The Seventh Fleet is the U.S. Navy’s largest forward-deployed numbered fleet and Vice Admiral (VADM) Karl Thomas is the Commander.
Ships of the Seventh Fleet recently completed the Resolute Dragon 22, October 10-13, 2022, with the U.S. Marines and Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF). “This is the second consecutive year Commander, Task Force (CTF) 71 and 3rd Marine Division integrated and trained together, with various parts of the exercise taking place in multiple locations across Japan,” said Commander, Task Force 71/Destroyer Squadron 15 Public Affairs.
“Resolute Dragon is an annual bilateral training designed to strengthen the defensive capabilities of the U.S.-Japan alliance by refining procedures for bilateral command, control, and coordination in a geographically distributed environment and maximize efficiency of firing assets.”
Commander, Task Force 71/Destroyer Squadron 15 Public Affairs.
Furthermore, ships of Seventh Fleet also participated in other naval exercises with allied partners ranging from Ballistic Missile Defense to Anti-Submarine Warfare. VADM Thomas said that 7th Fleet has several ships with ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities and that these ships are multi-mission ships.
“Everything we do, we try to do it with our allies and partners,” said VADM Thomas who noted that China’s navy often does exercises by themselves. 7th Fleet pays attention to the Russian Pacific Northern Fleet and the U.S. Navy sees them operating out of Vladivostok. There is some coordinated activity with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia, but not really integrated activity, and not the type of planning that is done by U.S. and allied forces to generate an exercise that is meaningful, noted the Vice Admiral.
VADM Thomas said that there is a contingency plan for Indian-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM) on where to place forces and that the U.S. Navy is building capabilities around its Seventh Fleet Area of Responsibility.
VADM Thomas commented about F-35Bs operating from America-class big-deck amphibious warships, ballistic missile defense, the PRC’s reaction to Congressional House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the resulting missile drills and missile tests in region that can be read at the USNI website.
Regarding manning, fit and fill of crews, the 7th Fleet maintains a 93 to 95 percent fit-and-fill and tries to reach 100-percent manning, said VADM Thomas; however, he admitted that there were times of gaps and that the U.S. Navy looks at every ship and tries to find the properly skilled and qualified individuals to fill the crew.
Regarding forward ship maintenance, VADM Thomas said that the Japanese dock workers at Yokosuka and Sasebo are very good with basic tank and hull work on a ship, but when it comes to ship C5I (Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Cyber and Intelligence), contractors have to be bought in. It is a “Team Effort” and VADM Thomas’s responsibility that the 7th Fleet has safe and prepared ships underway.
Asked about the war in Ukraine, VADM Thomas said that the Ukraine war has a way of uniting the will and people of nations against the aggression and invasion of another nation.
VADM Thomas said that Distributed Maritime Operations with the U.S. Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) have the same purpose to defend an ally, but since the JMSDF is inside the weapons engagement zone, the U.S. Navy sees the defense of Japan from a different angle in the prism [meaning that the U.S. Navy is more mobile in the open ocean].
A reporter asked about Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) and noted that the recent FONOP numbers compared to previous years exercises seem to be less. FONOP exercises are conducted to “throttle up and throttle down based on what we’re seeing,” said VADM Thomas who mentioned that FONOPs are constructed as not to be predictable in the times and numbers that they are used.
The Triton unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is entering initial operational capability (IOC) level even though Triton has been operated for some time, said VADM Thomas, responding to a reporter’s question, noting that Triton UAVs will be used to replace some surveillance aircraft. One of the biggest advantages of Triton is its tremendous endurance and persistence. “We’ve operated out of Guam routinely and are working to operate it out of various places in Japan and making sure we have numerous places for it to take off and land.”
A person in the audience asked if 7th Fleet requires more U.S. Marine Corps Amphibious Ready Groups (ARG) to which the Vice Admiral replied, “Presence matters, first and foremost. The more ships we have forward deployed, the more opportunities we have to use them.” One constant ARG forward-deployed is good for competition and the U.S. Navy can surge more if needed. The forward-deployed USS America covers INDO-PACOM for half a year and 7th Fleet tries to deploy an ARG from the West Coast to cover the other half of the year.
“…With the Gray Zone, you can’t have enough [U.S.] Coast Guard forward,” said VADM Thomas responding to a question regarding partnering the U.S. Coast Guard with the U.S. Navy. “They’ve been great partners [the U.S. Coast Guard] and they’ve been pushing forward as much as they can, and I think it’s a capacity issue (but the right tool for the job)” since the U.S. Coast Guard works with the INDO-PACOM ally nations’ coast guards.