How Joe Biden Can Get the First Fleet Right

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January 12, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: Joe BidenU.S. NavyFirst FleetChinaAllies

How Joe Biden Can Get the First Fleet Right

It is time to recommission the first fleet. Here is how the new administration can do so.

Ideas, both good and bad, often disappear with a change of administrations. One good idea that deserves to survive is the recommissioning of the 1st Fleet proposed by Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite. The Secretary’s vision includes an expeditionary orientation, with a focus on our allies and partners. Western Australia and South East Asia are mooted as potential locations, placing the fleet in a strategic location at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  

As always with new proposals, skeptics abound. Finding the resources—from platforms to people and time—means reducing or terminating other things we are doing. We know the power of vested interests and the persistence of status quo. Another obstacle is perception. New administrations need credit for something new.

Often seemingly daunting obstacles can be overcome by making the issue bigger. So, it is with this proposal. Five additions to the original proposal can help.

  • Make it a combined effort with the United States, and its allies and partners, from the command element through the entire force.

  • Welcome the participation of allied nations in exercises and peacetime engagement, creating a de facto “democratic armada.”  

  • Widely distribute the forces and the command element throughout Southeast Asia to boost presence, engagement, and participation.

  • Exercise in all domains of conflict from the traditional air land and sea to the new of space, cyberspace, electromagnetic spectrum, and information.

  • Include building disaster resilience and disaster response as a mission set.

Emphasize a focus on our allies and partners by inviting their inclusion and participation. Create a standing combined maritime task force specifically including allies and partners. Our most recent Defense Authorization Act includes a Pacific Deterrence Initiative modeled on the European Deterrence Initiative. Similarly, this combined maritime task force could be modeled on the Standing Naval Force Atlantic of decades ago. The renewed emphasis on allies and partners signaled by our incoming administration will gain substance with the creation of this combined force.

Such a task force will demonstrate continuing development of combined capability, a needed boost to conventional deterrence. Capabilities across the domains of competition and conflict will be improved. Cross-domain and multinational synergies will be found.

Including a disaster resilience and disaster response mission within the declared task force missions and capabilities will ease the participation of some of our partners and expand our engagement with nations, their forces, and international organizations across the region. Resilience can be strengthened through combined medical, dental, and construction efforts done with and through the host nations’ forces. We do these things now and can increase our mutual disaster resilience through combined force resources and provide an important grassroots demonstration of the value of forces drawn from democracies. These capabilities are sure to be exercised in the region’s frequent natural disasters, further emphasizing the value of our presence.

The nations of the “Quad” (America, Japan, India, Australia) can make major contributions to this combined task force. The Royal Australian Navy is quite capable with surface and subsurface combatants, including amphibious ships. Australia also hosts the U.S. Marine Rotational Force Darwin. This proposed task force could feature Australian forces aboard U.S. amphibious ships, and U.S. Marines aboard Australian ships as occasion and opportunities emerge. As proficiency rises so will confidence. Other participating nations will expand participation across the force.

Headquarters and home port location decisions often become counterproductive issues. Favoritism will be alleged in the wake of any location decision, and facilities construction always generates budgetary friction. The answer is to operate with a distributed command element, perhaps five-to-ten personnel in each location desired by nations participating in the standing maritime task force. This reduces a critical single-point vulnerability of the command element and expands our continuous engagement with allies and partners. This would be a marvelous way to take advantage of our deep bench of professionally qualified Foreign Area Officers and the latent foreign language capability within our forces. This will not be as hard as it looks. We have learned through this current pandemic that we can work in a distributed environment.

Wallace C. Gregson, a retired Marine and former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009—11), is currently a senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.