Vice Adm. Andy Lewis, commander of U.S. Second Fleet.

In the two decades following the end of the Cold War, most Americans believed the Russian bear had been declawed. For more than a quarter of a century, U.S. administrations chose to ignore the possibility of Russia becoming an antagonist once again — even though defectors from the former Soviet Union long warned that for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the war had never ended.

Back in 2012, when candidate Mitt Romney suggested during a presidential debate that Moscow was still our greatest geopolitical threat, President Barack Obama scoffed, “The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” His administration had financial worries and wasn’t concerned about Moscow. Just a year earlier in a cost-saving measure, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus disestablished the Navy’s premier Cold War command, Second Fleet. What a penny-wise, pound-foolish measure that turned out to be.

The 65-year-old, Norfolk-based Second Fleet was initially created in the aftermath of World War II in response to rapidly deteriorating relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Its primary mission was to support the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed Sixth Fleet.

Both the decision to eliminate Second Fleet and Obama’s dismissive comments to Romney were off-base. Russia never stopped being a threat. Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton’s former secretary of state, admitted as much in February 2019 when she acknowledged Romney was right and that she and others had underestimated Putin. She told the House intelligence committee that “all had forgotten we’re dealing with a KGB agent. I think [Putin] has played a weak hand very well.”

Indeed he has. That former KGB agent has been pouring resources into building up Russia’s submarine fleet. According to defense specialists, Moscow has spent nearly $660 billion on 10 new state-of-the-art undersea vessels. Putin has justified the huge outlays to his cash-strapped nation by claiming the increased defenses are necessary to protect its grip on vast oil and gas reserves in the Arctic.

And, in addition to a new fleet of subs, Russian spy ships and planes are again patrolling the U.S. East Coast and making aggressive incursions in the North Atlantic, testing the boundaries of airspace and territorial waters of NATO allies. Finally, by 2018, Russia’s new offensive tactics raised enough alarms that in May of that year, the Navy announced it would re-establish Second Fleet to provide regular patrols of the East Coast and the North Atlantic. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in a statement that “we’re back in an era of great power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex.”

The new fleet command, headquartered in Norfolk, officially became operational this past Dec. 31. Its commander, Vice Adm. Andrew “Woody” Lewis, says the Atlantic Ocean has changed. “Our new reality is, when our sailors cross lines over and set sail, they can expect to be operating in a contested space once they leave [Virginia],” Lewis said. No longer are the waters off the East Coast a safe haven. “If they’re underway, Navy crews in the Atlantic must be aware they’re now operating right alongside potential adversaries.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. In December, the Coast Guard reported a Russian intelligence-gathering ship, the Viktor Leonov, was spotted off the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. And last fall, Moscow held a huge operational exercise in the Atlantic to test the abilities of the new submarines. According to the website TheDrive.com, the objective of the drill was “to signal to the U.S. [Moscow] can operate where it needs to, when it needs to, and in force.”

The undersea exercise was also a test of the ability of U.S. and NATO forces to track the subs as they traveled far into the Atlantic waters. According to reports, at least one Russian vessel was successful in remaining undetected. In what’s been called a real life version of Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October,” the U.S. Navy spent weeks unsuccessfully looking for the guided missile submarine. Subs, ships and maritime patrol aircraft combed the Atlantic for the Russian sub that officials say cruised within a few hundred miles of the U.S. East Coast.

Adm. James Foggo III, chief of Naval Forces Europe-Africa, calls the new Russians undersea vessels “state-of-the-art nuclear submarines.” He warns that when it comes to undersea warfare, the U.S. still has “the competitive advantage, but they are good and getting better.” Richardson, the CNO, says the nation is “back in an era of great-power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex.”

The Navy’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget is $207.1 billion. Hopefully, Congress will approve every cent of it.

Robin Beres is deputy opinions editor. She is also a retired Navy chief petty officer. Contact her at: mberes@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6305

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