ABOARD THE AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT SHIP KEARSARGE IN NORFOLK, Va. — NATO and U.S. military leaders gathered at Joint Force Command Norfolk in Virginia on Thursday to celebrate full readiness of the first operational NATO headquarters in North America.
The new command will be responsible for the Atlantic and Arctic regions. NATO also has two other joint force commands — one in Brunssum, Netherlands (considered the heart of Europe), and another in Naples, Italy, in the Mediterranean region — U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis noted at the ceremony aboard the American amphibious warship Kearsarge.
Lewis leads U.S. 2nd Fleet and the new command JFC Norfolk, both of which were stood up in recent years in response to increased Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic Ocean, increased military and commercial traffic in the Arctic, and other factors that have generated a renewed interest in securing the seaways between Europe and the United States.
Setting up a third joint force command in Virginia “creates a link between North America and Europe and helps to further develop the desired 360-degree approach for our collective defense and security. Joint Force Command Norfolk is the first operational-level NATO headquarters in North America and is the Atlantic advocate within the alliance, enhancing NATO’s readiness and responsiveness,” Lewis said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also spoke at the event, where he somberly described the effects of great power competition during the two world wars and said NATO and JFC Norfolk are responsible for ensuring that never happens again.
“It’s the mission of this command to fight the Battle of the Atlantic in the event of armed conflict,” Milley said in a 20-minute address at the ceremony. Lewis and his successors at JFC Norfolk “will be the admirals in charge of a ‘Battle for the Atlantic.’ … I would tell you that the survival of NATO, the success or failure in combat in a future war in Europe, would largely depend on the success or failure of this command.”
Milley is well versed in the impact of a great power competition, in no small part because his father served as a Navy corpsman alongside the Marines that landed on Iwo Jima. The top U.S. military office added that the U.S. and NATO must take actions now to avoid another world war from happening again.
“In my view, the world is entering a period of potential instability, as some nations — not all, but some — and clearly terrorist groups and perhaps some rogue actors are seeking to undermine and challenge the existing international order. And they seek to weaken the system of cooperation and collective security that has been in existence for some time,” he said.
“The dynamic nature of today’s current environment is counterbalanced by an order that was put in place 76 years ago at the end of World War II,” he added. “It was the bloodiest war in human history: There were almost 7,000 Marines killed in action, 21,000 Japanese killed in action on the island of Iwo Jima where my dad landed, and that was only in 19 days. In the short period of 31 years, from 1914 to 1945, world wars I and II were fought among the great powers of the day, and 150 million people — 150 million around the world — were killed in the conduct of great power war.”
Milley spoke of some of the low points of the wars: a six-week period in the fall of 1918 when American expeditionary forces fought in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne during which 26,000 Marines and soldiers died; an eight-week period in the summer of 1944 when 425,000 soldiers among opposing forces were wounded or killed, from the beaches of Normandy inland to Paris, with 37,000 Allied troops killed in those weeks alone.
“That is the butcher’s bill of great power war. That’s what this international order that’s been in existence for seven and a half decades is designed to prevent. That’s what JFC Norfolk is all about, is to prevent that outcome,” he said. “We are experiencing a change, a significant change, in the character of war ... how we fight, the organizations we fight with, the technology that we use.
“There’s a whole set of technologies that are driving fundamental change, and if we the United States military, and if we NATO as an alliance, do not adapt and adopt these technologies, if we do not get there ‘firstest with the mostest’ and we don’t put the pedal to the metal and do this right over the next 10 or 15 years, we are condemning a future generation to what happened 76 years ago.”
The general said existing capabilities — precision munitions backed by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems; artificial intelligence; and manned-unmanned teaming — as well as technology coming down the line — biotechnology, human engineering and miniaturization — will have “a fundamental impact on the conduct of war.”
“The country that masters those technologies, combines them with their doctrine, develops their leadership to take maximum advantage of them, is likely going to have significant and perhaps even decisive advantage at the beginning of the next war — and in fact, that may be as long as the war lasts. So mastering the change in the character of war is most likely going to be the most important thing we do as a professional military over the next 10-15 years,” Milley said.
In a nod to the ongoing debate about defense spending, Milley said readiness and modernization are both important, but warned adversaries that current American and NATO war-fighting capabilities are strong. “The challenge is going to be in the future, in the not-too-distant future, and that’s where our focus needs to be,” the chairman said.
Lewis told Defense News after the ceremony that because NATO doesn’t have its own military, the alliance relies on members to make the right investments in their respective war-fighting capabilities. But an organization like JFC Norfolk can help by tying together those varying capabilities, he said, creating a common operating picture for NATO leaders and ensuring a structure is in place for allied militaries to rapidly deploy together in response to a crisis.
Lewis added that every time a ship deploys from Norfolk, for example, it’s not just a U.S. military asset but also a node in NATO’s common operating picture through JFC Norfolk. Building a clear picture of the Atlantic and Arctic will help NATO get a sense of what “normal” looks like so the alliance can quickly identify and react to an abnormal situation, he explained.
The recent NATO exercise Steadfast Defender, held off the coast of Portugal, allowed the U.S. Navy and JFC Norfolk to test for the first time their ability to assemble a maritime component that flows in from North America to Europe in support of military operations on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.