What you need to know
US Navy destroyers make headlines when they sail the Taiwan Strait – a regular part of the Seventh Fleet’s patrol. When we look at the history of US fleet deployments, it’s clear that the US uses its warships as waterborne ambassadors of global influence.
Two U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet destroyers sailed through the Taiwan Strait on July 7 and 8 in a move that riled brewing tensions between Washington and Beijing. The U.S. Navy, confirming the passage, insisted that the Taiwan Strait is "international waters," saying that the U.S. Navy has sent ships through the strait for years.
The Pacific Fleet is no stranger to Taiwan or China. Made up of two major fleets – the U.S. Third Fleet, which defends the Northern and Eastern Pacific regions, and the U.S. Seventh Fleet, widely known in Taiwan as protector of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans – it constitutes the U.S. Navy's most powerful forward-deployed fleet.
The U.S. Navy re-established the previously disbanded U.S. Second Fleet on July 1, a significant development coming at the heels of heightening tensions between a resurgent Russia and NATO. Originally decommissioned in 2011, the Second Fleet set sail once again in the North Atlantic Ocean, providing a clear window into the near future of U.S. naval strategy.
July has been a busy month of naval activity. As it reaches a close, it is worth exploring how many fleets the U.S. Navy has across the globe, and which areas its vessels patrol. Although there are no accurate latitudinal and longitudinal lines to the waters the U.S. fleets sail, we can look at the history and expansion of naval fleets to gain insight into naval policy: the three periods of international politics following World War II, and the logic behind the U.S. Navy’s strategic positioning across the seven seas. Click on the GIFs below to find out more:
Stage One: Instability and adjustments after the Second World War (1945-1947)
During World War II, the U.S. established seven fleets in quick succession to enter the war’s maritime battlefields: the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, and Twelfth fleets. The U.S. First Fleet was established after the war.
The U.S. Third Fleet was based in Pearl Harbor, the main wartime arena for confronting the Japanese in the Central Pacific, Alaska, and the Arctic areas. In October 1945, after the end of the war, the fleet was disbanded and its defense responsibilities were transferred to the newly established First Fleet, which was tasked with defending the East Pacific Ocean and the west coast of the United States. The Fifth Fleet had also been deployed in the Pacific, but as its main mission was to assist the Third Fleet, it was also disbanded in 1947, and the First Fleet took charge of the entire Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. Seventh Fleet, which has a deep relationship with Taiwan, still sails today. It was established in Brisbane, Australia during World War II with the responsibility of carrying out the U.S. military's maritime operations in the Western Pacific Region. It participated in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Taiwan Strait crises. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan against the PRC. In 1996, when the Taiwan Strait missile crisis coincided with Taiwan’s first presidential election, U.S. President Bill Clinton also dispatched and stationed the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait.
In the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. Eighth and Twelfth Fleets were both established in 1943 as the two main fleets in European waters. The Eighth Fleet was responsible for the Mediterranean Sea and the waters northwest of Africa before being disbanded in 1945, after which those regions were integrated into the Twelfth Fleet’s patrol. A year later, however, the Twelfth Fleet was disbanded and the Eighth Fleet returned, sharing its patrol with the U.S. Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean. This Mediterranean presence was later renamed “Commander Sixth Task Fleet,” which was the predecessor to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, established in 1950.
The U.S. Fourth Fleet was primarily responsible for the South Atlantic, stretching the length of the Central and South American Coasts, and the Southeast Pacific Ocean. During World War II, it was responsible for preventing the Axis powers from attacking the United States.
Unlike the others, the U.S. Tenth Fleet had no physical waters to defend. It was established in 1943 as an anti-submarine warfare coordinating unit but was dissolved at the end of the war.
►3rd, 4th, 7th, 8th, 10th, and 12th Fleets established
►5th Fleet established
►After the end of WWII, 3rd, 8th and 10th Fleets disbanded
►8th Fleet re-established; 12th Fleet disbanded
►5th Fleet disbanded; 8th Fleet renamed "2nd Task Fleet"
Stage Two: Patrolling the Cold War and the Gulf War (1950-2000)
After the post-World War II transitional period, responsibilities of U.S. naval fleets became significantly clearer. By 1950, the Navy’s core consideration was the containment of the Soviet Union. As the Cold War geopolitical chessboard remained relatively intact, the fleets entered a long and stable period of patrol.
The Eighth Fleet was restored in 1946 but was reshuffled a year later and renamed the Second Task Fleet. In 1950, it was upgraded to the Second Fleet and subsequently repositioned from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. This led to the abolishment of the Fourth Fleet in South America, resulting in the Second Fleet assuming defensive duties for the whole of the Atlantic Ocean.
Although the Eighth Fleet had been withdrawn, the U.S. continued to deploy a naval fleet in the Mediterranean Sea to check the Soviet Union and stabilize the Southeast Asian political situation. In 1950, the vessels that remained after the Twelfth Fleet was deactivated were reorganized into the Sixth Fleet, which was made responsible for defending the Mediterranean and, along with the Second Fleet, assisting NATO forces.
After decades of relatively little fleet shuffling, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet was reorganized in 1973. The First Fleet, which had originally defended the Eastern Pacific and Arctic Oceans, was replaced with the Third Fleet. The First Fleet designation has been decommissioned ever since.
When the United States entered the Gulf War in the 1990s, the Seventh Fleet was temporarily shifted from the West Pacific Ocean to the Persian Gulf to assist with combat operations. This made the United States aware of the need to station another fleet in the Gulf region.
In July 1995, after a 48-year hiatus, the U.S. Navy revived the Fifth Fleet to direct operations in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea. Together with Naval Forces Central Command, it oversees naval task forces making up the “Coalition Forces Maritime Component Command.”
In 1999, the defensive responsibilities around the European and West African coasts were transferred from United States Atlantic Command (USACOM) to the Sixth Fleet under the command of United States Naval Forces Europe (USNAVEUR). This shift meant that the Sixth Fleet’s operational area had to be adjusted. From October 1, 2000, the Sixth Fleet expanded its defensive area of responsibility (AOR) from the coastal areas of Europe to the South Atlantic Ocean, assisting the Second Fleet, and straddled the east coast of Africa to help diminish the burden on the Seventh Fleet.
►4th Fleet disbanded, 2nd Mission Fleet upgraded to 2nd Fleet; establishment of 6th Fleet
►Reorganization of Pacific Fleet: 1st Fleet replaced by 3rd Fleet
►Reactivation of 5th Fleet, with defensive AOR switch from Central Pacific to Persian Gulf
►Expansion of 6th Fleet’s AOR to cover South Atlantic and European & East-African coasts
Stage Three: Technological warfare and regional turmoil (2008-present)
The composition of U.S. naval fleets has been shifted by advancements in technology and significant changes to regional political landscape. Although the overall naval structure has not changed much – only the Second, Fourth, and Tenth Fleets have seen changes – the reasons behind naval shifts are quite interesting.
In 2008, the U.S. reinstated its disbanded Fourth Fleet to resume its patrol of the Central and South American waters – a post it had vacated 58 years earlier. This heightened backyard presence was a response to the rise of left-wing governments considered unfriendly to America in the region. According to an official statement from the Pentagon, the Fourth Fleet is responsible for a range of contingency operations, countering narco-terrorism, and humanitarian relief. However, military experts expressed fears that its true purpose was to create trouble for the left-wing Venezuelan government. This incited outrage from many South American countries with close ties to then-President Hugo Chavez, who publicly called the fleet “a threat” to Latin America. The U.S. also had a watchful eye on Chinese influence on these upstart left-wing regimes.
The U.S. also restored its formerly untethered Tenth Fleet in January 2010. However, instead of returning to its World War II-era anti-submarine warfare duties, it was brought back to battle cyber warfare from its base in Fort Meade, Maryland.
With the Fourth Fleet back in the Latin American waters, the Second Fleet’s area of responsibility was narrowed from the entire Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Atlantic coast. In 2011, the Pentagon announced it would disband the Second Fleet in a cost-cutting move as it considered Atlantic defensive needs too minimal to justify the fleet’s existence. North Atlantic defensive responsibilities were transferred not to a numbered fleet, but to the U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
After the Second Fleet returned to the docks, things in the Atlantic started to change. The Arab Spring precipitated instability in the Middle East and North Africa, adding extra operational burdens atop the workloads of the Fifth and Sixth Fleets. Following the 2014 Crimean crisis, the U.S. found itself responding to an increasing Russian military presence and stretching its naval resources too thin. On May 4, 2018, Chief of Naval Operations John M. Richardson announced that due to tensions between NATO and Russia, the Second Fleet would be reestablished and resume operations as of July 1.
►4th Fleet re-established
►10th Fleet re-instated and based in Fort Meade, Maryland, to tackle cyber warfare
►2nd Fleet disbanded with responsibilities handed to U.S. Fleet Forces Command
►2nd Fleet reestablished due to rising Russian military threat
The purpose of post-war fleet deployments: U.S. hegemony
U.S. Navy fleet deployments have changed frequently since the Second World War. Fleet assignments stabilized during the Cold War as the rhythm of USSR-U.S. confrontations balanced out, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Navy entered another adjustment period before settling on its modern-day setup. Its present positioning strategy can be characterized by three main points:
Asia-Pacific tensions are boiling over. There are currently seven numbered U.S. fleets in service, including the cyber-focused Tenth Fleet. Three of those fleets – the Third, Fifth, and Seventh – are jointly responsible for the Asia-Pacific region, with the Sixth Fleet’s area of responsibility also extending into the West Indian Ocean. It is evident that, as the U.S. has ‘pivoted to Asia,’ the region has become a point of emphasis for the U.S. Navy.
The U.S. wants to control its own backyard. The Fourth Fleet was reestablished in 2008 to patrol Latin America, and the Second Fleet was restored this year to bolster the Navy’s Atlantic surveillance. Not only will these fleets assist NATO; they can almost completely contain both Russia and Latin America, giving the U.S. a larger presence in the entire Atlantic Ocean.
There’s no logic to the Navy’s numbering system. But fleets are usually numbered after a significant world event necessitates a regional naval buildup. NATO was established in 1949, and the assisting Second and Sixth Fleets were numbered after the Navy’s 1950 reorganization. The Gulf War broke out in 1990, but the Fifth Fleet, responsible for the Persian Gulf, was established in 1995. Venezuela’s pioneering Hugo Chavez, always a staunch enemy of the United States, was first elected in 1999, and Bolivia’s left-wing President Evo Morales ascended to office in 2006 – but the U.S. did not reestablish its Fourth Fleet until 2008.
The above examples show that U.S. peacetime fleet setups, when compared to the active nature of the Navy during World War II and their post-war deployment, are done with a defensive presence in mind. Of course, this is a means to the U.S. Navy’s goal of maintaining U.S. power and influence throughout the seven seas.
This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.
Translator: Zeke Li
Editor: Nick Aspinwall