The venerable, reborn 2nd Fleet is embarking on its first major mission into the North Atlantic less than six months after the Navy recommissioned it to counter what the Pentagon says is steadily rising Russian aggression.
Navy commanders say the mission, a large-scale training exercise with European allies, is about “improving interoperability” among allies.
But the underlying message of the Baltic Operations naval drill, or BALTOPS, is unmistakable. It shows Russia and its allies that the 2nd Fleet is ready to fight alongside its NATO counterparts to confront any Moscow challenge of the U.S. and the alliance.
The location of at least some of the drills is a shot across the bow. Exercises will be staged off the coast of Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania that the military news site Breaking Defense describes as “bristling with radars, electronic warfare capabilities and guided missiles.”
Top brass of the 2nd Fleet began planning the exercise with other Navy and Marine Corps combat commanders, as well as representatives from the 17 NATO allies participating in the drills, weeks after the fleet was reconstituted in August. Established after World War II, the fleet was supposedly consigned to permanent dry dock in September 2011 based on the Obama administration’s belief that the threat from Russia had diminished.
The Pentagon reversed course a year ago. A spokesman told reporters at the time that the U.S. and NATO were “refocusing on the Atlantic in recognition of the great-power competition prompted by a resurgent Russia.”
Despite the hiatus, fleet officials say they are ready to resume their mission in the vast expanse of the North Atlantic.
“While 2nd Fleet might be new to the process, we joined a practiced team of professionals” in NATO and in Naval Forces Europe in preparing for the exercise, Lt. Marycate Walsh, fleet spokeswoman, told The Washington Times.
The BALTOPS exercises had been a staple of U.S.-European military cooperation for decades. This year’s training mission, scheduled for mid-June across the northern Atlantic, is the 47th for American and alliance warships, Lt. Walsh said.
This time, with the 2nd Fleet in the lead, the exercises will be “our opportunity to strengthen our partnerships, enhance regional capabilities and to demonstrate how we will establish and maintain maritime superiority,” she said.
For the Navy fleet that stared down Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis more than a half-century ago, taking the helm of the premier Western naval exercise targeting Russian aggression is a perfect fit, one former top Navy official said.
The reemergence of the 2nd Fleet sends a deafening signal to Russia and a skittish NATO that the Trump administration is committed to countering Moscow’s aggression in Eastern Europe, said Tom Callender, a former top Defense Department official specializing in assessments of the Navy’s capabilities.
“This sends a message to Russia that we are not messing around,” he said. Contesting Russian and Chinese expansionism, in what the Pentagon has dubbed a “great-power competition,” was codified as the central thrust of U.S. military strategy in the revamped 2018 National Defense Strategy, the first major national security policy to be issued under President Trump.
BALTOPS and other exercises, as well as the naval drill’s heavy dependence on U.S. allies, were among the main policy linchpins of the defense strategy, Mr. Callander said.
Mr. Trump has not been shy about calling out NATO allies to increase their defense spending, and the Eastern European naval exercise will be “a manifestation of one of the mandates of the NDS” and a reaffirmation of Washington’s alliances, he said.
Mandate and history
The mandate to work with allies to curb Russian aggression is ingrained in the 2nd Fleet’s historical roots and operational charter.
In a sign of rising tensions between Russia and the West, four nuclear-capable Russian bombers and fighter escorts flew into protected U.S. airspace this week near Alaska in an apparent attempt to provoke U.S. defense systems. Former Navy officials say the upcoming naval war games have taken on a sense of urgency not seen since the days of the Cold War.
“The Baltics are a very contested and very complex environment” for military operations, Bryan Clark, a former Navy submarine officer and senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an interview.
Under Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, the U.S. has increased its surface combat presence in the contested waters.
The USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier strike group conducted naval operations along with the Canadian navy above the Arctic Circle for the first time in October. A month later, Mr. Spencer said Navy leaders were considering “freedom of navigation operations” in the North Atlantic to counter Russian aggression.
But the fight in the Atlantic is under water, and that is where Russia is rapidly taking the advantage.
The Pentagon is scrambling to secure miles of underwater fiber optic cables that cross the ocean floor and transmit some of the most sensitive U.S. military secrets. Improving anti-submarine warfare will be a key part of the exercises, Mr. Callander said.
U.S. and NATO commanders want to see how rapidly American and allied navies can deploy for operations in Europe in case of a surprise Russian incursion into alliance territory, such as Moscow’s lightning strike into Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.
“As the security environment changes and becomes more complex, so must our training exercises,” Lt. Walsh said.
The changing security environment poses more challenges to U.S. and NATO forces than during the Cold War, Mr. Clark said.
In the days of the Soviet Union, American and alliance commanders had to plan for attacks from either Moscow or its various Soviet satellite countries in the North Atlantic, he said. Now, NATO and American commanders need a strategy to defend former satellite states from coming under attack from Russia.
“It’s like the Cold War, but harder,” Mr. Clark said.
Potential Russian responses or harassment of U.S. and allied forces during the exercise could exacerbate tensions among Washington, Brussels and Moscow. Russian military aircraft have routinely harassed American warships operating in the Baltic Sea, and the Pentagon has deemed the actions unsafe and unprofessional.
U.S. and NATO commanders can expect more of the same during the BALTOPS exercise, Mr. Clark said. “The Russians will push the envelope” on harassment throughout the exercise via flyovers and “shadowing” American and NATO ships during the drills, he said.
“The message is, ‘We are not afraid of you,’” Mr. Clark said.
“U.S. Navy shares the maritime environment with many countries, and as professional mariners, expects that interactions occurring within international waters are safe and professional,” she said. “The U.S. Navy will continue to operate routinely in accordance with established international law and expects that others will do the same.”
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