A Resurrected First Fleet Is the Weapon the Navy Needs to Counter China, Former SecNav Says

Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite USS Sioux City.
Sideboys render honors as Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite proceeds to the quarterdeck of the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Sioux City, August 111, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Chief Sonar Technician (Surface) James Clifford)

When former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite first pitched the idea to resurrect a numbered fleet in the Pacific that hasn't been active in nearly 50 years, not everyone was on board.

Braithwaite said this week that in looking at the Navy's challenges, he saw "a need to reorient the structure of the department." In November, he announced plans to bring back U.S. First Fleet between the Indian and Pacific oceans to counter China.

"You know, one of the things that the Navy doesn't do well is embrace that kind of change," Braithwaite said at an event hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation centered around his pitch to recreate First Fleet.

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Braithwaite, who served as Navy secretary during President Donald Trump's last eight months in office, said he had to build up support around the concept within the Navy Department. Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers last month that the Navy is still considering the idea.

Despite early resistance, Braithwaite said the idea has now found some support. He remains an advocate for seeing the Navy resurrect the fleet, he said.

Braithwaite was candid during his tenure as Navy secretary about the threat he believes China poses to the U.S. In October, he called China "a threat beyond any comparison ever in the history of our country."

Having another numbered fleet in the Pacific would be aimed at deterring that country's military. China has been investing heavily in its navy and has militarized islands in the region.

The Navy command that eventually became U.S. First Fleet was active from 1943 to 1973. Seventh Fleet is currently the only numbered fleet in the Asia-Pacific region. Based in Japan, it's the Navy's biggest forward-deployed fleet with anywhere from 50 to 70 ships and submarines assigned to it, but it covers a huge area stretching from India down to Antarctica and up past Japan.

"You're talking about the largest ocean of the world, and you're talking about an area of responsibility currently for the Seventh Fleet that takes most of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea, which ... has become an area of increased tension, and then the entire Indian Ocean all the way over to where the Fifth Fleet [area of responsibility] begins," Braithwaite said. "So, there's a real void there."

He said details about where a future First Fleet would be based and what ships and personnel should be assigned to it remain "the devil in the details."

Davidson said last month that Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, is studying some of those points.

Allies and partners in the region have embraced the idea, Braithwaite said, including India, Singapore and Japan.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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