Eleven years after Russian warships returned to the Atlantic and eight years after the disestablishment of U.S. Joint Forces Command, it is time to decommission the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Forces Command and recommission a reorganized and reprioritized U.S. Atlantic Fleet. This would return control over the man, train, and equip functions of the Navy back to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and allow naval forces in the Atlantic region to focus on what they were built to do—control the maritime approaches to the United States and its allies. Both results are essential if the Navy is to adapt itself to a security environment shaped by great power competition.
The problem is not simply that a dedicated U.S. Atlantic Fleet is needed to counter a renewed regional threat—a dedicated geographic fleet (as opposed to just a numbered fleet) would be the most logical way to provide forces tailored for the resurrected Second Fleet and carry out the National Defense Strategy (NDS) requirement to “fortify the trans-Atlantic NATO alliance . . .[and] deter Russian adventurism on NATO’s periphery.”1 The span of control from both the Mediterranean and Black seas into the Arctic Ocean above the Nordic countries is just too great for Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, alone.
The problem also is that Fleet Forces Command, a separate, overarching, essentially administrative command directed by a four-star admiral—nominally subordinate to the CNO, but as independent as any four-star officer can be to implement his or her own vision—almost ensures a disconnect between the creation of doctrine and the drafting of Navy strategy. More important, it creates discontinuities between the application of resources to the maintenance of the fleet and the resource funding decisions made within Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OpNav). This disconnect has consequences for future Navy end-to-end development, creating an administrative and bureaucratic gap that is unnecessary, builds inefficiencies, and can dilute the sense of urgency.
Fleet Forces Command
Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFF) was established by then-CNO Admiral Vern Clark in October 2001 as a concurrent assignment for Commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (a title that was eliminated in 2006). The obvious model was U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCom), to which USFF was designated a component command. Similar to USJFCom, USFF was given responsibility for naval concept development, experimentation, interoperability, and training. Also similar to USJFCom, USFF divorced concepts, doctrine, tactical development, experimentation, and training from OpNav. USJFCom was disestablished and its functions returned to the Joint Staff in 2011.
In its command information, USFF identifies four functions as constituting its mission:
• Train, certify, and provide combat-ready Navy forces to combatant commanders.
• Command and control subordinate Navy forces and shore activities during the planning and execution of assigned service functions in support of the CNO.
• Provide operational planning and coordination support to Commander, U.S. Northern Command, Commander U.S. Element North American Aerospace Defense, and Commander, U.S. Strategic Command.
• Command subordinate forces during the planning and execution of joint missions as commander, U.S. Naval Forces Northern Command to Commander, NorthCom.2
In the latter two functions, USFF acts as the Navy’s coordinator for Navy homeland defense support, a task that logically would fall to a fleet command located in the continental United States. However, these tasks are largely delegated to Commander, Navy Installations Command, and Commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. In contrast, the first two functions are USFF’s primary concern, yet both seem almost duplicative of the CNO’s Title 10 responsibilities. This begs the question why a separate four-star command is necessary to carry out functions that overlap the authority of OpNav.
USFF also has six subordinate commands: the President, Board of Inspection and Survey (InSurv); Military Sealift Command; Naval Meteorology and Oceanographic Command, Navy Munitions Command; Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence; and Navy Warfare Development Command. These all are administrative—albeit very important—commands, but there is no clear reason that USFF is the management layer between them and OpNav (except that most are located in Norfolk).
In addition, USFF is the superior for the type commands (TyComs), of which the surface, air, and submarine type commands previously were split between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. The stated intent was to standardize maintenance, training, and certification across both fleets. However, such “standardization” means reducing the specialization necessary for optimizing task forces and battle groups to operate within the distinctive strategic requirements of great power threats. At the time of the decision to standardize, there was no perceived threat in the Atlantic region and Russia was regarded as a reluctant partner. It was not until the 2008 Russia-Georgia war that Russia began to be viewed as a military concern.3
No Longer a NATO/U.S. Lake
While it may have been logical in 2001 or 2006 to eliminate an Atlantic-focused fleet and substitute a “force provider” similar to USJFCom, such a decision no longer makes sense. If Russia’s 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia, annexation of Crimea in 2014 (and recent naval seizures), and permanent reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad in 2018 were not warning enough, Russian submarines now are operating in the Atlantic far south of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap of Cold War fame.4 In fact, Russian officials have boasted that Russian submarines routinely have operated undetected near East Coast U.S. naval bases.5 Admiral James Foggo, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa/Commander, NATO Allied Joint Force Command, Naples, has referred to recent activities as “the fourth battle of the Atlantic.”6 Obviously, the Atlantic no longer is the NATO lake that it appeared to be in the post–Cold War unipolar moment.
Because the resurgent Russian Navy is a high-technology, professional force with an innovative military-industrial complex, the U.S. Navy needs a four-star command responsible for the Atlantic that can meet this threat.7
Retransform the Security Environment
To solve the misfocus and dysfunction, four actions should be taken:
- Re-create a commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (USLantFlt) in the image of U.S. Pacific Fleet, to have control of Second and Fourth fleets.
- Return the USFF subordinate commands to the CNO.
- Create a concept development hub under the new Director for Warfighting Development.
- Place the TyComs under the authority of OpNav, with direct report to the CNO as well as their respective fleets.8
Move Subordinate Commands to CNO
As noted, USFF commands the activities of six subordinate commands. All could and would logically fit under the CNO or other commands without reorganization and with increased efficiency.
• InSurv functions as the equivalent of an inspector general for the evaluation of the material conditions and readiness of all ships. It has direct reporting requirements to the CNO and USFF, and official Navy websites note it is for “use by the Chief of Naval Operations to: 1) help inform his testimony before Congress; 2) help focus the allocation of scarce maintenance funding; and 3) modify or establish policy that enables the improvement of Fleet material readiness.”9
• Military Sealift Command also would function best under direct report to the CNO. A move to OpNav would highlight warfighting logistics needs and bring it in closer sync with the Deputy CNO for Fleet Readiness and Logistics, its resource sponsor and builder of its program objective memorandum submission to the defense budget.
• The Naval Meteorology and Oceanographic Command and the Navy Munitions Command also fit well under the CNO/OpNav.
• The Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence actually is a NATO center—with a dotted line to USFF—because it is in Norfolk and is Euro-Atlantic-region focused. This line should naturally go to the reestablished USLantFlt.
Creating a Concept Development Hub
The core of the new concept development hub should pair the currently USFF-controlled Navy Warfare Development Command and the CNO-controlled Naval War College—particularly the latter’s research arm, the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, the College of Maritime Operational Warfare, and the Joint Military Operations faculty. There is no reason to consolidate these organizations—their functions are different, albeit their products are often intertwined.10 Nevertheless, there needs to be a tighter, more cooperative flow in product through these levels of research, and the flow should be toward the Director for Warfighting Development.
The Deputy CNOs for Operations, Plans, and Strategy and Integration of Capabilities and Resources also need a direct flow of products from the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. Some of this effort could be coordinated by the Navy Analytical Office, but it should be coordination rather than control, and the end result should be to support naval decision-makers, who sometimes must work directly with the knowledge generators.
Different Ways for Different Fleets?
Perhaps the most controversial proposal would be to allow the TyComs (particularly air, surface, and submarine) to either directly report to the CNO or to resume their Atlantic and Pacific divisions and report to their respective fleets. Those supporting retention of an overarching TyCom commander—such as the Commander, Naval Surface Force; Commander, Naval Air Forces, etc.—base their argument on standardization. In this case, reporting to the CNO to ensure close coordination with OpNav makes sense. Would that bring back the powerful platform “barons?” Not necessarily, if organized well. In any event, TyComs already have a lot of informal control of their OpNav resource sponsors. For transparency, overt control might be better.
The counterargument is that in the new security environment of great power competition it might be better for TyComs to return to being regionally split so they can tailor their forces to the needs of their respective fleets. A conflict in the Indo-Pacific would take a different form than a conflict in the Euro-Atlantic, and the forces should be shaped to those differences.11
Tailor or standardize? That is where analysis is required. In any event, a commanding (coordinating?) USFF is not needed.
Connectivity and Atlantic Dominance
The time for a USFF is gone. Even the joint world has moved on. USJFCom was disestablished and its functions transferred (mostly) to the Joint Staff, and jointness has not suffered. There have been recent moves by Congress to give more power to the service chiefs (long maligned as parochial) to more efficiently carry out their Title 10 responsibilities. The Navy should do its part and return to efficiency by providing direct connectivity between strategy, policy, doctrine, tactical development, resource requirements, training, maintenance, logistics, and budgeting. This can best be done by returning these functions directly to the CNO.
Today, the Atlantic Ocean has the potential to be a contested region. The United States needs a four-star Navy command to focus on that with a “warfighting first” perspective. Force generation for other commands, except USNorthCom and USSouthCom, would be an inevitable distraction to USLantFlt and dilute the authority of the CNO.
Critics might say that this merely re-creates the “old Navy” and is not attuned to transformation. However, it was the “old Navy” that won the Cold War at sea. If the United States is in a new Cold War (with two potential opponents), does it have the organizational focus to win?
1. GEN James Mattis, USMC (Ret.), Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (2018), 9.
2. These are listed on www.public.navy.mil/usff/Pages/mission.aspx, edited for brevity.
3. David Brunnstrom, “Overflights Question Russia’s Georgia Role: NATO,” Reuters, 15 July 2008; Thom Shanker, “Russia Melded Old School Blitz with Modern Military Tactics,” The New York Times, 16 August 2008.
4. Andreas Schmidt, “The Estonian Cyberattacks” (January 2013) (draft version); Jack Stubbs, “Russia Deploys Iskander Nuclear-capable Missiles to Kaliningrad: RIA,” Reuters, 5 February 2018; Julian Borger, “Kaliningrad Photos Appear to Show Russia Upgrading Nuclear Weapons Bunker,” The Guardian, 18 June 2018; Christopher Woody, “Russia Reportedly Warns Mattis It Could Use Nuclear Weapons in Europe, and It Made Him See Moscow as an ‘Existential Threat’ to U.S.,” Business Insider, 14 September 2018; “Canada Monitors Russian Subs off East Coast,” CBC News, 12 August 2009.
5. Shane Croucher, “Russian Nuclear Submarine Commander Says He Sailed near Navy Base on U.S. Coast—But Pentagon Doesn’t Seemed Concerned,” Newsweek, 16 March 2018; Alex Hollings, “U.S. Navy to Bring Back Northern Atlantic Fleet after Russia Claimed Their Subs Infiltrated U.S. Waters,” Newsrep, 7 May 2018.
6. Christopher Woody, “The Navy Thinks Russian Subs are a Growing Threat to Europe, and It’s Mounting a Full Court Press to Counter Them,” Business Insider, 4 September 2018.
7. Under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, Russia is willing to experiment with concepts that other navies have not countenanced, such as the Status-6 Kanyon, a very long-range nuclear-powered torpedo (or unmanned underwater vehicle) with a nuclear warhead. Whether Status-6 is a practicable weapon, there are more such ideas from where that came from.
8. ADM John M. Richardson, USN, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0, December 2018, 10, 13.
9. RADM Mike Smith, USN, “Why Is There a Board of Inspection and Survey?” Surface Warfare 48 (Fall 2015).
10. CNWS does primarily strategic-to-operational level research. CMOW and JMO teach operational planning. NWDC works at the operational-to-tactical level.
11. The question of how to shape the Persian Gulf naval forces would remain to be solved.