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Seven months after assuming initial operational capability (IOC), the U.S. Navy’s Second Fleet was declared fully operational capability (FOC) December 31, 2019. With a focus on better serving and supporting operations in the North Atlantic and Arctic, it was reactivated in May last year as a “leaner, agile and more expeditionary” fleet after its decommissioning in 2011.

No “fleet in being”

Headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, the 2nd Fleet exercises operational and administrative authority over assigned ships, aircraft and landing forces on the East Coast and North Atlantic. It is not a standing force (as it was with over one hundred units in the past). Naval units and aircraft stationed on the east coast of the United States are subordinated as the situation and tasks demand. Tasks include the planning and command of naval and joint operations (also combined) and contributing to the certification of naval forces for deployment and operations around the world. In June last year, C2F led the exercise BALTOPS on behalf of U.S. Naval Forces Europe (U.S. NAVEUR). It was the first time since its activation that the command made such an appearance.

In September 2019, a Maritime Operations Center (MOC) was established in Keflavik, Iceland, consisting of a staff of approximately 30 members of the Second Fleet. Around the same time, three ARLEIGH BURKE class destroyers led by the USS Normandy (Ticonderoga class), including a squadron of mission helicopters, tested the cooperation and doctrinal approaches (SAG – Surface Action Group).

In early 2019, the U.S. Navy published its “Arctic Strategic Outlook.” This describes how the United States wanted to strengthen its presence in the region. Critics did not find the document comprehensive enough and doubted whether the US Navy was really interested in operating in the Arctic, supporting ground forces there or developing ice-capable ships to ensure a presence in the Arctic. The U.S. Coast Guard has so far had the capability of “icebreaker.” Meanwhile, Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) is to investigate ways in which U.S. Navy ships can be deployed under lighter ice conditions. Focusing more on the Arctic was one of the reasons for the (re-)establishment of the Second Fleet.

“Within an increasingly complex global security environment, our allies and competitors alike are well aware that many of the world’s most active shipping lanes lie within the North Atlantic,” said Lewis. “Combined with the opening of waterways in the Arctic, this competitive space will only grow, and 2nd Fleet’s devotion to the development and employment of capable forces will ensure that our nation is both present and ready to fight in the region if and when called upon.”

Arctic: Increasing Geopolitical Importance

Russia’s extensive military exercises in the claimed Arctic regions become routine. Russia expands its icebreaker fleet (we reported on the launch of the IVAN PAPANOV, a new military icebreaker), which it sees as key to exercising military influence in Arctic waters.

Climate change and the global rise in temperature are opening up a number of new opportunities for shipping, which both Russia and China are currently exploiting with a number of development projects. There are three possible routes through the Arctic: the Northeast Passage, which follows the coastline of Eurasia, the Northwest Passage around North America and the Central Route (runs between Svalbard and Greenland). Moscow is not only investing massively in the development of raw materials, but is also building a number of new bases in northern coastal settlements and on several islands. For China, the Arctic routes offer a shorter and cheaper alternative to the current shipping routes, which reach the main markets in Europe via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal. Accordingly, they have been included in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as the Polar Silk Road. But Beijing’s interest is not limited to the maritime transport route. The retreat of ice is making it easier to access the Arctic’s abundant oil and gas reserves, most of which Russia claims. On December 2, 2019, the “Power of Siberia” natural gas pipeline was inaugurated by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. China is also involved in the Russian Yamal LNG project, which involves the development of port infrastructure in Sabetta via the development of the southern Tambey gas deposit. In addition, Chinese investments in Greenland and Iceland caused irritation in Brussels and Washington.

Hans Uwe Mergener