Enhancing Coalition Combat Capability: The Role of Joint Force Command, Norfolk


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

The standup of both Second Fleet in 2018 and Joint Force Command, Norfolk in 2019 have had very similar goals: how to enhance the combat capability of the entire allied maritime force in the North Atlantic? From this point of view, these are not two commands under Vice Admiral Lewis, to two interactive commands working a more effective distributed integrated force.

Post-2014, in the wake of the Crimean takeover, the United States and a number of core allied nations, reversed course on the Cold War peace dividend and engagement in the Middle East land wars and began to refocus on the challenges posed by the Russians with the return of direct defense challenges in Europe. And with it the need to rebuild North Atlantic 360-degree sea lines of communication was a key challenge.

This is how Rear Admiral Waddell, the Vice Commander of C2F has put the challenge:

“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.”

He referred 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.

What JFC Norfolk facilitates is more effective coordination of the relevant nation’s responses to the new threat environment and to work ways to forge these efforts into a more integrated approach, one which enhances the lethality, survivability and effectiveness of the fleets involved in North Atlantic defense.

During our visit to Norfolk in March 2021, we had a chance to discuss JFC Norfolk with the head of plans in the command, Rear Admiral Hilaire Ducellier.

He is a very experienced naval officer with service in both the Pacific and the Atlantic/Mediterranean regions. He has commanded three ships throughout his career and the Maritime Operational Center for the Atlantic.

The French Navy is a somewhat unique asset within the European region, as it has operated full spectrum maritime operations throughout the Cold War and after, with carriers, boomers, nuclear attack submarines, maritime patrol aircraft and has a robust maritime strike missile capability as well. It is both a conventional and nuclear navy with its carriers carrying nuclear qualified Rafale pilots onboard as well.

It is also a navy which operates globally, as the recent operations of a nuclear attack submarine in the Pacific clearly demonstrates.

As Murielle Delaporte recently noted: “Because France has been itself a medium-sized Pacific power for more than two centuries, it feels directly threatened by the growing instability impacting its territories and communities, some of them in risk of vanishing because of climate change and consequent water rising. Strengthening strategic autonomy is also a shared concern, hence the well-known Rafale deal with India and submarine ‘’deal of the century’’ with Australia.

“But military ties between France and its main allies in the Pacific go increasingly way beyond industrial partnerships towards more comprehensive operational relations between not only “like-minded” states, but also comparable military formats.”

The planned new nuclear aircraft carrier underscores how closely the U.S. Navy and the French Navy work together to shape integrated capabilities.

And in a French presentation at the International Fighter Conference, 2020, the role of the fleet in nuclear operations was also raised.

“The only mention of the nuclear dimension was during a discussion about the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle and its approach to operations.

“Here the readiness in being during deployment to deliver nuclear strike by onboard Rafales was discussed.

“The French indeed have been the clearest among of the Western nuclear powers on the need for tactical air delivered strike and have continued their work, including modernization of weapons to indeed deliver this capability in their neighborhood as part of their deterrent posture.”

As Pierre Tran has put it with regard to the most recent French defense budget and the nuclear weapons commitment: “The draft budget includes €1 billion of studies to develop the nuclear ballistic missile submarine, and a fourth generation nuclear-tipped, air-to-ground missile, the air-sol nucléaire 4ème génération (ASN4G) to replace the present nuclear-armed cruise missile, dubbed air-sol moyenne portée amélioré (ASMPA).”

And one should note that the training to execute an air delivered tactical nuclear mission, provides pilots with an  overall understanding of a complex strike mission which then carried over into the capabilities to excel at non-nuclear strikes as well.

When one discusses defense in the North Atlantic, it is about full spectrum crisis management with three nuclear powers within the Alliance and the Russians who increasingly under President Putin has built up nuclear capabilities.

Shaping a distributed force provides for more effective capabilities across the spectrum of warfare.

But what a JFC Norfolk allows one to do is to more effectively coordinate national efforts into a coalition capability.

This is what Europeans routinely do, given the need to augment the size of national forces through force collaboration.

And by having JFC Norfolk working closely with the next C2F, the U.S. forces can work through how to have a more coordinated force with allies as part of a more integrated force with both European national and U.S. forces more capable of working together.

Rear Admiral Ducellier highlighted that France is focused on coalition operations with its maritime force throughout the Cold War, into the period up to 2014, and into the post-2014 period. And the new JFC is not replicating what is being done in Naples.

“We are a lean command. You are not going to do with a 150 in our command what you can do with 1,000 in Naples.”

It occurred to us that in learning about C2F and the JFC Norfolk, that keeping it lean and focused on coalition warfighting there is a huge opportunity to leverage the modernization efforts of the United States and the relevant nations to sort through how to make best use of one another’s capabilities, through coalition exercises and cross learning, rather than shaping a large top-down bureaucratic effort.

Rear Admiral Ducellier highlighted that the coalition approach through a connected C2 structure provides for significant flexibility on how the key aspects of the force can work creatively together.

“Rather than characterizing platforms as primarily a supporting or supported capability, we are seeing much more flexibility whereby a platform can play a role as either a supporting or supported capability dependent on the mission.”

Distributed modular task forces can provide redundancy, flexibility, and enhanced survivability for the overall combat fleet.

Clearly, the approaches being pioneered by C2F and JFC Norfolk can provide a significant impact to rethinking C2 and distributed combat capability through coalition integration in the period ahead.

Featured Photo: One of the ships commanded by Rear Admiral Ducellier was the French frigate Tourville which is seen in the featured photo.

Tourville is the lead ship of F67 type large high-sea frigates of the French Marine Nationale. The vessel is specialized in anti-submarine warfare, though it also has anti-air and anti-surface capabilities. She is named after the 17th century admiral Count Anne-Hilarion de Cotentin de Tourville. Between 1994 and 1996, Tourville (and sister ship De Grasse) was refitted with the modern SLAMS anti-submarine system, an active Very Low Frequencies sonar.”

The French certainly are no strangers to the Virginia coast with one of their most famous engagements being in support of the Americans in the Battle of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War.

The sister ship is named for French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse.

French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse Tilly arrived in the West Indies with a French fleet in April 1781. He sent word to French General Comte de Rochambeau, in Newport, Rhode Island, that he was under orders to sail his fleet north to assist the French and the American armies. General George Washington hoped to use De Grasse’s fleet and Rochambeau’s army to assist the American army in an attack on the British at New York City.Rochambeau and Washington sent word to De Grasse that his fleet was desperately needed and that any troops and money that De Grasse could bring with the fleet would also be of great help.They suggested that De Grasse come to either New York City which Washington favored; or to the Chesapeake Bay to assist General Lafayette’s American army opposing British General Cornwallis and his army that had recently moved into Virginia; a course of action favored by Rochambeau..

De Grasse decided to bring his fleet to the Chesapeake Bay because of the shorter sailing distance to it and it was more navigable than the New York harbor. In Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola, (Dominican Republic), De Grasse loaded 3000 French troops from the Gatinais, Agenois and Touraine infantry regiments aboard his ships. He also raised 1.2 million livres (worth approximately 6 million US dollars today) in Havana, Cuba from the local government, banks and citizens to assist the American and French armies in America. On August 5, De Grasse set sail with his fleet of 37 ships including 28 ships-of-the-line, (large battleships), 7 frigates and 2 cutters, headed to the Chesapeake Bay. De Grasse took a dangerous route through the straits of the Bahamas to avoid the British fleets of Admiral George Rodney and Admiral Samuel Hood, who were protecting British interests and commerce in the West Indies.

When General Washington received news on August 14 that De Grasse was sailing to the Chesapeake Bay instead of New York, he quickly changed his plan.Four days later he began moving the American and French armies to Yorktown, Virginia to surround Cornwallis’s army that had just two weeks earlier begun setting up a British naval base there, but the success of Washington’s daring plan depended on De Grasses’ fleet controlling the Chesapeake Bay.