Re-Crafting North Atlantic Defense: The Impact of the 2nd Fleet and Joint Force Command Norfolk


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

A recent article in the London Times highlighted the new role of the Royal Navy in the Arctic. “The Royal Navy will have a regular presence in the Arctic Circle to counter the Russian strategic advantage over trade routes that will open as the ice caps melt, sources have revealed.”[1]

What this story does not highlight is the dynamic defense infrastructure which is being built underlying such an effort. That infrastructure is a combined effort for the new version of the 2nd Fleet and the only operating NATO command on U.S. territory, the Joint Force Command Norfolk. These two commands are headed by a U.S Navy Vice Admiral, Andrew “Woody” Lewis.

The significant and dynamic innovation with these interactive and in many ways integrated commands has largely been unnoticed, although not by the Russians. With the concern with the Chinese and their policies in the Pacific and beyond, it can be forgotten that the most immediate and direct military threat to the United States emanates from the Russian Kola peninsula. Here is to be found the highest concentration of Russian military force in the world.

When the 2nd Fleet in 2011 was sunsetted, it was a nadir of the peace dividend. Only Putin had a different agenda, which already was evident in his actions in George in 2008 and then Ukraine along with many of his public declarations since then.

With the return of Crimea to Russia via the hybrid strategy underwritten by military force, it was difficult to miss that the North Atlantic threat was back.

But Russia is not the Soviet Union. And Russia does not have a Warsaw Pact with the geography to surround Western Europe; those former Warsaw Pact members now face Russia as a competitor or partner, but outside of the direct occupation of Russian troops.

The Kola challenge is a primary one to the United States and its direct defense.

It is also a key definer of what the North Atlantic Alliance faces. This is an alliance which is not facing the core challenge of a central front and an inner-German border. For the United States, the air-maritime challenge is the core one for our direct interests; and for the relevant nations to the maritime regions in the Alliance, the Russian threat is a direct and extensional one.

A key element of the way the defense threat plays out now is a defense arc from Poland to the UK through the Nordics and from there down the path of Greenland, Iceland, Canada and the United States.

What the standup of the 2nd Fleet in 2018 and of the Joint Force Command Norfolk more recently, these two commands signify a clear focus on shaping a credible 21st century defense capability and infrastructure for deterrence and warfighting in the region.

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

The Vice-Commander of Second Fleet is a very experienced Canadian Rear Admiral. The Vice-Commander of JFC is the first commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth, and a very well regarded British Rear Admiral. Those Admirals, along with a Norwegian, French, and German Admirals and a RN Commodore 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, add in the emerging role of Sweden and Finland and it is an important and significantly enhanced command element compared to the Cold War period of deterrence.

These are just some of the most obvious changes.

Another one is the scope of the territory covered, as the Times article highlighted, namely the key role of defense efforts in the High North.

When the CNO in 2018, Admiral Richardson, stood up the new version of the 2nd Fleet, this is how he described the new scope of operations: “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 synergistically shaped as well 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 change in this new approach. Admiral Richardson made clear the focus will 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.

We have recently visited 2nd Fleet and JFC, and in the weeks ahead will lay out and highlight what we have learned about the significant innovations which have been generated in shaping a maritime distributed force.

The evolving integrated distributed force is crafted to deliver the kind of defense capability required for deterrence and warfighting capabilities with the current Russian and evolving Chinese engagement in the High North Sea routes requires.

The 2nd Fleet and JFC working relationships provide a case study of how the U.S. Navy and its evolving shift in its warfighting approach interact significantly with changes in how the cluster of “relevant” nations in the area of operations are approaching defense as well.

And the reshaping of navy concepts of operations along with the integratability with the efforts of the “relevant” nations is providing a significant way ahead for innovation in both deterrence and warfighting approaches to the Russians.

The Second Fleet has not just been reestablished; it has been transformed.

Editor’s Note: It should be noted that the stand up of the new command occurred on the carrier named for the U.S. President who was heavily involved in the emergence of the new Europe, with the creation of a unified Germany and building upon President Reagan’s efforts to end the Soviet Union. 

[1] Larisa Brown, “Royal Navy to defend Arctic trade as ice melts,” The Times (March 10, 2021).