The US Navy has announced that its resurrected Second Fleet is finally operational and ready to confront Russia in the North Atlantic and the Arctic with all its 250 personnel – starting with wargames in the Baltic Sea next month.
Though it sounds imposing on paper, one could say that in practice the new Second Fleet is a glorified office. It has no ships and amounts to a command and coordination unit based in Norfolk, Virginia, run by Vice-Admiral Andrew ‘Woody’ Lewis.
“The North Atlantic has some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and with the opening of waterways in the Arctic, this traffic will only grow,” Lewis said on Wednesday, announcing the fleet’s operational status. “This is a fact acknowledged by both our allies and competitors, and as such, it is critically important US 2nd Fleet reinvigorates the way our forces are employed in this influential theater.”
It isn’t clear how exactly Lewis intends to accomplish these ambitious goals, or with what forces. Once upon a time, the Second Fleet had up to 126 ships and submarines in service – but that was before it got disbanded in 2011.
Orders for its reactivation, issued in May 2018, called for a force of only 250 or so officers and enlisted men. By comparison, a guided missile destroyer has a crew of around 170 and a fully staffed aircraft carrier has over 6,000 people on board.
Facing it across the ocean is Russia’s Northern Fleet, which includes the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, at least half a dozen missile destroyers, and another dozen or so missile and attack submarines.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Lewis acknowledged the Russians are “proficient undersea operators.”
To mark its return to the big leagues, the 2nd Fleet is supposed to command the Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) naval exercise next month. Some 18 countries are to participate in the annual NATO maneuvers, which Lewis called an “unambiguous display of strength in the Baltic region” that will show NATO’s ability to “deter aggression and project stability.”
Since the 2nd Fleet has no actual ships of its own, the US vessels involved with the exercise will presumably come from the 6th Fleet, headquartered in Italy.
As for the fleet’s aspirations in the Arctic, Lewis had to admit the polar ocean is not a “competitive space” for the US naval forces right now.
The US currently operates only two icebreakers, which has prompted naval officials to decry an “icebreaker gap” with Moscow for the past several years. Russia currently operates about 40 specialized vessels and is building a series of new atomic-powered icebreakers that hold out the promise of the Northeast Passage open for large-scale international shipping.
Even China is getting into the icebreaker business, issuing tenders last month for floating a 500-foot nuclear-powered vessel.