- The US Navy has kept a close eye on ever-more active Russian submarines, which are ranging across the Atlantic.
- That activity has made the Atlantic into a contested space, and the Navy, led by the 2nd Fleet, is relearning how to keep them in sight, according to that fleet's commander.
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Russian submarines are a growing challenge for the US Navy in the Atlantic, and the new US fleet in charge of that part of the world is relearning how to deal with them, its commander said Tuesday.
"The Atlantic is a battle space that cannot be ignored. Our new reality is that when our sailors toss lines over and set sail, they can expect to be operating in a contested space once they leave Norfolk," Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, head of the Norfolk, Virginia-based 2nd Fleet, said Tuesday.
"We are seeing an ever-increasing number Russian submarines deploy in the Atlantic, and these submarines are more capable than ever, deploying for longer periods of time with more lethal weapon systems," Lewis said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the US Naval Institute in Washington, DC.
Russia has devoted considerable time and resources to its sub force since it and the Russian navy as a whole deteriorated in the 1990s. The current Russian sub fleet is far from the size of and much less active than its Soviet predecessor, but its boats are quieter and more sophisticated.
New Russian sub-launched missiles, capable of striking across mainland Europe, are a particular concern, but as Lewis said Tuesday, the US is finding that Russian subs are present in areas where the US Navy was once unaccompanied.
"Our ships can no longer expect to operate in a safe haven on the East Coast or merely cross the Atlantic unhindered," Lewis said.
US sailors, like those aboard the new Navy carrier USS Gerald R. Ford as it did aircraft compatibility testing off the Virginia coast last month, "have the mindset that they are no longer uncontested and to expect to operate alongside our competitors each and every" time they're underway, Lewis said.
"The USS Mahan, for example, [was] in the early stages of their training cycle operating on station in the Atlantic when a Russian intelligence ship visited our coast line last year," Lewis added. "Real-world requirements do not discriminate. The intelligence ship did not care at what phase of training our ships were in or if it had achieved its full certification."
'Not just an undersea fight'
The 2nd Fleet was reactivated in July 2018 and reached full operational capability on December 31, 2019. Its return is part of a broader effort to refocus on so-called great-power competition with more advanced opponents, namely Russia and China.
In addition to activating new units, that shift has meant relearning skills that waned as the military focused on low-level conflicts.
One of the biggest skill sets that needs to be rebuilt is anti-submarine warfare, or ASW, an exacting mission that requires numerous ships and planes, advanced technology, and a lot of patience.
US and NATO navies let their attention to ASW drift after the Cold War and amid wars in the Middle East. Sonar operators were sometimes given new duties, and ASW assets like P-3 Orion and S-3 Viking patrol craft were sent on different missions, sometimes over land where their sensors could be used against new targets.
"The thing about ASW that we are relearning ... is it's an all-domain fight, not just an undersea fight," Lewis said. "It's a fight in the air. It's on the surface. It's in the subsurface down to the seabed, and it's in space."
"That all-domain integrated fight, or problem, that we're looking at is ... a really hard challenge," Lewis added. "That's something that we're leaning into, getting back into very much so."
Western navies are reinvesting in ASW, rolling out better gear aboard their ships and buying new platforms - the P-3's successor, the P-8 Poseidon, chief among them. (The availability of sonobouys those assets need is a concern.)
The P-8s "are really good in their mission, and their mission is ASW," Lewis said. "They are really, really good."
"The all-domain and the coordination between the destroyers and the ASW-capable helicopters on board the destroyers in conjunction with the undersea assets, submarines and other undersea assets, with the P-8s - it's a big team that's pulled together," Lewis added, "but we're on the right trajectory."
'Better to have lots of friends'
In addition to 2nd Fleet, which is responsible for the western Atlantic up into the Arctic, Lewis leads Joint Force Command Norfolk, a NATO command meant to support readiness and defend lines of communication and resupply routes in the North Atlantic.
In those roles, Lewis works closely with NATO navies, some of which have officers in his command structure.
Lewis's vice commander at 2nd Fleet is Canadian Rear Adm. Steve Waddell. At Joint Force Command, Lewis' deputy is a British officer - "the intent is to pull the continents together," Lewis said.
"I've also got on my 2nd Fleet staff a Norwegian officer. I've got a French submariner, and I've got a British logistician," Lewis said.
"They have a very unique perspective as regional navies," Lewis added. "There's some really good insights that we get from those partnerships, and this goes to integration. It's much better to have lots of friends than fewer friends. That's what the Russians don't have, is very many friends."
These are partners who "military and strategically are absolutely more than willing to jump in" and work with the US Navy, Lewis said.
For 2nd Fleet operations, Lewis' command works closely with the Canadians as well as other US military branches, namely the Coast Guard and Marine Corps. Across the Atlantic, he said, the fleet partners largely with "the Nordic, Baltic, Atlanticist nations."
For Joint Force Command Norfolk, which Lewis described as a "hybrid command," there is a NATO force structure with a small core of officers that can come from any of the 29 NATO member countries.
The relationships aren't limited to NATO. Lewis pointed to this year's iteration of Baltic Operations, at which Sweden and Finland joined 14 other NATO countries for exercises around the Baltic Sea.
"You get in a fight, you want the Swedes and Finns on your side," Lewis said. "This whole Viking thing is for real."