Looking to Be Prepared for a War in the Atlantic, NATO Launches New Command

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The Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge transits the Atlantic
The Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge transits the Atlantic Ocean April 23, 2021. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jesse Schwab)

If the United States and Russia ever go toe-to-to in the Atlantic, the battle will be fought out of Norfolk, Virginia.

NATO on Thursday celebrated the official launch of Joint Force Command-Norfolk, the first such command to be located in North America. It joins similar NATO commands in Brunssum, Netherlands, and Naples, Italy.

During a ceremony on board the USS Kearsarge, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the command is necessary to prevent a bloody, destructive war against major adversaries -- or to win it if one were to erupt.

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"It's the mission of this command to fight the battle of the Atlantic in the event of armed conflict," Milley said. "Think about that. If you know your history, and you know World War II, you know how important that was."

During World War II, the Atlantic was prowled by German U-boats and other vessels -- often right off the East Coast of the United States -- that sought to torpedo troop transports, vital supply ships and other vessels, as well as spy on America.

If another war were to break out in Europe, Milley said, securing the Atlantic would be crucial.

"The survival of NATO, the success or failure in combat in a future war ... in Europe would largely depend on the success or failure of this command, and success or failure of the battle of the Atlantic," Milley said.

And in his remarks, Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of the Navy's Second Fleet and the new joint force command, warned of increasing Russian and Chinese activity in the Atlantic.

"We can no longer assume we have control of the Atlantic, as we had at the end of the Cold War," Lewis said. "We are again being challenged by threats in these waters. [Russia and China] both have increased their presence in the Atlantic, from the Arctic Circle to the South Pole."

The ceremony celebrated the command reaching full operational capability, meaning it is able to perform all the missions and capabilities it was designed for. The command reached initial operational capability, meaning it could do the minimum necessary, roughly 18 months ago, Milley said.

Lewis said that in peacetime, the command will provide situational awareness for the alliance, lead and help prepare NATO planning, and take part in NATO training exercises such as Steadfast Defender, in which allies practice how they would collectively defend one another if attacked.

As the nation winds down its involvement in the Middle East, the military has sought to refocus its attention on preparing for or deterring a conflict with major rivals such as China or Russia, which it refers to as "great power competition."

Lewis also highlighted the challenge of changing climates, which are resulting in stronger and more violent weather patterns, and opening up waterways as ice melts in the Arctic. The opening Arctic is also leading to increased competition with Russia as nations jockey for position to tap newly available natural resources.

Milley said the world could be entering a period of instability with some nations, terrorist groups and rogue actors working to undermine systems of international cooperation and collective security that have existed since the end of World War II and its devastating violence.

"That is the butcher's bill of great power war," Milley said. "That's what this international order that's been in existence for seven and a half decades is designed to prevent. That's what JFC-Norfolk is all about. It's to prevent that outcome."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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