assigned to these organizational units; a task element might also consist of aircraft or Marines.
An example of how this has been put into practice is Joint Task Force One (JTF-1). It was stood up in January 1946 to scientifically test and evaluate the effects of the newly developed atomic bomb in Operation Crossroads. Though it was a joint operation with other services that included both civilian scientists and Army and Navy personnel, it well illustrates this organizational concept. JTF-1, with its 42,000 personnel, 251 ships, and 156 aircraft, was subdivided into eight task groups, each performing specific functions surrounding the nuclear tests. TG 1.6—the Navy Air Group—for example, had three assignments carried out by four task units: drone plane and boat control, aerial photography, and seaplane transportation and servicing. Within it, TU 1.6.1 was the Drone Carrier Unit, tasked with transporting drone aircraft to and around the test area. The task unit itself comprised four task elements: TE 18.104.22.168 was a single ship, the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La (CV-38), tasked with ferrying drone aircraft that operated from Roi Island, Kwajalein; TE 22.214.171.124 consisted of four plane guard destroyers—Charles P. Cecil (DD-835), Furse (DD-882), Newman K. Perry (DD-883), and Turner (DD-834); TE 126.96.36.199 was the Navy Field Recovery Subunit, Naval Air Base Roi-Namur, Kwajalein—an airfield on the atoll used for landing and experimenting with the drone planes; and TE 188.8.131.52 was the drone aircraft themselves, operated by personnel assigned to Air Development Squadron (VX) 2. The escort carrier Saidor (CVE-117) was an entire task unit of TG 1.6. As TU 1.6.2—the Photo Carrier Unit—it acted as headquarters for drone boat and photography activities. The other two task units of TG 1.6 were TU 1.6.3—the Seaplane Unit—and TU 1.6.4—Seaplane Tender Unit, Bikini.
Taken together, these useful operational units permit the Navy to operate with flexibility yet maintain the command-and-control structure needed to effect a response to any situation that may arise.