The Evolution of a Startup Command: Second Fleet and the 4th Battle of the Atlantic


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

As the Commander of 2nd Fleet and of JFC Norfolk put it in a recent article in The Proceedings:

“In response to Russia’s military resurgence, the U.S. Navy reestablished Second Fleet (C2F) in 2018, and NATO’s North Atlantic Council announced the formal activation of Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFCNF) in 2019. Both commands are headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, and are led by a single U.S. commander. In October 2020, the NATO- accredited Combined Joint Operations from the Sea (CJOS) Center of Excellence was added. The focus of all three organizations is to ensure the strategic lines of communication across the Atlantic and through the Arctic remain secure and free.

“Great power competition will be driven by investments in gray matter as much as gray hulls. Adversary technology and weapons development are catching up to those of NATO. We must create an advantage through how we train and fight. As a fleet commander, I am tasked with the employment of naval forces, and as a joint force commander, with the employment of joint and multinational forces. As these commands continue to develop, we must focus on operational learning to assess our own strengths and weaknesses and to understand the competition and the battlespace in which we will operate.

“For example, in July, Navy Warfare Development Command facilitated the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic tabletop discussion, which presented U.S. and allied commanders from both sides of the Atlantic with vignettes to address command relationships, resources, mission priorities, and authorities. Insights derived from the exercise are creating a shared understanding of the maritime security environment in the Atlantic and Arctic among all participants and will help to define JFCNF’s role as the command matures.

“Both JFCNF and C2F are shifting their mind-sets from predominantly operating from the sea to fighting at sea—which requires mastery of the domains below, on, and above the sea. We are executing high-end maritime operations from seabed to space.

“Our collective security and interconnected global economy depend on open shipping lanes, unhindered air travel, and uninterrupted flow of data. While C2F is a maritime operational command focused on Atlantic operations, JFCNF’s mission is joint and combined—requiring close coordination across all domains, with cooperation among various national and allied commands in the region. With a shared commander, mission, and geography, C2F and JFCNF are natural partners—each advocating for the other and working in unison.”[1]

What might not be clear to the casual observer is that both commands are startup commands generated by a core leadership team taking a fresh look at the geography, the technology, the effective forces operated by the relevant nations in the region, and the nature of the Russian, not the Soviet, challenge to the region and to the United States.

We have both had the opportunity to work for innovative leaders and leadership teams in the past, although never as often as one would like., and we indeed did so for the same leader, USAF Secretary Mike Wynne,  at one point in our careers.

And visiting the two commands, it was very clear that we were in the presence of both innovative leadership and an innovative command. And given the central importance of dealing with the Russian challenge and to reworking the forces to craft a distributed integrated force, clearly re-thinking the questions and the answers to those questions are crucial. This is not your father’s 2nd Fleet, nor your grandfather’s NATO. But because the names are the same, one could clearly miss the scope and quality of the innovation being driven from Norfolk but seen through the distributed force.

In our meeting with Captain David Thames, the 2nd Fleet Chaplin Chaplain, we were provided with the key command brief during our visit. Captain Thames is a very impressive man with several decades of experience in and working with the U.S. military. He is a former U.S. Army armored cavalry officer and served with the Marines including the Al-Fallujah battle, in the Middle East land wars. He was one of the original seven people who stood up the command in 2018. And if one factors in the COVID-19 disruption, the command has had to do a lot in a very short period of time, and one characterized as well by the pandemic disruption.

This is a crisis management command, and as such, supports efforts to deal with challenges throughout the region, including those identified associated what Department of Homeland Security S and Northcom deal with.

Captain Thames was assigned as the liaison officer to work with the Navy’s hospital ship, USNS Comfort, working in New York during the COVID-19 crisis and demonstrated real crisis management  leadership on site.

Captain Thames told us that in the 2018 beginning of the command, there were seven people, of whom he was one. “Everybody was involved in what felt like a tech startup. It was challenging but with a significant sense of being a band of brothers and sisters. Vice Admiral Lewis clearly was not focused on establishing an existing model, but upon shaping something new.

“The focus that first year was to bring in new personnel to work with the envisaged approach which was a cross-specialty command, and not one built around a stove-piped and large N-code or Napoleonic structure. We were faced quickly with the challenge of working BALTOPS-19 and the officer assigned to that certainly did not come from the expeditionary warfare community.

“The Admiral has focused from the outset on the maritime headquarters’ operating as a weapon system, rather than  being focused on force generation management. His focus has been upon warfighting and operations from the outset.

“He wanted the maritime headquarters weapon system to be able to pick up and go where it needed to go in order to deliver effective command and control.”

Captain Thames emphasized that Vice Admiral Lewis has been focused from the startup process on three key dynamics: People, Platforms and Partnerships, or the three Ps. By the people side, Lewis has not sought to hire a very large command team. It needs to be lean and agile, which will not happen with creation of many bureaucratic layers, with people managing people, and getting the flexible combat engagement approach lost in the shuffle.

According to Thames: “He really emphasized mental agility. “I want you to think outside of the box. I want you to  find strange and unorthodox resources to pull information from.” And a part of the personnel vetting process was, “Are you a little bit unorthodox?” This command does not live by the guidance of the last Power Point Slide.”

“This was going to be a headquarters focused on the people and the skill sets that they bring, the experience they bring, the expertise they bring. And his intention has been to keep us from ossifying into a standard Napoleonic N-code structure and remain fluid enough to easily transition into the deployable Maritime Operations Center (MOC) which is a cross-functional team approach to ensuring that the maritime headquarters is a weapon system.”

By platforms, he has focused on distributed C2 and how to integrate the force through distributed maritime operations concepts  rather than top-down legacy C2 approaches. This obviously is a work in progress, but it is about what different platforms, both U.S. and allied, bring to the fight and how to get the best of synergy rather than aggregation. As Thames put it: “The platforms piece, referred not so much to ships, but to command-and-control structures. And these are platforms for command and control that could easily move, and that could operate in a dispersed fashion.”

The final piece is partnerships. As Thames put it: “Vice Admiral Lewis knew and acted upon the knowledge that his commands were going to be an integrated partnership in order to be successful. The intent from the outset is to build a sense of allied partnership into the DNA of Second Fleet. In this context was born the germ of the idea to establish JFC in Norfolk and co-locate it with Second Fleet.”

Put in other words, rather than highlighting fleet alignments, it is about integrated concepts of operations. According to Thames: “it was very important in his mind and his vision for us to conceive of ourselves as  an integrated part of a partnership force, from the very start. We are not a go it alone organization.”

This symbiotic relationship is at the heart of these startup commands; we hope that is effort continues to evolve,  and acts as an incubator for other Navy commands going forward.

[1] Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, ”Strengthen the Trans-Atlantic Alliance,” Proceedings (March 2021).