Fleet Redesign and Training: The Case of Second Fleet and the USS Gerald R. Ford

By Robbin Laird

2nd Fleet was re-designed, and the USS Gerald R. Ford has come to the fleet.

How does this affect training?

With the redesign of 2nd Fleet, the 2023 deployment of the USS Gerald R. Ford operated in a NATO-centric environment and the ship brought to NATO a more powerful and flexible strike force.

In a U.S. Navy story published on 18 January 2024, this deployment was highlighted:

Gerald R. Ford is the flagship of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 12 and deployed to the U.S. Naval Forces Europe area of operations….

While in the Mediterranean, the carrier strike group participated in and supported numerous multinational exercises and vigilance activities to increase NATO capability and deter aggression in the region. The carrier visited ports in Croatia, Greece, Italy, Norway and Türkiye. Other ships in the strike group visited Belgium, Cyprus, Montenegro, Spain, and Sweden.

The Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group (GRFCSG) was extended 76 days following the outbreak of conflict in Israel and operated in the Mediterranean Sea to deter further escalation and support Israel in its right to self-defense. Two of the strike group’s ships, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS McFaul (DDG 74) and USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116) deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of maritime security objectives.

In total, the GRFCSG worked with 17 nations throughout its deployment during exercises Baltic Operations, Air Defender, Bomber Task Force Viking Trident, Neptune Strike, and Sage Wolverine. The strike group operated with Standing NATO Maritime Groups 1 and 2, conducted dual-carrier operations with USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), and exercised with navies from France, Greece, Norway, Türkiye and the United Kingdom.

The impact of the redesign of 2nd Fleet to operate more effectively in the NATO-coalition environment could easily be missed in simply describing this as the GRFCSG deployment.

Ed Timperlake and I spent a good deal of time with Vice Admiral Lewis learning how 2nd Fleet was being redesigned for more effective NATO-centric coalition operations.

We wrote about this redesign in our 2022 book A Maritime Kill Web Force in the Making.

Second Fleet and Allied Joint Force Command Norfolk were placed under the command of Vice Adm. Lewis to launch the new approach and to shape the initial way ahead. According to his original deputy, Vice Adm. Mustin, who is now head of the Naval Reserves, “What made us successful over the last 20 years, post 9/11, is not what’s going to make us successful into the next few decades. Working with Vice Adm. Lewis has been important as well. As Second Fleet Commander, he clearly understands that we need to shape a new approach. When I was in High School in the 80’s, my father was Second Fleet Commander, so I can legitimately say that “The new Second Fleet is not your father’s Second Fleet….”

The opportunity which the U.S. Navy has had to standup a new fleet in Norfolk to deal with North Atlantic defense as well as to work interactively with the standup of the only NATO operational command on U.S. territory has clearly allowed for shaping an innovative way ahead for fleet operations, and joint and allied integration to deal with the Russian, not the Soviet threat.

A key part of this effort was enhancing the U.S. Navy’s working relationship with NATO navies and forces and reshaping command and control. The interview we conducted with VADM Lewis’s Vice Commander, a Canadian Admiral underscored the transition:

How did we end up with a Vice Commander who is Canadian?

As Rear Adm. Waddell tells it, “Vice. Adm. Lewis was asked to stand up Second Fleet and given much latitude to do so. He went to a senior Canadian official to ask for a Royal Canadian Navy officer to serve as his deputy.”

Waddell felt that bringing a Canadian officer into the force made a lot of sense for a number of reasons. First, because of the partnership nature of operations in the area of interest. Second, because the Canadians have experience in operating in the high north, which could be brought to the renewed efforts on the part of the United States side to do so. Third, as Waddell himself works the C2F experience he can weave what he learns into Canadian approach to operations….

All of this leads to a very significant conclusion about the U.S. Navy and allies integrating across an extended battlespace and operating distributed forces.

According to Waddell: “For the web of capabilities, you need to be ready to fight tonight, you need to be able to seamlessly integrate together across the fleet, inclusive of U.S. and allied forces. You fight as a fleet.”

That means fundamental change from a cultural assumption that the U.S. Navy has run with for many years.

Waddell added: “You need to understand and accept that a fighting force needs to be reconfigurable such that others can seamlessly bolt on, participate in, or integrate into that force. That might mean changes from the assumptions of how the Navy has operated in the past to successfully operate with allies.”

Reconfigurable across a coalition is clearly enabled by kill web capabilities to operate as flexible modular task forces. The standup of Allied Joint Forces Command occurred shortly after that of the new C2F.

And the concept from the outset was that both commands would work together under the leadership of a single U.S. Admiral to find ways to shape more effective leveraging of U.S. and Allied capabilities and to be able to operate as a much more effective integrated force than in the past.

And there is a third command as well that is part of the startup, and maturation process as well. The Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence (CJOS COE) is the only NATO Centre of Excellence on U.S. soil.

This Centre is playing a key role in the exercise process in Norfolk as well.

This role was spelled out in our discussion with the Centre’s head.

As Cmdr. Guy, the head of CJOS COE put it in our discussions with him, they were supporting the Second Fleet’s mission of being able to fight tonight more effectively. To do so means finding ways for the U.S. and the allies to integrate the current capabilities more effectively.

And this, in many cases, requires relatively low-level technology solutions, but requires ensuring that NATO C2 systems are compatible with U.S. ships and for U.S. Navy training exercises to encompass C2 with European NATO navies.

As Cmdr. Guy put it: “In Second Fleet terms, we are very focused on the practical C2 aspects, notably making sure that U.S. Carrier Strike Groups and Expeditionary Strike Groups are familiar with NATO tactics. We are focused, for example, on working with CSG-4 to ensure that NATO familiarity is built into their training approach. And we work on the reverse as well with European NATO navies ensuring familiarity with U.S. Navy procedures.”

He added: “We are far from being alliance navies being completely integrated, and we are focused on the low hanging fruit. Some of this is about technology; some of it is about different operational cultures. Vice Admiral Lewis has been focused on having NATO C2 installed on U.S. Navy ships and upon shaping exercises and training whereby the operational cultural differences are attenuated. We must ensure that Second Fleet has what it needs to be the most effective multinational maritime component command it can be, on Day Zero.”

At the same time the command brought new operational capabilities to the fleet in the form of a new generation aircraft carrier.

Not only does the USS Gerald R. Ford bring new operational capabilities to the fleet in terms of its ability to operate a wide diversity of aircraft and to enhance their sortie generation rate, the C2 and command element is significantly different from the Nimitz class carrier.

I visited the Ford several times over the years, and highlighted its command capabilities as follows in my book with Timperlake:

The role of the large-deck carrier is being re-imagined and adapted to the overall innovations in the fleet, and in the joint and coalition forces.

Put bluntly, the large deck carriers provide significant flexible capabilities whose overall impact is linked to how the integrated distributed force overall evolves and develops its offensive and defensive capabilities.

It is not just about what is on a large deck carrier or what is resident in the organic carrier task force; it is about its ability to empower the wider kill web force and to leverage that force to enhance its own lethality and defensive capabilities as well….

Viewing the mission planning spaces onboard the ship, one can see how the spaces are optimized and positioned in a better way to enable those warfare commanders to work together. They also allow for additional services, partners, and allies to work onboard the Ford and then to share that level of understanding and that level of awareness with those partners and across the strike group.

Rear Adm. Clapperton noted: “The Ford is well positioned as we move into this future where an aircraft carrier and the strike group can be considered enablers of other weapon systems. We can function as an integrator of all of those capabilities, or as enabler of the fleet and joint assets, but equally benefit from the joint capabilities operating in the extended battlespace.”

The ship also has several reconfigurable mission planning bays. When visiting the new British carriers, we noticed as well that they have also incorporated this important aspect of shaping a carrier for the kill web-enabled fleet.

These bays can accommodate systems across the spectrum of classification. This means that the challenge of operating across the spectrum of crisis management can be managed by partners, allies or U.S. joint force elements onboard the ship as well. Taken as a whole, this means that “we have more flexibility for the missions we do and more flexibility for evolving technologies to meet the changing security environment,” according to Rear Admiral Clapperton.

He then described how he viewed the capabilities of the ship to deliver more effective integrated operations. “When you get into mission command scenario and when you get into a coms denied environment scenarios where the commander forward needs to make real-time risk decisions, there is no time to go back to a ‘mother may I’ kind of C2 process. We need platforms like this which enable coordination in such an environment.  If we want to do naval integration, with the command space we have on Ford, we can, for example, bring onboard the command element for an expeditionary task force or expeditionary strike group. We can liaison with them and put them right there in the command suites next to the guys who do surface and underwater warfare for us. They could be working hand in glove to ensure complete integration of the maritime domain awareness picture. We could have those people sitting side by side working those issues making sure integration is happening.”

The redesign of 2nd Fleet and the capabilities of the new carrier were fused in the training which CSG-4 orchestrated in the COMPTUEX training in 2023 which helped shaped the successful deployment which the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group (GRFCSG) recently completed.

The 2nd fleet redesign and the coming of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier were fused in the CSG-4 COMPTUEX training in 2023.

And the operations of GRFCSG provided ongoing lessons being learned in the workup for the next Carrier Strike Group whose COMPUTEX training is already being prepared by CSG-4.

But describing how this was done in the 2023 work up, one can lose the key point of the fleet redesign associated with 2nd Fleet and the Allied Commands and how different the Ford is in leading a strike group.

But let us now turn to that description by CSG-4 in a story published by the command on 3 April 2023.

It starts by underscoring the event:

The Sailors, ships, squadrons and staffs of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group (GRFCSG) successfully completed composite training unit exercise (COMPTUEX), April 2, 2023. COMPTUEX, orchestrated by the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 4, is a certification exercise conducted during the integrated phase of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan.

The working with NATO was highlighted but how the redesign of the command facilitated it was assumed and not highlighted which I my view did not give the Navy the credit it deserves for working a new paradigm along with the allies who have come to work in the NATO command in Norfolk.

This is what the story highlights:

COMPTUEX validated the strike group’s NATO interoperability, assuring our Allies and partners that the FORD Carrier Strike Group (GRFCSG) is ready to operate under either US or NATO command structure as the situation requires,” said Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer, commander, U.S. 2nd Fleet and Joint Force Command Norfolk. “Ford completing COMPTUEX leads the way for a global deployment and continued integration with NATO. The Alliance is stronger than ever, and any opportunity for our forces to train and exercise together under a single command structure increases our ability to effectively defend the Alliance as a single unified force.”

The GRFCSG team rehearsed a transfer of authority (TOA) of command and control between a notional higher headquarters, led by CSG-4, and Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRIKFORNATO), NATO’s rapidly deployable joint headquarters in Portugal. The strike group used NATO reporting procedures, messaging formats and chat capabilities, reinforcing command and control and aligning communications channels to ensure a seamless process in the event of a crisis. NATO operations in COMPTUEX also support the development of interoperability requirements for future force generation and improve allied maritime command and control linkages that are vital in all phases of warfare.

And it also notes the role of the third command at Norfolk, namely the Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence (CJOS COE).

Here is what the story mentions in passing:

The strike group also conducted the sixth iteration of NATO training in COMPTUEX (formerly referred to as the NATO vignette), in a scenario developed by CSG-4 and Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence (CJOS-COE).

The capabilities of the Ford were referred to throughout but I frankly think the challenge facing the Navy is to explain and to incorporate a major challenge in its operations whereby the Navy is in effect using the new class of carrier as part of a shift to how carriers are used, which we explain in detail in our book.

This is how the ship is described in the story:

Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is the U.S. Navy’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier. As the first-in-class ship of Ford-class aircraft carriers, CVN 78 represents a generational leap in the U.S. Navy’s capacity to project power on a global scale. Ford-class aircraft carriers introduce 23 new technologies, including Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, Advanced Arresting Gear and Advanced Weapons Elevators. The new systems incorporated onto Ford-class ships are designed to generate a higher sortie rate with a 20 percent smaller crew than a Nimitz-class carrier, paving the way forward for naval aviation.

All true but when one gets to how the ship can command a kill web force, it becomes more difficult to explain but will certainly be shaped in operations, training, and exercises, which increasingly are a cohesive whole.

You need to get beyond the show room floor description of capabilities and into understanding how it is part of a significant change in concepts of operations,

But that is the whole point of CSG-4 and its role.

Featured Photo: ATLANTIC OCEAN (March 24, 2023) Sailors assigned to the first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) air department, line up spotting dollys on the flight deck, March 24, 2023. Gerald R. Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean executing its composite training unit exercise (COMPTUEX), an intense, multi-week exercise designed to fully integrate a carrier strike group as a cohesive, multi-mission fighting force and to test their ability to carry out sustained combat operations from the sea. As the first-in-class ship of Ford-class aircraft carriers, CVN 78 represents a generational leap in the U.S. Navy’s capacity to project power on a global scale. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jennifer A. Newsome)