Last month, Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite called for the re-establishment of the U.S. First Fleet, which would be a new numbered command that could help build-up the U.S. Navy’s presence in the vital Pacific and Indian Ocean seaways to Australia’s north. The calls come to help ward off further expansion and aggression in the region from Beijing.
The call from Braithwaite came as his tenure as President Donald Trump’s naval secretary winds down, but it could be seen as a notable move that would reform the First Fleet for the first time in more than four decades. It would dedicate more U.S. warships as well as additional sailors to the waters off of Southeast Asia and west to the Indian Ocean. It would serve to help protect the strategically vital Strait of Malacca, through which much of the region’s oil and cargo supplies transit.
“In order to improve our posture in the Indo-Pacific region we will reconstitute the First Fleet, assigning it primary responsibility for the Indo and South Asian region as an expeditionary fleet,” Secretary Braithwaite told the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee in November.
Speaking to the committee again on Dec. 2, Braithwaite said the Pacific Fleet would have the First, Third and Seventh Fleets reporting through it—with the First Fleet taking some of the territory that is now covered by the Seventh Fleet out of Japan. That could increase the U.S. Navy’s presence between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
“The Seventh Fleet, which is home-ported in Japan, although it’s also sea-based, it, you know, has formidable challenges to move all the way through the Western Pacific, down through the approaches of the Indian Ocean, all the way over to the Northern Arabian Gulf,” Braithwaite added.
The U.S. First Fleet was in operation from January 1947 to February 1973 and operated in the Western Pacific as part of the Pacific Fleet. It was disestablished and its duties assumed by the U.S. Third Fleet.
Braithwaite called for the new numbered fleet to operate in the Indian Ocean and suggested that it could be headquartered in Singapore or Western Australia.
Return of the Atlantic Fleet
The reformed First Fleet wasn’t the only major change for the U.S. Navy. Braithwaite also called to rename the U.S. Fleet Forces Command to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, which was a return to a focus on maritime operations in the Northern Atlantic rather than on the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
The Atlantic Fleet had existed in Norfolk, Virginia for a century from 1906 to 2006, noted USNI News. Fleet Forces Command is currently the chief readiness organization for the fleet, as well as the naval component for NORTHCOM and STRATCOM. While the responsibilities of those two combatant commands are unlikely to change, the Fleet Forces’ role in readiness could evolve.
“As the world changes, we must be bold, evolve, and change with it. Instead of perpetuating a structure designed to support yesterday’s Joint Forces Command, we are aligning to today’s threat,” Braithwaite said at Wednesday’s subcommittee hearing. “To meet the unique maritime challenges of the Atlantic theater, we will rename Fleet Forces Command as the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and we will refocus our naval forces in this important region on their original mission: controlling the maritime approaches to the United States and to those of our allies. The Atlantic Fleet will confront the reassertive Russian Navy, which has been deployed closer and closer to our East Coast, with a tailored maritime presence capability and lethality.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear, including A Gallery of Military Headdress.