U.S. 3rd Fleet Expanding Operational Role in Indo-Pacific

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, HAWAII –The U.S. 3rd Fleet is expanding its operational role in the Indo-Pacific as the dynamics in the region are growing more complex, the new fleet commander told USNI News. In a recent interview in Hawaii, Vice Adm. Michael Boyle described the changes U.S. 3rd Fleet has made in recent years […]

Vice Adm. Michael E. Boyle, Commander, 3rd Fleet, and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Justin Muller, Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 MQ-9 detachment mission commander, shake hands as Boyle departs the MQ-9 operations center during RIMPAC, July 29, 2022. US Air Force Photo

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, HAWAII –The U.S. 3rd Fleet is expanding its operational role in the Indo-Pacific as the dynamics in the region are growing more complex, the new fleet commander told USNI News.

In a recent interview in Hawaii, Vice Adm. Michael Boyle described the changes U.S. 3rd Fleet has made in recent years and how he views the operating picture in the region.

“Five, six years ago, 3rd Fleet was a headquarters that did mostly [certifications] and we played in exercises. Now, we are an actual operational headquarters that has a watch that’s currently stood up in Point Loma,” Boyle told USNI News.
“They are managing the space from the international dateline back to the coast. And so all the operations that are happening in there – if the Russians were to send submarines or ships, they would be tracking those from an intelligence standpoint, from posturing the force.”

Boyle, who took the helm of 3rd Fleet in June after serving as the maritime operations director for U.S. Pacific Fleet, said his command could act as a maneuver arm of PACFLEET or operate forward when U.S. 7th Fleet is tied up with other tasking.

“We also have been tasked to practice, be prepared to rehearse, be able to operate as a maritime operations center forward. So we have plans over the next couple of years to do expeditionary command and control, either from ships, or from Australia or the Philippines, … you name it,” he said.

“If we needed to put a command and control facility forward, we might have to do that. And that might be because 7th Fleet’s busy doing something else and an earthquake happens over here and we need a task force to go down and command and control the effort,” Boyle added. “And so 3rd Fleet might be the perfect ones to do a Philippine disaster relief because Russia’s getting uppity. And so 7th Fleet’s focused on Russia and 3rd fleet does something else. Or we plug into the larger PACFLEET as half of his maneuver force.”

Boyle said U.S. forces in the region need both the infrastructure in place to continuously work with allies and partners and for staff to move away from functioning as if it’s peacetime.

“In the Pacific, we do a lot of practicing for a war that might happen five years from now, 10 years from now, 30 years from now. But we’re not in a hot war. And so our headquarters are kind of structured to be peacetime headquarters. And that has changed over the last couple of years,” Boyle said.

Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) sails in formation during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, July 28, 2022. US Navy Photo

While the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise gives the U.S. and partner nations the chance to drill together, Boyle argued the infrastructure must remain in place so nations are prepared to respond to events and conflicts in the region. The 3rd Fleet commander, who also leads RIMPAC, pointed to the combined task force U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Samuel Paparo has ordered his staff stand up in the region and compared it to the Combined Maritime Forces operating in U.S. 5th Fleet.

“If we do that, we will then have long-range predictive intelligence, long-range plans, future operations, current operations – all of the things that a staff does,” Boyle said.

“And it will give all of these countries that come to RIMPAC a place to plug into day to day to rehearse as a combined force, where our objectives overlap … as opposed to, hey every two years we’re going to build a fake structure and we’re going to have 3rd Fleet run it. And then we’re going to disband it. And then we’ll build it again two years later. And then we’ll disband it,” he continued.

Earlier this year, Paparo said U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. John Aquilino ordered PACFLEET to operate with Japan as a defacto task force in the region.

Having the infrastructure in place with the combined force would allow the United States to move outside the Western Pacific and do more operations in places near Pacific Island Nations or the Aleutian Islands, Boyle argued.

“Because right now, we’re so concentrated – we the United States – in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, ballistic missile defense of Japan, of Guam. It’s hard for us to get down into the Pacific Island Nations. It’s hard for us to get over to the Indian Ocean. It’s hard for us to get up to the Aleutians,” Boyle said.

“But if I had combined force, that we were counting on, planning for to execute seamlessly in those areas, then we could spread the field and present a much more robust overmatch to our competitors, which ultimately then gets us to the spot [where] we want to be, which is every day a competitor wakes up, looks out his front porch and says, ‘Today’s not the day.’ We really believe that China will not start a fight unless they think they can win. It’s just their culture.”

A combined task force could make it so that the U.S., allies and partners can come together for the types of exercises the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force have been conducting more of in the Indo-Pacific over the last year.

Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) sails behind Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Washington Chambers (T-AKE-11) prior to a replenishment-at-sea during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 on July 20, 2022. US Navy Photo

Canadian Rear Adm. Christopher Robinson, the deputy commander of RIMPAC 2022, told USNI News he thinks ad-hoc naval task forces coming together for drills and operations will happen more often.

“I kind of think that shorter groupings – so bringing task groups together for shorter groupings of time and then ships come and go as their national taskings changed – is going to be the way of the future,” he told USNI News.

While deployments like the 2021 United Kingdom-led Queen Elizabeth (R08) multi-national carrier strike group will continue, Robinson emphasized the need for more impromptu groupings.

“Large deployments like that will always happen. They take a lot of planning. They take a lot of forethought and resource commitment,” he said.

“But there are always ships in area and figuring out how you can make a task group like that task group, but made up of a Canadian ship that’s passing through and has a month to spare, and an Australian ship that has five weeks to spare, and a Japanese ship that is in the area for maybe three months and how you make those task groups work together, make this the real … future success,” Robinson added.

ITS Carvour (CVH550) and Queen Elizabeth (R08) sailing together for the F-35 interoperability exercise in the Mediterranean. Italian Navy Photo

Boyle pointed to drills in the Philippine Sea last October, when the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, the Carl Vinson CSG, the Queen Elizabeth CSG, and Japan’s helicopter destroyer JS Ise (DDH-182) exercised together, as an example of those ad-hoc task groups.

“We told the Japanese three days prior to that photo ex … and they said yes, which is – we all were all a little bit ‘wow.’ The Japanese said, ‘yes, we can support three days from now. We will move Ise into position,'” he said.

“Two years ago, five years ago … they would have been very hesitant. But now forces are more ready to come together,” Boyle continued.