NATO’s newest command is moving fast
By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: November 12, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Every morning, someone from one of the 16 nations with personnel attached to Joint Force Command Norfolk steps into a Naval Station Norfolk war room to brief Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis.
“For many, English is not their first language,” Lewis said.
“There’s an Estonian officer who was once a conscript in the Soviet army, that’s the kind of depth we get. There’s a Polish civilian — you know, talking to Polish people who remember the Soviets, it’s still pretty raw ... there are Lithuanians, they were fighting in those forests as late as 1956,” he said.
“They were right there ... It really brings it home.”
Specifically, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has played a vital — and successful — role defending the international rule of law and democracies for 70 years.
And that Lewis, who serves as both commander of the U.S. Second Fleet and NATO’s newest command, Joint Force Command Norfolk, is leading a team from 16 nations who are helping shape what he calls NATO version 3.0.
It’s a blend of NATO 1.0 — the Cold War alliance focused on deterrence and defense — and NAT0 2.0, with a focus on responding to global crises, as it has in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the same strategic concern that prompted formation of the Second Fleet in 2018 — that autocratic nations posed a rising threat to the international rule of law — is shaping the newest vision for NATO.
“Joint Force Command Norfolk brings the North Atlantic back to NATO,” Lewis said. “Our space goes from Florida to Finnmark, from the sea bed to satellites in space. ... In essence, it is what draws the continents together”
That North Atlantic focus marks a shift from NATO’s traditional land-centered defense of the European continent.
“The trans- Atlantic bridge is vital ... it connects all the members of the alliance in North America and Europe.” said Joint Force deputy commander, British Rear Adm. Andrew Betton.
“What links us all is lying on the bottom of the ocean” he said, referring to the cables that telecommunications and Internet services depend on.
In a sense, the two admirals say, Joint Force Command is responsible for operations in what more and more strategists are calling the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic.
The first, in World War I, pitted two relatively new types of ships — submarines and destroyers — the first of which was trying to sink ships bring material and troops to Europe, the second, aiming to protect those troops and goods.
The second Battle of the Atlantic, in World War II, introduced widespread use of naval aircraft. The third, during the Cold War, mainly brought NATO and Soviet submarines into confrontation.
The fourth, the admirals say, will introduce new domains to defend, including satellites and cyber threats, as well as threats to shipping and commerce that were the main focus of the first two battles and the submarine threats that dominated the third.
The challenges of the North Atlantic are unlike those of other seas, Lewis said.
“Right now, we’ve got a hurricane off Key West, ice floes moving fast in the north,” Lewis said. “Up in the High Arctic, with ship communications, we’ve got some physics to think about with satellites, we need to think about line of sight communications ... these are dangerous waters.”
The experiences of his colleagues from other nations matter.
“The Norwegians are operating all the time up in the Arctic; so is Iceland and Canada,” Lewis said. The British and French have experience with carriers and submarines and with operating them in tandem with the U.S. Navy’s own.
Other navies bring experience in local waters and with smaller ships, deputy commander Betton said, and while “most of our domain is wet, so most of our people are naval" the command includes air force. marine and army personnel from several nations.
As an operational command, Joint Force has to go beyond looking at the the logistics of moving troops and gear to thinking of what needs to to defended, what threats are there, and how to be sure war-fighting resources of the 30 different nations in NATO can be called on to get there and how they will coordinate.
“Our job is to say what needs to happen; tactical commands figure out which ships and which soldiers need to be where and do what for that," Betton said.
The fast-moving command doubled in size over the summer, with a staff that now numbers 88 and will reach 144 when it reaches full capability next year.
Its assignment is to create coherent command arrangements for Allied forces, maintain situational awareness, conduct exercises, and draw up operational plans, NATO says. The command is already working on planning for NATO’s big Steadfast Defender 2021 exercise, which will involve tens of thousands of thousands of troops deploying to several different training spanning Europe.
Joint Force is NATO’s third, geography-defined joint force operation command — and the third NATO unit in Hampton Roads, along with the strategists of Allied Command Transformation and the Combined Joint Operations of the Sea Centre of Excellence.
“It’s really important that Norfolk is NATO’s home in North America; that’s something I hope people in Hampton Roads will see,” Lewis said.