As I prepared to turn over the helm of U.S. Sixth Fleet, I was reminded of a Proceedings article written by Vice Admiral Isaac Kidd when he similarly turned over Sixth Fleet in 1972. “View from the Bridge of the Sixth Fleet Flagship” offers a glimpse into the past, to a time when the fleet’s mission was to help “maintain peace and stability on NATO’s southern front in the face of growing Soviet naval strength.”
Leading his fleet in the time of the Jordanian Crisis in 1970, Kidd noted that “a new chapter in the textbook on naval tactics is being written in the Mediterranean today” and that his fleet had “seen the first signs of new naval tactics in the missile age.” He lamented both the size (40 ships to the Soviet Union’s 50) and age of his fleet (averaging 19 years to the Soviet Navy’s 7), as well as the budget restrictions that impacted his ability to sail and train. At the same time, he expressed great confidence in the “American Bluejacket’s proven performance” and the fleet’s ability to sustain itself at sea using a robust, sea-based replenishment cycle.
Fast forward 48 years to the Sixth Fleet of today, and it is interesting to reflect on what has changed and what has remained the same. Although today’s fleet bears little physical resemblance to its predecessor, the players, the tools, and the challenges Vice Admiral Kidd faced still remain in the Mediterranean and beyond. In many ways, they have simply evolved, modernized, and re-materialized in new and different forms. My tour as fleet commander has been shaped by these evolving challenges, including China’s debt-induced, widening influence in resource-rich Africa and in Europe; Russia’s continued attempt to illegally annex Crimea and close the Kerch Strait; Russia’s growing submarine force and its increased activity through deployments and large exercises; Russian and Iranian proxies conducting malign activity across the Region; Syria’s use of chemical weapons on its own people; Al-Shabab attacking and killing Americans in Manda Bay, Kenya; terrorist attacks at Christmas markets and other gatherings; instability in Africa and the Middle East leading to increased migration to Europe and beyond; and a global pandemic—just to name a few. One former Sixth Fleet commander advised me to wake up every day and ask, “What’s new today?” He was right. In Sixth Fleet, there is something new every day, requiring 360-degree vigilance, day in and day out. As Vice Admiral Kidd directed his fleet to become “…so proficient in the fundamentals of naval matters that the unexpected can be taken in stride,” the Sixth Fleet of today constantly pivots to engage each new challenge.
Same Geography, Different Responsibility
The Sixth Fleet of today operates far beyond the Mediterranean. Our area of operations now extends north to the Barents, Norwegian, and Baltic Seas, westward into the vast Atlantic Ocean, eastward into the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and south to encompass a majority of the waters off Africa. As the operational arm for the naval component of both U.S. European and Africa Commands, the fleet has an advantage. Using the middle of the Mediterranean near Sicily as a vantage point, the men and women of Sixth Fleet have a unique, 360-degree view of the multitude of challenges: the return of great power competition embodied in a resurgent Russia and rising China; instability leading to migration and social upheaval; and violent extremism. Threats flow across the maritime domain, and thus our forces must always be ready to flex and flow seamlessly in response. No matter from what direction challenges and adversaries come, the fleet is postured to respond every day. Presence, training and exercises, and operations with our allies and partners go a long way to support regional stability, build trust, and deter malign activity. Our operations in the High North, with carrier strike groups in the Norwegian fjords, ballistic missile submarines visiting Faslane, Scotland, and surface action groups in the Barents Sea as well as our routine presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black Seas counter our adversaries and support our friends. As in Admiral Kidd’s day, we are America’s “away team,” defending freedom and protecting the values we hold dear—far from the shores of the United States.
Same Mission, New Tools
Today, the Sixth Fleet relies heavily on forward deployed naval forces as well as rotational deployers. What we lack in numbers we make up in capability. Today’s tools include Arleigh Burke–class destroyers with embarked helicopters; P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft; the Sixth Fleet flagship USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20); Los Angeles–, Virginia-, and Ohio-class submarines; replenishment and logistics ships; AEGIS Ashore in Romania and Poland; and a constant rotation of aircraft carrier strike groups, amphibious ready groups/Marine expeditionary units, and other expeditionary forces. These tools make us well suited to perform peacetime missions, while poised to respond to any crisis. They also enable us to train and exercise with NATO allies and partners.
We just finished the 49th iteration of Exercise Baltic Operations (BaltOps), and we are about to kick off the 20th year of Sea Breeze in the Black Sea, co-hosted with Ukraine. Coronavirus mitigations notwithstanding, next winter we will conduct the 10th iteration of Obangame Express in the Gulf of Guinea, the 14th year of Phoenix Express in North Africa, and the 19th year of Cutlass Express on the east coast of Africa. These Express Series exercises build interoperability between local navies, coast guards, and maritime law enforcement while increasing maritime domain awareness.
In the near future, maritime unmanned systems will become increasingly prevalent and enable more distributed, affordable options that complement the capability of the current force. We have worked to establish Sixth Fleet as a battle lab for high-end experimentation with NATO allies and partners. These systems will dramatically alter the way we conduct military operations, and they require operational experimentation to rapidly integrate the capabilities into the force, ensure interoperability, develop novel tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), and characterize their performance in operationally relevant environments.
Last year Sixth Fleet participated in the largest ever NATO maritime unmanned systems exercise, REP MUS 2019. This exercise included more than 850 personnel, 8 centers and universities, 17 industry partners, 7 ships, and 1 submarine, and it achieved many firsts for NATO interoperability and future capabilities.
In October, Sixth Fleet will conduct mine countermeasures experimentation during exercise Dynamic Mariner 2020, working with the French Navy and the NATO Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation to assess the performance of interoperable, collaborative autonomy and command, control, and communications capabilities that will enable these systems to work together to accomplish a common mission.
Next year, in conjunction with partner navies and the Missile Defense Agency, we will conduct the third Formidable Shield exercise off the Hebrides in the United Kingdom showcasing the latest national advances in integrated air and missile defense in a series of live-fire demonstrations.
Just as in 1972, these exercises and experimentation help build lasting relationships and improve our collective ability to defend against any threat.
New adversaries and threat capabilities, same determined focus
Vice Admiral Kidd notably highlighted the “three-dimensional threat” posed by the Soviet Fleet in the air, surface, and undersea domains, and the necessity to deal with these threats at range. Today, the threats in these domains have increased, with more capable and longer-range antiair, antisurface, and antisubmarine weapons fired from platforms with increased stealth capabilities. Unmanned platforms and cyber warfare pose additional risks—both are inherently stealthy and can be acquired easily by state and non-state actors. Concurrent with increased threat capability, the adversaries have changed. From 1972 to today, we have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union but the rise of a resurgent and opportunistic Russia. Violent extremist organizations have emerged globally, posing a multi-axis threat in all domains. China’s economic expansion into Europe, Africa, and the Arctic circle have provided forward-basing options for its navy, with ever-increasing naval presence in the Sixth Fleet area of operations. Just as Admiral Kidd pledged that “The Sixth Fleet will continue to do its job,” we continue to advocate for the latest technologies, more force presence, and learning through exercises, planning, and wargames, to prevent any adversary “. . . from gaining a military edge which could not be overcome.”
The partners have changed, but you still can’t surge trust
In 1972, NATO had 15 members, today it has 30—and many have capable navies that contribute to the collective defense. In Africa, we work with 29 navies to stop violent extremist organizations, human trafficking, illegal fishing, drug, and contraband shipments, and weapons proliferation and smuggling. As in Vice Admiral Kidd’s day, we can’t do our mission without the support of our “aircraft carriers that don’t get underway,” our shared bases in Rota, Spain; Naples/Gaeta/Sigonella, Italy; Souda Bay, Crete; and Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Our strength is in the maritime, where it is relatively easy to play in a pick-up game—in international waters, we all sail in the same environment, using standard procedures to operate and communicate. This common framework gives us the flexibility to respond rapidly and act on challenges as a combined maritime force. But that is only possible as a result of consistent training and engagement opportunities. The people-to-people connections enhance the collective capabilities—big or small—that each Navy brings to the table. These connections also come into play in another form of partnership – that of the joint components, with whom we routinely work to improve interoperability and readiness to fight as a joint, integrated team.
“The power of the American Bluejacket” has not changed, but the Bluejackets + Leathernecks of today are made up of America’s finest sons and daughters and represent an even broader cross-section of our vibrant and diverse culture.
Our ships, submarines, and aircraft are the best in the world, but without the people who operate them they are just pieces of steel that go nowhere and do nothing. People bring them to life. The fabric of our Navy is woven from the experiences of all who serve, and in Sixth Fleet we value the contributions of each and every teammate. I always say that people are our “secret weapon,” and our most important resource. There is no doubt that sailors + Marines with the right tools, attitude, and integrity will operate safely and deliver warfighting excellence when and where it matters in support of our national interests.
As I look out from the bridge wing of my Sixth Fleet flagship as the sun sets over Malta, it is hard not to think about the legacy my fleet will leave behind, and what will be different for the Sixth Fleet commander looking out from his or her bridge wing 48 years from now in 2068. I have no doubt that logistics will continue to be a critical domain in warfare, that the weapons and sensors will be faster and more effective, that alliances and partnerships will continue to make us stronger, and that American sailors and Marines will continue to be the foundation of our mission success. I see a bright future for our fleet, and I am confident that no matter the changes, Sixth Fleet will continue to deliver on its motto: “Power for Peace.”
Vice Admiral Franchetti sends.