WASHINGTON — The new head of U.S. Pacific Fleet is moving away from a throwback command structure championed by his predecessor that saw the San Diego-based head of U.S. 3rd Fleet take tactical control of ships in the Asia-Pacific region, a role usually taken over by the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet once ships sail west of Hawaii.
Former PACFLT head Adm. Scott Swift, who is retired from service, used the construct, remeniscent of the structure employed by the Navy during its broad Pacific campaign in World War II, as a way of dividing up the responsibilities for the theater, with 7th Fleet taking the lead on the North Korea challenge and 3rd Fleet handling other areas. But new PACFLT commander Adm. John Aquilino, who took the helm in May, is moving away from the concept, which has been criticized in recent months.
Aquilino’s spokesman, Capt. Charlie Brown, told Defense News that the term isn’t being used anymore but that Aquilino intends to keep testing new concepts in the future.
“ ‘Third Fleet Forward’ was a concept designed to enable 3rd Fleet’s maneuver force capability in order to aggregate and, when necessary, fight with the combined power of both numbered fleets in the Pacific Fleet," Brown said. "The term ‘Third Fleet Forward’ is no longer being used. The new Pacific Fleet commander intends to take the next step to advance the maneuver force capability fleetwide during this time of great power competition.
“In the context of renewed great power competition and in accordance with the National Defense Strategy, Pacific Fleet, in cooperation with Fleet Forces Command, continues to explore and incorporate new concepts and capabilities that will allow us to bring full naval power to bear against any adversary,” Brown added.
“3rd Fleet Forward” was first employed in 2016 with a Surface Action Group made up of three destroyers deployed to test new operating concepts with the Navy’s heft surface combatants, then again earlier this year with the deployment of the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group to the western Pacfic.
Now-retired Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the 7th Fleet commander fired by Swift in the wake of 2017′s deadly accidents, argued in a recent op-ed in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings journal that the employment of 3rd Fleet ships in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility had a detrimental impact on command and control.
“Under this initiative, surface forces that historically had been deployed to the Western Pacific to augment the presence of (and relieve the pressure on) FDNF forces, now were taken out of [7th Fleet’s] command,” Aucoin wrote. “While these ships occasionally filled some missions that would otherwise have required FDNF ships, they spent much of their time executing ‘shows of force’ or engaging in Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI) fisheries patrols and therefore were not available to provide relief for FDNF cruisers or destroyers in need of training or maintenance.”
The Navy’s comprehensive review of the accidents that claimed the lives of 17 sailors in the Pacific found that the breakneck operations tempo in 7th Fleet created conditions that contributed to the accidents.
The experiment with 3rd Fleet was valuable but ultimately unworkable in that format, said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and head of the defense consultancy The FerryBridge Group.
“We have a considerable operational requirement in the Pacific Fleet area and, in my view, it exceeds the planning and war-fighting capability of a single numbered warfare commander,” McGrath said. “We do need another fleet commander forward, but the attempt to get the benefit of an added fleet commander, while an interesting experiment, was a bit of a half measure. I hope what they learned is that trying to do a forward fleet commander job from San Diego is proably not a good idea.”
Instead, McGrath said, the Navy should look at establishing a forward commander in Australia.
“I would hope that as the Navy grows (if the Navy grows), I hope we will work with our Australian allies to establish a forward command,” he said. “Tyring to do that from San Diego doesn’t make sense.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.