Friday, October 23, 2015

Sixth Fleet Reborn? I Don't Think So

Our 6th Fleet is now 5 times bigger than it was earlier in the year. Ponder what that must mean as our Navy shrinks.

Take that, Putin and ISIL (aka ISIS. aka Islamic State. aka Daesh)! Our 6th Fleet is now 5 times as big as it once was!

In September, the destroyer Carney arrived in Rota, Spain, which joins the Ross, Donald Cook and Porter as forward deployed ships based there. All four destroyers are armed with state-of-the-art missile defense systems and are the sea arm of the Obama administration's European ballistic missile shield; an Aegis Ashore installation is set to come online later this year in Deveselu, Romania.

The addition of the four destroyers in Europe has quintupled the size of the 6th Fleet surface fleet, which previously only had the command ship Mount Whitney, homeported in Naples, Italy; ships on deployment in the region also report to 6th Fleet.

Got that? Sixth Fleet used to be a command ship that commanded ships and subs transiting the region to and from CENTCOM.

I mentioned that the fleet was virtual.

And I noted that the missile defense ships ended that status.

But 6th Fleet is still just 5 ships.

And the only warships serve a strategic purpose--missile defense for Europe and other allies nearby--not sea control or power projection to resist Russia or fight ISIL.

Nor is 6th Fleet likely to get the ships in peacetime needed to be a real fleet. The commandeer of 6th Fleet, Vice Admiral James Foggo, recognizes that while he'd love to have a carrier battle group or amphibious ready group with a Marine Expeditionary Unit, other theaters have priority.

But does 6th Fleet need to be a large fleet to allow NATO to control the Mediterranean Sea?

Remember, Russia is still very weak--especially in naval power. Their navy emphasized ballistic missile submarines to maintain a nuclear deterrent to make up for weak Europe-focused land power that can't protect their entire border from China.

We have NATO allies Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey--which also chokes off Russian reinforcements from the Black Sea through the Turkish straits--with decent navies (with about a 125 subs and principal surface combatants in 2012, plus smaller vessels and air support from ashore and afloat) that we can support. We don't need a significant 6th Fleet these days to control the Mediterranean Sea.

And while we can't afford a carrier battle group for 6th Fleet, I'll ask again in this context: why can't we deploy a carrier air wing to land bases?

Navy planes based at Sicily, Crete, Cyprus, or bases on the mainland of Europe could provide the air support for NATO naval operations without a carrier. There's little room to maneuver in the constricted Mediterranean Sea, anyway.

Sixth Fleet is still a virtual combat fleet, notwithstanding the four ballistic missile defense ships now assigned to the fleet. Those ships have a dedicated mission and they really aren't going to be available for routine missions.

But I don't think we really need to rebuild 6th Fleet. Our European NATO allies are mostly incapable of fighting out of area to support us. We should at least take advantage of those NATO capabilities in Europe's own back yard to make up for our smaller navy.

UPDATE: I stand corrected on the use of the anti-missile-capable ships. Amazingly, they are being used for routine work, according to the EUCOM commander:

So, we have four very capable Aegis destroyers now, that are a huge part of our rotation capability and have already been used to demonstrate Freedom Of Action in the Black Sea and other places, which the Russians would like to say is now denied to us.

I was wrong. But I shouldn't be. Those ships have no business being involved in routine missions if they affect the anti-missile role. These ships are part of the alternative to the Bush land-based anti-missile plans for Europe (with no other mission) that were changed by the Obama administration.