The Role of Allied Joint Force Command Norfolk in Atlantic Defense: The Perspective of its Deputy Commander


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

When you visit 2nd Fleet and JFC Norfolk, you are acutely aware of the key role they play in working together to build out 21st century North Atlantic defense.

Vice Admiral Lewis is the head of both commands, and the two commands work closely together in shaping the kind of integrated distributed force crucial to 21st century warfighting and deterrence.

JFC Norfolk was created at the 2018 Brussels Summit as a new joint operational level command for the Atlantic. It reached an important milestone in September 2020 when it declared Initial Operational Capability.

JFC Norfolk is the only operational NATO command in North America and is closely integrated with the newly reactivated U.S. Second Fleet.

JFC reached its initial operating capability in September 2020.

As a NATO press release dated September 18, 2020 put it:

NATO’s new Atlantic Command was declared operational in a ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia on Thursday (17 September 2020). Joint Force Command Norfolk, established to protect sea lanes between Europe and North America, is the first NATO headquarters dedicated to the Atlantic since 2003.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the milestone, saying: “NATO is a transatlantic Alliance, and the North Atlantic is vital for the security of Europe. Our new Atlantic Command will ensure crucial routes for reinforcements and supplies from North America to Europe remain secure.”

Co-located with the U.S. Second Fleet, the Atlantic Command is led by U.S. Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis. It will provide coherent command arrangements for Allied forces, maintain situational awareness, conduct exercises, and draw up operational plans covering vast geographic areas, from the U.S. East Coast, past the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap and into the Arctic.  Day-to-day NATO maritime operations will continue to be run out of Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) in the United Kingdom.

NATO Defence Ministers decided in June 2018 to adapt the Alliance’s command structure with a new Atlantic command in Norfolk, and a command for support and logistics in Ulm, Germany. Joint Force Command Norfolk joins NATO’s two existing Joint Forces Commands, located in Brunssum, Netherlands, and Naples, Italy.

And after JFC became operational, an additional NATO capability was added to the command.

According to an October 1, 2020 C2F story:

Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence (CJOS COE), a NATO-accredited, multi-national military think tank, transferred directorship from the deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces (USFF) Command to commander, U.S.  2ndFleet (C2F), Oct. 1.

The transition from Vice Adm. Dave Kriete, deputy commander, USFF, to Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, who is commander, C2F, and dual-hatted as commander, Allied Joint Force Command Norfolk, will strengthen the relationship between CJOS COE and C2F, and build upon previously established networks at USFF.

Established in May 2006, CJOS COE represents 13 nations and is the only COE in the U.S. As one of 26 NATO-accredited centers worldwide, they represent a collective wealth of international experience, expertise, and best practices, critical to operations in the North Atlantic.

“By linking C2F, JFC Norfolk, and now CJOS COE, national and NATO commands will further align, catalyzing the development of modern warfighting capabilities in the North Atlantic, and increasing readiness across the joint force,” said Lewis. “We must be postured to respond to existing multi-domain threats tonight, yet make urgent efforts to adapt now to the new challenges of the security environment of tomorrow.”

The realignment comes shortly after Joint Force Command Norfolk’s initial operational capability ceremony on Sep. 17.

“The important partnership between the Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence (CJOS COE) and the United States Fleet Forces Command has been superb,” said Kriete. “This key relationship will continue between CJOS COE and C2F and help ensure maritime security in the Atlantic.”

U.S. 2nd Fleet, reestablished in 2018 in response to the changing global security environment, develops and employs maritime forces ready to fight across multiple domains in the Atlantic and Arctic in order to ensure access, deter aggression and defend U.S., allied, and partner interests.

“This more direct relationship between CJOS and C2F will enhance allied interoperability and further expand on CJOS COE’s connections with U.S. commands assigned to train, operate, and deploy with NATO maritime forces, said Commodore Tom Guy, Royal Navy, deputy director of CJOS COE. “It is a logical and really welcome step as we collectively work to maintain our warfighting edge in the North Atlantic.”

Vice Admiral Lewis noted at the time of JFC Norfolk reaching its IOC of how important the working relationship between C2F and JFC Norfolk was for shaping a comprehensive and integrated way ahead for Atlantic defense.

“This is the first command of its type within NATO,” Lewis said. “It’s the first command on the continent of North America that NATO has established in a long time.”

 While Lewis leads JFC Norfolk, he noted that his deputy commander is U.K. Royal Navy Rear Admiral Andrew Betton. The command also includes three one-star leadership positions held by one officer from Denmark, one from France, and one from Norway, Lewis said. JFC Norfolk’s chief of staff will toggle between an officer from Spain and Germany. Meanwhile, Lewis’ deputy for his 2nd Fleet command is Canadian Rear Admiral Steve Waddell.

 “JFC Norfolk will make our lives stronger and help defend North America as well as Europe, by providing continued situational awareness across the North Atlantic, deterring aggression, and if necessary, rising to defend our shared values,” Lewis said.

“We will aid [Supreme Allied Commander Europe] in developing — in achieving this 360-degree approach to the collective defense of the allies,” he added. “We will both lead and contribute to NATO contingency planning, actively participate in multi-national exercises, and develop a high readiness capability to respond in the event of an emergency crisis.”

In the next year, as it gears up for full operational capability by the conclusion of 2021, the command will focus on an array of assignments from Supreme Allied Commander Europe, which Lewis said will include planning for different types of exercises.

Specifically, JFC Norfolk will strategize for and participate in a NATO exercise called Steadfast Defender that is slated to take place this summer.

“There’s parts of that in the lead-up to the actual live exercise that will flex the tasking that we need to have to be able to declare full operational [capability],” Lewis said of the exercise.

Betton described Steadfast Defender as an exercise focused on moving forces across the Atlantic Ocean to continental Europe, as the United States and its allies might have to do in the event of a real-world emergency.

“For JFC Norfolk, it is also a key training opportunity for the team here in the headquarters so we can identify our shortfalls, address those, and ensure that we are ready to declare full operational capability later in the year,” Betton said. “So it’s a multi-faceted thing.”

NATO established JFC Norfolk in July 2019, a little over one year after the United States reestablished 2nd Fleet as the Pentagon recalculated its strategy due to Russia’s increased activity in the North Atlantic.

Lewis said NATO has authorized both a new strategy and an execution of that strategy, known as “Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Region.” But the specifics of the strategy are under classification, according to Lewis.

“We’re in . . . lockstep right now in planning toward implementation of that strategy and what that operational concept looks like,” Lewis said. “In fact, there’s a commander’s conference in about a week and a half’s time and that’s the main topic of the commander’s conference. And we have submitted our approach to that from this command already.”

A very good piece by Dave Ress published by The Daily Press on November 12, 2020 provides an overview of how Vice Admiral Lewis and his JFC Norfolk deputy look at the way ahead.

“Joint Force Command Norfolk brings the North Atlantic back to NATO,” Lewis said. “Our space goes from Florida to Finnmark, from the sea bed to satellites in space. … In essence, it is what draws the continents together”

That North Atlantic focus marks a shift from NATO’s traditional land-centered defense of the European continent. “The trans-Atlantic bridge is vital … it connects all the members of the alliance in North America and Europe.” said Joint Force deputy commander, British Rear Adm. Andrew Betton. “What links us all is lying on the bottom of the ocean” he said, referring to the cables that telecommunications and Internet services depend on.

In a sense, the two admirals say, Joint Force Command is responsible for operations in what more and more strategists are calling the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic. The first, in World War I, pitted two relatively new types of ships — submarines and destroyers — the first of which was trying to sink ships bring material and troops to Europe, the second, aiming to protect those troops and goods. The second Battle of the Atlantic, in World War II, introduced widespread use of naval aircraft. The third, during the Cold War, mainly brought NATO and Soviet submarines into confrontation. The fourth, the admirals say, will introduce new domains to defend, including satellites and cyber threats, as well as threats to shipping and commerce that were the main focus of the first two battles and the submarine threats that dominated the third.

The challenges of the North Atlantic are unlike those of other seas, Lewis said. “Right now, we’ve got a hurricane off Key West, ice floes moving fast in the north,” Lewis said. “Up in the High Arctic, with ship communications, we’ve got some physics to think about with satellites, we need to think about line of sight communications … these are dangerous waters.”

The experiences of his colleagues from other nations matter. “The Norwegians are operating all the time up in the Arctic; so is Iceland and Canada,” Lewis said. The British and French have experience with carriers and submarines and with operating them in tandem with the U.S. Navy’s own.

Other navies bring experience in local waters and with smaller ships, deputy commander Betton said, and while “most of our domain is wet, so most of our people are naval” the command includes air force. marine and army personnel from several nations.

As an operational command, Joint Force has to go beyond looking at the the logistics of moving troops and gear to thinking of what needs to to defended, what threats are there, and how to be sure war-fighting resources of the 30 different nations in NATO can be called on to get there and how they will coordinate. “Our job is to say what needs to happen; tactical commands figure out which ships and which soldiers need to be where and do what for that,” Betton said.

The fast-moving command doubled in size over the summer, with a staff that now numbers 88 and will reach 144 when it reaches full capability next year. Its assignment is to create coherent command arrangements for Allied forces, maintain situational awareness, conduct exercises, and draw up operational plans, NATO says.

The command is already working on planning for NATO’s big Steadfast Defender 2021 exercise, which will involve tens of thousands of thousands of troops deploying to several different training spanning Europe.

Joint Force is NATO’s third, geography-defined joint force operation command — and the third NATO unit in Hampton Roads, along with the strategists of Allied Command Transformation and the Combined Joint Operations of the Sea Centre of Excellence. “It’s really important that Norfolk is NATO’s home in North America; that’s something I hope people in Hampton Roads will see,” Lewis said.

Royal Navy Rear Adm. A. Betton, Deputy Commander, JFCNF, (left) and U.S. Vice Adm. A. Lewis, Commander, JFCNF at JFCNF’s Initial Operational Capability ceremony at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Hampton Roads, Virginia – Photo Petty Off. 1st Cl. Th. Green

We had a chance to visit with Rear Admiral Betton during our March 2021 visit to Norfolk.

Laird had already met with and interviewed Betton when he was the Commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group, centered around large deck aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. I

t is notable that Betton comes to this command as part of the Royal Navy’s significant reworking due to the impact of the new carrier and its onboard F-35s. The Queen Elizabeth class is the only carrier built around the F-35 and for the Brits, it also drives integration between the RAF and the Royal Navy.

Notably, the head of carrier air integration in the MOD is now head of the new UK space command which is clearly suggestive of how the Brits are looking at the way ahead to multi-domain force integration.

The sense we had from the C2F staff of the excitement of working a startup command and innovating from the ground up was underscored as well by Rear Admiral Betton with regard to his command.

“Coming here 18 months ago has been a really exciting professional opportunity, and genuinely a pleasure to have another run at setting up a team pretty much from scratch. The Second Fleet team was well on the way by the time I got here, but the NATO team was just about at conception, but not much beyond that.”

The geography and three-dimensional operational space of the NATO zone of responsibility is  very wide indeed.

As Betton put it: “SACEUR’s area of responsibility, goes all the way from the Yucatan peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico to the North Pole. I’ve always loved the phrase from Finnmark to Florida, or Florida to Finnmark. But it is also important to realize all domain challenges and threats that we face. It’s everything from seabed infrastructure, through the sub sea water column, the surface, the airspace above it, and up into the satellite constellation above that.”

As the former commander of the Queen Elizabeth Strike Group, Rear Admiral Betton is very familiar with the coming of the F-35 as an allied capability to Atlantic defense. The USMC has been a key partner of the UK as the Brits have stood up their F-35B capability afloat, have integrated with the British carrier in the North Atlantic and have generated with the new aircraft, new ways to integrate USMC-Naval forces.

Betton also noted that first the Italians and now the Norwegians have brought their F-35s to conduct air patrols from Iceland. Indeed, one could note that the F-35 capability operational today in the North Atlantic is indeed largely allied or put another way, the most advanced combat airpower in the region is provided by the allies.


Royal Navy Cdre. Andrew Betton, commander of the U.K. Carrier Strike Group, meets with leaders of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Jan. 25, 2017. The VMFA-121 leaders informed Betton about the air station’s F-35B Lightning II’s and taught him about its unique, operational capabilities. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Nathan Wicks)

We also discussed the importance of innovation in the maritime domain awareness NATO community as well. The Brits preserved their ASW skill sets after having cancelled Nimrod and in anticipation of adding the P-8, which is being deployed from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, where there are P-8 facilities for allies as well. The Norwegians are operating P-8s as well. With P-8s and the U.S .Navy operating Triton which operates in an orbital cycle complementary to the sortie generation approach of the P-8s, there is a continuous belt of ASW and anti-surface fleet information being provided for the US and allied forces in the North Atlantic.

These new capabilities have their most important impact in supporting rapid decision-making cycles. The C2F focus on reworking C2 to provide for effective mission command and distributed operations is a key effort for JFC Norfolk as well. And the two staffs work interactively on shaping a way ahead in the crucial C2 domain.

In the recent book by Laird and Delaporte on the return of direct defense in Europe, we highlighted the key importance of “clusters” of key states working specifically on tailored defense tasks, rather than simply considering the Alliance as whole. For Rear Admiral Betton, our notion of the operational clusters of the coalition of the willing is better understood as the operational cluster of the relevant nations.

And there is certainly no greater example of this than the Europeans focused on North Atlantic defense, with the new carrier operational groups for the UK, and enhanced Nordic collaboration in the region.

As Betton put it: “The U.S. is by far the dominant figure of NATO, but it’s not the only piece. And it’s not always just the heavy metal that is relevant. It’s the connectivity, it’s the infrastructure and the architecture that enables the 30 nations of NATO to get so much more than the sum of the parts out of their combined effort. But it’s particularly the relevant nations in the operational area and their ability to work together which is an important consideration.”

The Rear Admiral underscored the importance of the only operational NATO command on U.S. soil. “The idea of integrating it with the second fleet headquarters under a dual hatted command was a fantastic move because it emphasizes bluntly to Europe that the U.S. is fully committed to NATO. It’s not NATO and the U.S., the U.S. is part of NATO. And having an operational headquarters here in CONUS really emphasizes that point in both directions.”

He noted that there are 16 nations at the command currently with three more arriving in the next few months, namely, Portugal, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. It is crucial to shape a better understanding of how central the air-maritime is to NATO defense with the more historical memory of the European landmass as the former epicenter of NATO defense in the Soviet period and with the geographical encirclement which the Warsaw Pact provided against the West European fragment of Europe.

And reworking how to do the most effective defense is also a work in progress.

As Rear Admiral Betton put it: “One of the key efforts we are pursuing in this integrated command is not just stitching together NATO and U.S. assets, but it’s also stitching together teams within teams. It could be the U.S. cooperating with Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with Admiral Lewis commanding a multinational command..

“And a crisis might grow and evolve into something that the North Atlantic Council agree to respond to and therefore activate the JFC to command in a NATO sense.

“But because the Commander has that flexibility to go from a unilateral U.S. only under second fleet, through a growing coalition, there’s the opportunity to coordinate activity with a whole diverse range of entities before it becomes a formal NATO response.”

It is clear that agility and scalability are a key part of the way ahead for 21st century full spectrum crisis management. And the JFC working in an integrated manner with C2F certainly is working such capabilities. This is a case of startup fleets working core capabilities which are clearly needed across the combat force.

This is why what is happening in Norfolk is certainly of strategic impact and significance.

Featured Photo: U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis and British Royal Navy Rear Adm. Andrew Betton host a ceremony at Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads, in Norfolk, Va., Sept. 17, 2020, to mark the start of operations of NATO’s Atlantic Command. NATO