Charting the Course: the U.S. Needs an Arctic Fleet

By Captain Kevin S. Eyer, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The Northern Command (NorthCom) is attuned to this absence of structure and the attendant inactivity. More specifically, the Alaskan Command (AlCom), a joint subordinate unified command element of the NorthCom, is increasingly concerned with Navy inaction in the Arctic. To date, the AlCom has not been able to attain the few Navy ships necessary to demonstrate U.S. interest in the region. Certainly this is a reflection of the Navy’s declining ship numbers at a time when the demand for ships is undiminished.

Normally, a combatant commander (CoCom) would route requests for forces (such as Navy ships) through its naval component commander (NCC) and then on to U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFFC) for annual disposition. As it turns out, however, USFFC is NorthCom’s NCC. It seems fair to say that this creates a difficulty for NorthCom because USFFC is senior and reports directly to the CNO. Frankly, USFFC is more interested in providing the very limited number of ships available to Navy commands such as the Fifth Fleet and Pacific Command.

This logjam must be broken. In this effort, there are two key steps. First, USFFC is too big, senior, and unresponsive for the task. This is doubly true if plans to remove major Pacific Fleet authorities and place them under USFFC go forward as is recommended. A new, separate, more junior and flexible flag—one directly responsible to NorthCom—needs to be established.

What is needed is an Arctic Fleet, and the template for this exists. In 1950, Fourth Fleet was disestablished. In 2008 the fleet was reestablished and merged with Southern Command’s naval component commander to address growing interests in the Caribbean and South America. While naval forces are not permanently assigned to Fourth Fleet, the organizational structure remains in place both to support force assignment and to represent Navy interests in the region. The same can be true in the Arctic.

This new Arctic Fleet can be established in a step-wise fashion, tailored across time and married to changing force structure. A sensible first step would be to augment the small Navy staff assigned to AlCom. Subsequently, in the mid-term, a joint inter-agency task force (JIATF) could be established out of the AlCom office, as resources and activity grew. Certainly, this JIATF would include the Coast Guard, but it also should include liaison officers from Canada, Norway, and other key allies. Ultimately this fleet would be stood up and merged with the NorthCom’s NCC. The Arctic Fleet could be commanded by, for example, either a Navy reserve admiral or a Coast Guard admiral.

In the interim, it seems imperative that forces be sent north to demonstrate U.S. intention and seriousness, not only to allies but also to potential adversaries. In the near term this could be a mission for LCSs, but by 2020, the start of the mid-term, a small task force should be deployed north on an annual basis to operate with Coast Guard assets and allies. That is, if the Navy is serious in its desire to gain the high ground in the far north.

Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).


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