Re-shaping North Atlantic Defense: JFC Norfolk as a Startup Command


By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

There has been public discussion of the state and fate of NATO over the past few years. One European leader energized the discussion by referring to NATO as “brain dead.” But underlying the political exchanges of the past few years, there has been real progress in shaping a new approach to North Atlantic defense.

But because the new approaches do not fit the Cold War images of what North Atlantic defense look like, in many ways the changes are not fully grasped, and the new approaches fully appreciated.

Certainly, a key driver of change has been the dynamic growth in Nordic defense cooperation and the commitment of NATO members as well as EU members Sweden and Finland in strengthening their capabilities to work together.

In the book authored by Laird with Delaporte, a significant part of the analysis on the reworking of European direct defense focuses on the impact of this Nordic dynamic on reworking how collaboration of the “coalition of the willing” or the “relevant nations” working together with key NATO partners is reshaping European defense.

As we put it in that book: “Europe and its defense are not one narrative but several. The Russians face an increasingly unified Nordic Northern Flank with enhanced UK focus on the region, backed by reach into North America.

“The central part of Europe is a mosaic of former Warsaw Pact states with varying degrees of concern about the Russian challenge, backed by a German French alliance with the nuclear-armed France in this key area.

“And the southern zone of Europe in which Greece, Turkey, Spain, and Italy have about as much solidarity today as they have had historically, which means that aggregation management is crucial to deal with any alliance-wide challenges.”

And the Nordic Northern flank and the redesign of direct defense is highlighted in that book as follows: “A key part of shaping a new approach to direct defense in Europe is winning the fourth battle of the Atlantic. (which rests on dealing with) a key aspect of the Russian challenge, which is crucial for the Nordics, namely, the need to hold the Russian Kola bastion at risk.

“For the United States and Canada, it is about reinforcing Europe and holding the Russians at bay, notably with Putin threatening a nuclear strike via his projected new hypersonic missile to be launched via a submarine. But for the Nordics, it is about homeland defense, and not letting the Russians have a free ride to use the Kola Peninsula and its extended perimeter defense without a significant capability by the West to attrite and destroy the Russian bastion.

“When you come out from the land into the air and sea corridors, is where the West for sure needs to be able to operate its own anti-access and area denial capability. Two can play at this game.”

What one sees in Norfolk is reshaping how the startup command called Second Fleet has been launched interactively under Vice Admiral Lewis’s leadership with the NATO startup command called JFC Norfolk to shape new ways of combing national efforts into a more integrated and effective defense effort.

And that effort is reinforced by another trend line which we have examined over the past decade, namely, the standup of the F-35 global enterprise, whereby U.S. allies are often leading the way in the acquisition, development, and use of their aircraft in advance of what the United States itself is providing for regional defense efforts.

All of this can be seen in the dynamics of change unleashed by the integrated efforts being generated by the two commands working together. Recently, the Vice Admiral returned from a visit to SHAPE and to Europe and upon his return we had a chance to talk with his political advisor, a senior Icelandic diplomat.

And it is hard to miss the point of why having a senior Icelandic diplomat as the political advisor to the U.S. Admiral is significant. Given that the United States shifted its attention to the Middle East and withdrew from its engagement in Iceland in the George W. Bush Administration, and policy which continued under the Obama Administration, which shuttered 2nd Fleet in 2011.

But with the Crimean crisis wakeup call, the U.S. Navy reached out to Iceland and there was return to maritime patrol activities, but this time with a new MPA asset, namely the P-8.

But for the Icelandic government, their strategic importance was never in doubt, notably with the growing impact of High North defense issues, but for the United States has been for a considerable period of time a “reluctant” Arctic power.

But for Iceland, it was clear that the strategic focus of the famous Greenland-Iceland-UK gap was no longer simply an East-West transit point but a North-South one as well. And it was clear that when Admiral Richardson sought to establish the new second fleet, that it was going to need to build to the new strategic reality and not simply replicate the past Cold War-generated command.

We had a chance during our visit to Norfolk to talk with the Vice Admiral’s political advisor located in JFC Norfolk. Snorri Matthiasson, is a senior Icelandic diplomat, who had just returned from the European visit of Vice Admiral Lewis. We conducted the interview by phone because of COVID-19 restrictions, but his insights were very significant about the “startup” command.

Matthiasson noted that he first met Vice Admiral Lewis on a visit with the Icelandic Chief of Defense to Norfolk, shortly after C2F had been stood up. This was going to be Lewis’s first NATO command, and he sought out a political advisor to assist in his efforts. He was the first foreigner to join the NATO command, just prior to the arrival of Rear Admiral Betton.

He underscored how the standup very much felt like a startup which allowed them to think through how best to work the efforts for U.S.- European collaboration. He underscored that a number of key Nordic states were engaged in defense and security activities in the region, and as they worked coordination efforts, there was a clear need to better coordinate with U.S. and other allied efforts, such as the United Kingdom, France, and German forces operating in the region as well.

As Matthiasson put it: “Vice Admiral Lewis looks at the area from the East Coast of North America to Finnmark as a continuous battlespace, but there was an opportunity to do a much better job coordinating national efforts in the area to shape enhanced coalition capabilities.

For example, the Danes have been working for decades in Greenland and working maritime situational awareness.

How to better leverage what they are doing, and how best to bring the capabilities of new maritime domain awareness systems into their operations?”

As working crisis situations entails whole of government responses., doing a better job of bringing together military operational concepts of operations with tactical or strategic diplomatic options is an important challenge to be met in North Atlantic defense. And that is clearly one thrust of the startup commands rethinking process for the evolving approaches to North Atlantic defense.

It is clear that the commands are not engaged in recreating the Cold War infrastructure but are engaged in shaping a very different approach. And the F-35 enterprise is part of that new approach as an information and C2 asset.

With regard to Iceland, first the Italians and currently the Norwegians are operating F-35s from Iceland as part of the NATO air policing missions. The Brits will operate F-35s from their base in Mahram or at sea off of their new Queen Elizabeth carriers. And this is prior to the U.S. Navy operating their F-35s in the region, but, of course, the U.S. Navy has an ability to work with those allied fifth generation aircraft. And this is true whether they come from Danish, or Norwegian, or British or potentially Finnish air bases in the future.

The impact on interoperability of U.S. with European forces is clearly enhanced by operating a common combat aircraft.

This is how Matthiasson put it: “The Norwegians we met in Iceland emphasized that the F35 is an incredible capability, but it also allows them to jointly train with U.S. forces which creates a new opportunity for joint and coalition warfighting approach as well.”

As we wrapped up our discussion,  NATO innovation was a key focus of attention. Obviously, the direct NATO missions and operations are tasked by SHAPE and SACEUR, after a NAC decision. But under that broader remit, JFC Norfolk provides a flexible umbrella organization to allow for cross-learning and cross-sharing of national efforts which can be combined to provide for enhanced coalition capabilities.

As Matthiasson put it: “The nations have been very keen on working with us from the very beginning with the vision that we had of being an umbrella or nexus for the North Atlantic, because there is so much national activity that is ongoing with some very advanced equipment. How best to shape collaboration and coordination in such a situation.?

“Much of the activity in the region is under national rather than NATO mandates. But for the Russians, any NATO members national activity is interpreted as being a NATO activity, so why not do a better job coordinating national efforts to get the right kind of coalition effect?”

It seems that this kind of approach suggests that NATO is not brain dead after all.

The featured graphic provides a view of the High North seen from the Norwegian perspective.