WASHINGTON — Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia has loomed large in the strategic calculations of the U.S. military. At the heart of that tensions has been U.S. naval forces in Europe, which have operated increasingly in the Black Sea, the Baltic and notably in the Arctic Circle this past October for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The commander of the Naples, Italy-based U.S. 6th Fleet, Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, has a front-row seat for the renewed great power competition.

Franchetti talked to Defense News about her role in the theater, the service’s transition from sleepy backwater to an operational environment, and her agenda for the 6th Fleet in 2019.

You took command in March 2018. Now that you’ve settled into the job, what are your priorities heading into 2019?

If I had to talk about the top three things of the to-do list, the first is to continue to operate our ships and submarines and aircraft, our BMD [ballistic missile defense] forces, our logistics forces and our expeditionary forces out here forward. We conduct operations across the board for U.S. Africa Command, European Command and even Central Command, and I think we continue to demonstrate that naval forces are inherently flexible, capable and provide a lot of options to decision-makers thinking about how to execute our national strategy.

Second thing I want to work on, as we did last year, is to enhance relationships with joint partners and our NATO allies. We work from the top of the North Pole through Sweden and Finland, all the way to the South Pole, over to the Gulf of Guinea and everything in between. Improving partner capability and improving our ability to operate from the high end of the spectrum (integrated missile defense) all the way to maritime domain awareness, these are things that we like to focus on.

Third thing is to continue to develop the next generation of naval leadership. I have a great team here on the 6th Fleet staff, but I get a chance to work with all my task force commanders and the deployed forces that come through here. So we’ll get tasks from EUCOM or AFRICOM, so I like to give the overall intent and let them come up with ideas on how we want to execute, then come back and brief and let them execute the way they want to execute so long as it meets commander’s intent. And by doing that I think I’m planting the seeds out there across the fleet at the O4, O5 and O6 level, of folk that are going to take my place some day, giving them a chance to think about exactly how we are going to work together with the joint force and our allied partners.

How would you characterize your interactions with Russia last year?

I’ve been here about 10 months now, and we do get a chance to see them operate in the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea. By and large all those interactions have been professional. We’ve only had one interaction in the past year that we would classify as unprofessional, and that was an aircraft interaction.

We operate in international waters. The Russians are operating in international waters. My expectation of my forces and the Russian forces is that they are going to be safe and professional. All the navies have a right and responsibility to act professionally at sea.

Spain recently provided material support to a Russian ship operating in the area. Do you have any concerns about that?

I don’t. The Spanish are an incredible ally and partner. They provide our base in Rota, they provide tremendous support there for us, our ships, expeditionary forces and all our families stationed there.

Does it make it more difficult to contain Russia if the country is supported by partner nations?

As I said, we are all free to operate in international waters. We continue to operate wherever we want to operate, and I’m going to continue to do that in 6th Fleet. That’s one of the things we’ve seen over the last year. We need to continue to maintain our presence with a purpose, continue to operate in all the seas and in international waters and airspace. I think that’s how we continue to demonstrate the flexibility and capability of our naval forces.

You recently had an opportunity to operate in the Arctic Circle during Trident Juncture. What were some lessons learned?

It was a great opportunity to have a chance to operate back up there again. As you know, we really haven’t had a chance to operate up there since the early 1990s. I think we had a lot of knowledge on the shelf, but we needed to dust it off a little bit and refresh. It was a chance to exercise those muscles that we hadn’t exercised in a while.

If I had to take three things away, I’d say: the weather. Just like when we started going into the [Arabian] Gulf regularly and we had to adapt to crews being on the flight deck in really hot weather, investing in lots of resources to make sure they had plenty of access to water. Same thing: We have to look at cold weather operations, from the sailors to the equipment to the aircraft — being able to refuel in heavy seas. So focusing on the weather, we really took to heart before the exercise even started, make sure we were able to account for the potential impact of the weather even more than we do on a regular basis.

Second: logistics. Operating at the far end of the logistics chain, it was really important for us to see how we could do that, how it would work, and we took a lot of lessons from that.

The third takeaway was what a great opportunity it was to practice with the Navy/Marine Corps team. It was really a good experience, and we want to build on that in 2019.

You had the treat of having an aircraft carrier in your area of responsibility for most of its deployment as part of this new dynamic force employment model. What are some ways you might refine the model?

It really was a banner year for 6th Fleet. Not only did we have the Harry S. Truman [Carrier Strike Group] here, we also had the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit for part of their deployment. So it was a great opportunity for the 6th Fleet team to develop our skills and processes for having these large groups of forces in our theater that we really haven’t seen for a long time.

The chief of naval operations in his Design 2.0 talks about being more agile. And as I think about more fully integrating with the joint force, I want to leverage a lot of the creativity and experience we have across the 6th Fleet team to focus on that agility piece, learning conceptually and geographically how we can take advantage of all the forces coming into our AOR.

I would say the other big takeaways is working with our NATO partners, having those forces in the area give us the opportunity to set up some very high-end training, and we want to build on that going forward.

The Navy in recent years has forward-deployed four destroyers in Rota. What role are they playing in your theater beyond their intended ballistic missile defense role?

It is absolutely fantastic having those four destroyers. There is no substitute for having that kind of forward presence in Europe — it’s the bedrock of our ability to reassure our allies and respond to any threats that come up.

The DDGs are here for the BMD mission. But the DDGs really are our bread and butter here in 6th Fleet because we can use them for other missions, exercises and theater engagement. We count on them every day.

Once the Romania and Poland Aegis Ashore sites are both up and running, will the mission evolve for those destroyers?

They’ll still maintain their BMD mission, and we’ll continue to use them in other ways as well. They’ll do exercises in the Black Sea, support carriers: We try to give them the right opportunities to maintain their training and certifications. I don’t see any change for their mission going forward.

Those ships have to turn over soon. What is the plan for getting new ships to Rota to relieve the destroyers based there?

There is a plan for all four DDGs to rotate out, that’s always been the going-in argument. I don’t want to get ahead of any announcements, but there is a solid plan on the drawing board and we are going to be executing that plan, working closely with Fleet Forces Command. That will be another of my objectives for 2019.

How has it been maintaining those ships?

The FDNF—Europe [Forward Deployed Naval Force—Europe] ships, we have a solid model for their deployment, and built into that model is specific periods for maintenance. We are very focused on maintaining their readiness, and to be honest it has been exceptional. We are able to conduct all the intermediate maintenance and the extended maintenance availabilities that these ships need to stay ready and stay focused while on patrol. The support has been exceptional.

FDNF came under a microscope in 2017 after accidents in Japan. How did you internalize the lessons learned from those reviews and apply them in Europe?

Here in 6th Fleet we took those lessons to heart. It’s a very detailed model that the four ships operate under: When they are on patrol and when they are off patrol, we have a very firm certification instruction with dedicated training requirements. There are no waivers.

We have had opportunities to break their operational model, but I have not done that. And Adm. [James] Foggo, [head of Naval Forces Europe], would not allow that either. So we are wedded to this operational model that sustains both their training and certifications, and their readiness. Holding firm on that to make sure we aren’t putting the ships in the situation of death by a thousand paper cuts, where you slide this maintenance availability then you move a certification — next thing you know you lose another maintenance availability all to sustain operations.

We are very firm on maintaining the model we have for their operational deployments, and that has worked out very well.

Any closing thoughts?

Well the Europe/Africa theater has become very dynamic. The naval component has a very important part to play, and I think we as a Navy and Marine Corps team continue to demonstrate the flexibility and great capabilities every day, 365 days a year. We are working very hard out here.

I think when you deployed here or when I deployed here, it was a bit more relaxed. It was a little more wine and cheese. And that’s not this theater anymore. Really since 2014, since the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, and we are all very focused on the mission and partner engagement and developing high-end capabilities, so we can send a credible message of deterrence.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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