U.S. ships leaving the East Coast must now consider the Atlantic Ocean a contested battlespace, a Navy three-star said this week, as Russian activity continues to pick up just off the American coast.
Over the past two decades, Navy ships mainly sailed across the Atlantic on their way somewhere else. But the admiral in charge of a fleet that was resurrected to deter Russian aggression said U.S. military personnel now must be on their game in their country's own backyard.
The Atlantic is changing, Vice Adm. Andrew "Woody" Lewis, commander of U.S. Second Fleet, said at a Tuesday event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It's a battlespace that can't be ignored, he added.
"Our new reality is, when our sailors cross lines over and set sail, they can expect to be operating in a contested space once they leave [Virginia]," Lewis said. "Our ships can no longer expect to operate in a safe haven on the East Coast, or merely cross the Atlantic unhindered to operate in another location."
That includes when ships are training off the East Coast or returning from deployment, the three-star said. If they're underway, Navy crews in the Atlantic must be aware they're now operating right alongside potential adversaries.
"We have seen some of our ships, the USS Mahan for example, in the early stages of their training cycle operating on station in the Atlantic with a Russian intelligence ship when visiting our coastline late last year," Lewis said.
The Coast Guard issued a warning after that encounter, since the Russian intelligence ship was making erratic movements while operating without lights. It also did not respond to hails from other ships attempting safe passage.
The U.S. military is seeing an "ever-increasing number of Russian submarines" deploying to the Atlantic, Lewis said. Their capabilities are also improving, he added, as the vessels stay out for longer periods and deploy with more lethal weapons systems.
Under Secretary of Defense John Rood announced Tuesday that the Navy has fielded a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead called the W76-2. Rood said the warhead increases deterrence by demonstrating to potential adversaries, such as Russia, that "there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario."
Lewis declined to say Tuesday how the warhead would change Navy missions in the Atlantic, saying only that longer-range capabilities play into how the fleet operates but adding, "It's not a factor that's going to alter too much of our behavior."