Navy's Third Fleet Returns to World War II Roots

Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet, delivers remarks during a ceremony at 3rd Fleet Headquarters commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Sept. 2, 2015. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kory Alsberry)
Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet, delivers remarks during a ceremony at 3rd Fleet Headquarters commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Sept. 2, 2015. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kory Alsberry)

ABOARD THE SUPERCARRIER CARL VINSON -- Strolling through Third Fleet's headquarters in San Diego, Vice Adm. Nora Tyson walks by walls lined with photos of William "Bull" Halsey, the legendary World War II commander who witnessed the 1945 surrender of Imperial Japan aboard his flagship ship Missouri.

She passes through a conference room named after him. Halsey's six crystal snifters for downing boilermakers are mounted in a case there. Nearly an entire wall in her adjoining office is draped in Halsey's five-star admiral flag.

Often outnumbered by more powerful Japanese forces, Halsey turned the Third Fleet sailors into daring, nimble and ruthless exponents of his motto -- "hit hard, hit fast, hit often."

Deactivated at the end of the war, the Third Fleet was resurrected in 1973. Although it controlled all Navy forces on the West Coast, whenever one of its aircraft carrier groups crossed the International Date Line, it was turned over to the Navy's Seventh Fleet.

Until now.

Steaming west since Thursday, Third Fleet's Carrier Strike Group One will remain under Tyson's command when it enters the Western Pacific, once Halsey's hunting grounds.

The brainchild of Adm. Scott H. Swift, the current commander of all Navy forces in the Pacific, "Third Fleet Forward" is supposed to spark synergy between Tyson's command and the Seventh Fleet. The Navy's goal is to make both more efficient by allowing them to conduct operations independently, Tyson said.

Echoing World War II's Third Fleet, the strike group promises to give commanders all the way up to the president more "options" -- either in the rare event of waging war against an enemy or by responding to humanitarian crises such as the 2004 earthquake and tsunami near Indonesia that wreaked havoc on 14 coastal nations.

The vision is that Tyson can quickly reach out to a strike group thousands of miles away and offer not only the expertise of Third Fleet's 260 staffers in San Diego headquarters plus all other available assets along the West Coast under her command -- including four other strike groups, if Swift orders it.

"You've got another fleet, another fleet staff, that has the capability to command and control, really, globally," Tyson said in an interview Thursday aboard the San Diego-based supercarrier Carl Vinson, the strike group's flagship.

Carrier Strike Group One commander Rear Adm. James Kilby said that answering to Tyson in San Diego instead of Seventh Fleet near Tokyo "isn't a big change."

"I'm going to be reporting to a boss and communicating to a boss. And that boss is now (Vice) Adm. Tyson," he said.

The first female fleet commander in American history, Tyson said that after nearly 1 1/2 years at her post she's taken a careful "crawl, walk, run approach to Third Fleet operating forward."

In April, she deployed a trio of warships to the Western Pacific. On Oct. 21, one of them -- the destroyer Decatur -- steamed near the Paracel Islands, a sprawl of shoals and rocks in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The San Diego-based guided-missile warship was under Third Fleet command during the entire operation. It received little coverage in the United States, but Tyson's freedom of navigation demonstration signaled to a rising China that American fleets in the Pacific can and will operate independently and without warning to keep seaways open to international shipping, naval warfare experts told the Union-Tribune.

"I was in China when the Decatur transited near the Paracel Islands in late October 2016," said Toshi Yoshihara, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and a top global expert on Chinese maritime strategy. "It was headline news in China. It did not escape Chinese audiences that it was the first time that a destroyer under Third Fleet command challenged China's excessive maritime claims.

"The blogosphere in China was abuzz. The Chinese are under no illusions: They know that this administrative (and) operational innovation is directed at them. The Chinese read our moves very carefully. Thus, our force posture is a very important signaling mechanism."

Fellow Naval War College strategy professor James Holmes said when Tyson orchestrates future operations in places like the South China Sea, Beijing will absorb a "worthwhile message at the margins."

"We should calibrate all of our words and deeds to send messages to China, our allies and the home audience on a 24/7/365 basis. Beijing is always communicating; we need to as well. This is sound diplomacy that will shape opinion in our favor," he said.

Carrier Strike Group One is slated to return to San Diego in about five months.

Tyson wants to visit Kilby and his sailors often in the Western Pacific, she said, but most of the time she'll oversee his warships from her Point Loma headquarters -- issuing orders from an office and conference room dedicated to Bull Halsey.

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