An Overview of the New Second Fleet Command
Reworking North Atlantic Defense
Jun 01, 2021

In the wake of the February 2014 Crimean crisis, the West began to refocus on North Atlantic defense. But Russia is not the Soviet Union; and with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the geography changed significantly. Most notably, the Nordics are working more closely together and have reinforced the Northern Flank of the North Atlantic Alliance. A key element of the way the defense threat plays out now is an arc from Poland to the UK, through the Nordic countries and over to Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the United States. The Russians are expanding their basing out into the Arctic as a way to reshape their flanking of the Nordic region as well.

In 2018, when U.S. Navy Admiral John Richardson was the Chief of Navy Operations, he stood up the new Second Fleet (C2F). This was not a re-establishment of the fleet sunsetted by the Obama Administration; it was creating a new approach to shaping maritime operations in the North Atlantic. The CNO had a clear desire to re-establish a command that could address North Atlantic defense, and notably the growing importance of coalition operations in the High North.

C2F is not a large command, certainly when compared with other numbered fleets. During its first three months, U.S. Navy Vice-Admiral Andrew Lewis, the Commander of C2F, worked with less than 10 staff members to create the foundations of how the fleet should be established and how best to work its concepts of operations.

As VAdm Lewis described the process: “We had a charter to re-establish the fleet. Using the newly published national defense strategy and national security strategy as the prevailing guidance; we spent a good amount of time defining the problem.

“My team put together an offsite with the Naval Post-Graduate school to think about the way ahead, to take time to define the problem we were established to solve and determine how best to organize ourselves to solve those challenges. We used the Einstein approach: we spent 55 minutes of the hour defining the problem and five minutes in solving it. Similarly, we spent the first two and a half months of our three-month pre-launch period working to develop our mission statement along with the functions and tasks associated with those missions.

“From the beginning our focus was in developing an all-domain and all-function command. To date, we clearly have focused on the high-end warfighting, but in a way that we can encompass all aspects of warfare from seabed to space as well.”

But the focus is not simply a new American command. The first operational NATO Command on U.S. territory, Allied Joint Force Command Norfolk (Allied JFC Norfolk), was also stood up under the command of VAdm Lewis. Structuring the new C2F and the JFC under one commander signifies a clear focus on interoperability and shaping a credible 21st century defense capability and infrastructure for deterrence and warfighting in the Northern region. 

The North Atlantic has returned as a core part of the defense challenge, but new relationships, new technologies and innovative concepts of operations are being shaped by the commands – under the leadership of Vice-Admiral Lewis. 

The first Deputy to Lewis was a Rear-Admiral from a distinguished Navy family. Recalling his service at C2F, Mustin (who is now a Vice-Admiral and currently head of the U.S. Naval reserves) commented: “As the 2nd Fleet Commander, Vice-Admiral Lewis clearly understands that we need to shape a new approach. When I was in High School in the 80’s, my father was the 2nd Fleet Commander, so I can legitimately say that “The new 2nd Fleet is not your father’s 2nd Fleet.”

That assertion is reflected certainly in terms of Lewis’s current Deputy and Vice Commanders. Upon arriving at VAdm Lewis’s spartan office area, you notice on one side is the office of Canadian Rear-Admiral Steve Waddell, Vice Commander of the Second Fleet, and on the other side is the office of the Deputy Commander of Joint Force Command Norfolk, Rear-Admiral Andrew Betton, of the Royal Navy, who was the first commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth. Those Admirals, along with Norwegian, French, and German Admirals and a British Commodore in the Allied Joint Force Command, all have tremendous command experience at sea in navigating some of the most challenging sea states in the world.

This advanced state of very senior defense collaboration is a key incubator for the shaping of new defense capabilities. The key role for cross-learning among allied navies is enhanced as well by the third command, and has also been incorporated into the Second Fleet.

The Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence (CJOS COE) is the only NATO Centre of Excellence  in the United States. The Centre was established in 2006 and continued to exist while 2nd Fleet did not. In that period between C2F’s stand down in 2011 and its standup again in 2018, the CJOS COE worked hard to shape the way NATO-wide maritime operations would contribute to Atlantic defense and, in the wake of the events of 2014, focused on the coming reset of North Atlantic maritime operations. Admiral Lewis understood the importance of the Centre in relation to core operations of 2nd Fleet, not just in terms of managing a NATO effort, but the kind of distributed integrated force that needs to be shaped to deal with the new strategic environment.

Our Norfolk interviews included meeting with the Deputy Director of the Centre, Commodore Tom Guy from the Royal Navy who discussed the key focus areas. “In Second Fleet terms, we very focused on the practical C2 aspects, notably making sure that US Carrier Strike Groups and Expeditionary Strike Groups are familiar with NATO tactics. We are focused, for example, on working with CSG-4 to ensure that NATO familiarity is built into their training approach. And we work on the reverse as well with European NATO navies ensuring familiarity with U.S. Navy procedures,” explained Commodore Guy.

“We are far from being alliance navies being completely integrated, and we are focused on the low hanging fruit. Some of this is about technology; some of it is about different operational cultures. Vice Admiral Lewis has been focused on having NATO C2 installed on U.S. Navy ships and upon shaping exercises and training whereby the operational cultural differences are attenuated. We must ensure that Second Fleet has what it needs to be the most effective multinational maritime component command it can be, on Day Zero.”
A key change being addressed by the three commands under VAdm Lewis, is the scope of the territory covered, namely defense efforts in the High North. 

Upon standing up the new command in 2018, Admiral Richardson described the future scope of operations like this: “A new 2nd Fleet increases our strategic flexibility to respond – from the Eastern Seaboard to the Barents Sea. Second Fleet will approach the North Atlantic as one continuous operational space, and conduct expeditionary fleet operations where and when needed.”

The new operational area – covered by 2nd Fleet and synergistically shaped by the JFC-experienced Admirals – clearly includes the Arctic, the High North more generally, and the Nordic waters. At the time of the standup, CNO Richardson highlighted that shift in this new approach and made clear the focus would be on projecting force. “This one will be high-end, blue-water warfare using major elements of maritime power.”

Under the leadership of Vice-Admiral Lewis, the commands – for the two together really constitute the shaping of the new defense infrastructure – have pursued a very innovative approach to building out capability. 

C2F was being shaped as new military capabilities were being generated on both the blue and red sides of the equation. This command can leverage the practical capabilities that fifth generation aircraft operating in the UK and the Nordics can deliver as well.

A key role in this effort has been that of C2F Vice Commander, Rear-Admiral Steve Waddell of the Royal Canadian Navy. His impressive background ranges from commanding ships on the East Coast to serving in the Pacific Area of Operations as CO at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, and then as Director General of Naval Strategic Readiness at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. In other words, he brings an important perspective on the challenges facing maritime forces in both the Pacific and the Atlantic to his work at Second Fleet.

In our discussion with him in his office in Norfolk in March 2021, he stressed the importance of this command, from his point of view, in defending the interests of the United States and its partners in the Atlantic area of operations. He underscored that C2F is best understood as a startup command, rather than an existing command template being re-stood up, as seen elsewhere in the U.S. Navy. He sees this effort as a driver for change for 21st century naval operations.

According to Waddell: “We will not be as large a command as other numbered fleets. We are designed to max out at about 250 people and currently are around 200 now. We have to be different and innovative in how we get after the missions. We need to make sure we’re using tools and alternative resources, because we don’t have that depth and capacity of people, so you have to find a different way.”

As a startup command that is now fully operational capable, or FOC, they are not emulating other numbered commands in many ways. “We are not primarily focused on the business of force generation, but we focus on how to use assigned forces to shape a desired outcome. We don’t want to get in the space of those responsible for force generation: we just want to be able to advocate for timely, effective outputs that optimize the use of the fleet.”

He commented on the misplaced assumption that the 2nd Fleet would be similar to the previous iteration. “The old 2nd Fleet was interested in sea lines of communication. But the new 2nd Fleet is focused on strategic lines of communication. This is an all-domain perspective, and not just the convoy missions of past battles of the Atlantic.”

RAdm Waddell refers to C2F as the “maneuver arm” in providing for defense, deterrence and warfighting – but as part of a whole of government approach to defending the United States, Canada and NATO allies against threats. “We are flexible and unconcerned with regard to whom we will work for. Operationally, we work for NAVNORTH (Fleet Forces Command) for the Homeland Defense Mission, but we can seamlessly transfer and work for NAVEUR/ EUCOM to defend forward, or to work in the GIUK Gap for an Allied Joint Force Command.”

The Vice Commander drives home one point throughout our discussion – that they are building an agile command structure, one that can work through mission command and with expeditionary operations centers. As he explains it, “For us a Maritime Operations Center is not a room with equipment. It is a capability, based on technology, process and people. We distribute it all the time, whether it’s been afloat or ashore. Previously, we were in Iceland. Right now, they’re down in Tampa for an exercise.”

So how did the U.S. Second Fleet end up with a Canadian Vice Commander? As Rear Admiral Waddell tells it, when VAdm Lewis was asked to stand up the 2nd Fleet, he was given much latitude and asked for a Royal Canadian Navy officer to serve as his vice commander.

Waddell feels that bringing a Canadian officer into the force made a lot of sense for a number of reasons. First, because of the partnership nature of operations in the area of interest. Second, because the Canadians have experience in operating in the high north, which could prove useful for renewed efforts by the United States to do so. Third, as Waddell himself works the C2F experience, he can weave what he learns into the Canadian approach to operations. As Canada adds new capability, such as the new frigate, it will enter the reworking of North Atlantic defense underway with the reshaping being done by C2F and Allied Joint Force Command. 

“It’s not lost on me that we as a Canadian service honed our teeth in the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War in the North Atlantic and then in the ASW [anti-submarine warfare] fight through the Cold War,” he observes. 

“Those competencies, although we were collectively distracted a little bit from iterations to CENTCOM and in the Persian Gulf for some time, are crucial going forward. I think we’ve reinforced those capabilities and are investing in new capabilities at home in Canada, such as with the Type 26 surface combatant program, a very robust platform.”

He believes that distances involved in the High North are generally not realized. “People forget that it’s a longer distance to go from, not even Norfolk but Halifax up into the Arctic than it is to cross the Atlantic.”

The logistics infrastructure in the High North is very limited compared to Europe, which means that for C2F, working through the kind of operational infrastructure needed to operate in the area is part of the equation as well.

“There is renewed focus on getting the East Coast Fleet involved in more northern activities. Canada does a series of annual Arctic exercises called Nanook. C2F is involved in this exercise. Typically, every other year there is a major warfare exercise off of Halifax called Cutlass Fury, where we will send ships and aircraft to participate as well. We are working to be able to reinforce operations in more northern latitudes.”

He discussed various tools and approaches being used to understand how to scope the challenges and priorities, including hosting a Battle of the Atlantic tabletop exercise. The goal of efforts like these are to consider the various interactions across an extended battlespace to understand how conflicts influence and impact one another.

All of this leads to a very significant conclusion about the U.S. Navy and allies integrating across an extended battlespace and operating distributed forces.

According to Rear-Admiral Waddell: “For the web of capabilities, you need to be ready to fight tonight, you need to be able to seamlessly integrate together across the fleet, inclusive of U.S. and allied forces. You fight as a fleet.”

His comments highlight a fundamental change from the culture that the U.S. Navy has run with for many years.

“You need to understand and accept that a fighting force needs to be reconfigurable such that others can seamlessly bolt on, participate in, or integrate into that force. That might mean changes from the assumptions of how the Navy has operated in the past in order to operate successfully with allies.

Robbin Laird is an international defense analyst and journalist based in the USA.
Ed Timperlake is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former USMC squadron commander. He has significant experience in the U.S. Department of Defense.