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Dismantling Our NATO-Linked Infrastructure

The recent cost-cutting proposal to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) is followed by a report this week according to which the U.S. Second Fleet staff and headquarters are on the chopping block. Second Fleet operates out of Norfolk, Virginia and exercises command and control of U.S. naval operations in the North Atlantic. During the Cold War its level of operational tasking was staggering; in 2010, its main focus shifted to fleet training. Its maritime cognizance of Latin America and the Caribbean was transferred to the resurrected Fourth Fleet in 2008. Meanwhile, Second Fleet has been used since 9/11 to command homeland-defense activities off the East coast. Its Pacific counterpart, Third Fleet in San Diego, performs similar functions on the West coast.

Like JFCOM, however, Second Fleet has a unique role in our obligations with NATO, one that confers on it the densely packed title “Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence.” Wearing this hat, Second Fleet labors to improve Alliance interoperability and doctrine in naval and expeditionary operations. It performs as a naval arm of the Allied mission to which JFCOM contributes through its liaison with the Norfolk-based NATO command, Allied Command Transformation (ACT).

It may be considered a sign of sclerosis in an alliance — possibly even of senility — when the tasks assigned to its agencies can no longer be conveyed in sensible language. NATO has big plans for ACT, however, and expressed strong endorsement of its mission in May of this year. That alone ought to warrant more careful reflection over eliminating JFCOM and Second Fleet. But the proposal to gut the U.S. Navy’s command infrastructure in the Atlantic carries existential implications for our core alliance with Western Europe. The fresh perspective needed here is strategic, not budgetary.

In terms of military planning, getting rid of Second Fleet means no longer seeing the Atlantic as a threat axis or potential maritime battle space for which dedicated tactical preparation is required. Other commands can take over some of the grab-bag of functions Second Fleet has been assigned in recent years, but a numbered fleet is uniquely organized for an integrated approach to naval warfare.

Dispensing with Second Fleet appears out of step with Russian developments since 2007, when Vladimir Putin declared that he would resume the Soviet-era posture of forward operation and surveillance. Today, Russian bombers again operate close to North America and Western Europe. Russian submarines ply the Arctic, where Moscow’s claims of mineral rights conflict with those of NATO allies America, Canada, Norway, and Denmark. A year ago, the Russian navy announced its resumption of a submarine presence off the U.S. East coast, deploying its most modern submarines equipped with long-range, land-attack cruise missiles. An ambitious naval building program makes it clear that Russian leaders want to reestablish their maritime profile in multiple directions.

Under President Obama, however, the U.S. military is becoming less organized in secure the East coast and the Atlantic. The shift is not yet comprehensive, by any means, but the proposals to eliminate JFCOM and Second Fleet make it a trend. Obama’s decision last fall to abandon Bush’s missile-defense plan in Europe will leave the Eastern half of North America vulnerable — in a way the Western half is not — to ICBMs from the Eastern hemisphere. Now Obama’s Defense Department seems to be playing down the importance of training and developing joint naval tactics with NATO, at the same time it proposes to eliminate, in the Atlantic, the unique military role of the numbered fleet.

Neither alliances nor security conditions maintain themselves. It may be true that Second Fleet has been organized out of a job over the past decade, but it’s not clear that today’s geopolitical reality validates the decisions behind that transformation. An insecure Atlantic has never been a harbinger of peace. We may well come to regret having been so shortsighted — and sooner than we think.

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