The U.S. Navy, reacting to an increasingly active Russian Navy, will reactive the Second Fleet.
The Second Fleet was historically responsible for the East Coast and the Atlantic Ocean ranging out to halfway between North America and Europe. The fleet will likely coordinate a response to Russian cruise missile submarines operating near the continental United States.
The U.S. Navy is organized around several numbered fleets, each with a particular geographical area of responsibility. The Seventh Fleet, for example, is based out of Japan and is responsible for the Western Pacific, while the Sixth Fleet is based out of Naples, Italy and controls American naval forces in the North Sea, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Mediterranean. The Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain and responsible for the Middle East and Horn of Africa. The Third Fleet, based in San Diego, is roughly responsible for the Pacific from Hawaii to Alaska and points south. The last fleet, the Tenth Fleet, controls Navy cyber forces.
The Second Fleet used operate out of Norfolk, Virginia, and was responsible for the Western Atlantic as far east as Greenland. The fleet was disbanded in 2011 as a cost-saving measure, with its assets rolled into the Fleet Forces Command. Without a rival sending warships into the Western Atlantic, there wasn’t much point in a Second Fleet. Other commands—particularly the Seventh Fleet facing China and North Korea and the Fifth Fleet facing Somali pirates, ISIS, the war in Yemen, and the war Afghanistan—were much more heavily engaged and could use the freed up manpower.
The resurgence of the Russian Navy, along with Russia’s new hostility to the West, has prompted Navy officials to reactivate the Second Fleet. In March 2017, Russian Navy commander Admiral Vladimir Korolev claimed Russian naval forces had at last , with his submarine fleet alone spending 3,000 hours at sea.
As tensions with Russia heat up, the likelihood of Russian submarines operating in the Western Atlantic increases to a virtual certainty. Russian submarines will travel farther for training purposes, conduct surveillance on U.S. and Allied ships in the region, and collect intelligence on military installations such as Norfolk and military shipyards up and down the East Coast. In the event of war, Russian submarines would do what the Soviets had planned to do in wartime and what Nazi Germany attempted to do in World War II: shut down the Atlantic and prevent the U.S. from flowing reinforcements into Europe.
This leads to another potential threat the U.S. is trying to address: Russia’s ability to launch nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from submarines. Russian Navy surface ships and submarines, particularly older submarines, are capable of firing the Kalibr cruise missile, Russia’s rough equivalent to the American Tomahawk cruise missile. In 2015 Russian ships and submarines launched more than two dozen Kalibr missiles against Islamic State targets in Syria, and Russian Navy forces have launched more than a dozen Kalibr strikes against insurgents in Syria since. The Kalibr cruise missile was suspected for years of being capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, something .
Cruise missiles fly slow but low, in order to fly under most missile-detecting radars. Russian submarines, particularly the new , could creep up to North America and then launch a surprise attack of nuclear-armed Kalibrs against Washington D.C. and strategic targets across the Eastern Seaboard.
Each Yasen can launch up to 40 Kalibrs, and the Russian Navy plans to build up to eight of the submarines. (It’s not exactly a first strike scenario that makes a lot of sense—U.S. forces could still mount a devastating nuclear retaliatory strike, functioning government or not--but it is theoretically possible and has to be addressed.) The Kalibr missile has a maximum range of 1,079 nautical miles, placing it well within the Second Fleet’s traditional area of responsibility.
According to USNI News, Second Fleet will reactivate on July 1, 2018, “and will have an initial manning of 11 officers and four enlisted personnel. The staff will eventually grow to 85 officers, 164 enlisted and seven civilians.”