Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange…
Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History“, was the most celebrated and preeminent naval strategist of his day. According to the “U.S. History” site, he was one of the leading spokesmen for the age of imperialism, arguing not only that leaders who wanted to get anywhere concentrated on harsh political realities while the philanthropic side of overseas involvement was for milksops and Mama’s boys, but that modern navies need shore facilities in every region from which to project regional power. These facilities, he argued, would never be completely safe while they were in the hands of another country.
Those lessons were taken to heart not only by the United States of America, but by every maritime nation that aspired to be a world power; or to prevent someone who did from seizing, in the pursuit of empire, territory that was theirs but which they were too weak to defend. Consequently, regions that do not wish to be subjugated by the United States Navy Mahan championed so aggressively have sought to limit its influence in regions they consider their own, and to prevent its gaining a foothold from which to deploy and resupply.
The Soviet Navy peaked between 1985 and 1990, when it had 6 aircraft carriers, 30 cruisers, 32 frigates and about 70 each of Ballistic-Missile submarines and Guided Missile submarines. Since then it has shrunk to a shadow of its former power, and the vessels that remain are in need of refits and modernization while new construction is needed to keep pace with the shifting balance of power and the imperative for freedom of the seas for one’s own fleet while developing and maintaining the ability to deny it to others without leave.
Therefore, nations that once deliberately exaggerated the strength of the Soviet Navy in order to justify rapid military buildups – with lucrative sweetheart deals for the military/industrial sector – have fallen to snickering about the Russian navy of today, referring to it as “decrepit” and “barely seaworthy”. Such was the prevalent tone in discussions of the recently concluded and first-ever Russian/Chinese joint naval exercises.
A word of caution before everyone breaks out the pointy paper hats and champagne – China doesn’t see the exercises that way at all. China regards them as an opportunity to learn from a modern navy: “… a chance to interact with a more advanced force as China tries to improve its defence capabilities”. China, if anyone needs to be reminded, is regarded by the United States Director of National Intelligence as America’s greatest military threat, owns the western world’s manufacturing base and holds billions upon billions in western debt. Suggesting China has been able to position itself to admirable advantage as a result of western self-stroking complacency would be an understatement. And Russia has something the Chinese navy wants: the tactics, fleet maneuvering, antisubmarine warfare and coordinated area defense experience for projection of true blue-water seapower Russia acquired in the cold war. At the time, China’s navy was more a liability than an asset. I saw a good part of it in Quingdao in the late 80’s, and the submarine fleet was especially frightening. For the people who had to serve in it, not oppose it.
Look at China’s navy now. An aircraft carrier, later this year. Although its introduction is unlikely to mark a radical departure in strategic planning, retired U.S. Navy Captain Carl Schuster suggests it will “elevate the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into the ranks of the world’s great naval powers”. It will also move the drop-dead line for seaborne forces wishing to launch cruise missile strikes against the Chinese mainland some 200-300 miles to seaward. The Luhu Class destroyers, in service in the mid-90’s, are capable ships that make use of up-to-date foreign technology such as French radars and weapon-control systems. Yes, the French are not too careful who they sell to. Oh, and powered by LM-2500 gas turbine engines, from General Electric, United States of America. She carries the C-803 missile: the air-launched variant, the YJ-83, demonstrated twice the range U.S. intelligence agencies had initially estimated in its initial test-firing. The Luyang I and Luyang II class are newer yet, and have the Chinese navy’s first real fleet air defense capability.
Although these exercises do not by any means indicate the emergence of a coherent military alliance or a common regional defense policy, let’s indulge in a moment of what-if, to see how that might alter the global balance of power, never mind in the region. Courtesy of the BBC, here’s roughly the way the world’s dominant military powers shake out. Personally, I thought it was kind of rude to leave out Germany, the Netherlands and France, who all have capable and highly professional small navies, but let’s stick with this list for the moment and confine ourselves to submarines, aircraft and ICBM’s only (since the list does not include surface ships).
The UK can be counted on to go along with pretty much anything the USA wants to do, and the USA never met a war the UK didn’t like, so we’ll include them together as partners. And we’ll add Russia in with China. Let’s run the numbers.
Oooooo…A Russia/China alliance would outnumber the USA/UK alliance by 45 submarines, 127 to 82. The USA/UK alliance has 364 more fighters/ground attack aircraft than a Russia/China alliance would have. The USA/UK alliance has a slight edge also in ICBM’s, 450 to 358. Those are all landbased, though: keep in mind the 45-submarine deficit. The USA/UK alliance has many more surface ships; however, the USA alone is spending $739 Billion a year to keep up its military, while Russia and China combined are spending about $143 Billion (although the chart is probably correct that the Chinese government’s defense spending is higher than it reports). Russia has the third-largest cash reserves in the world, and China is the largest holder of U.S. government debt at $1.18 Trillion. The USA has a $1.3 Trillion federal deficit: the UK has a deficit of 3,396 Million GBP, and recently imposed the most severe austerity budget since the Second World War. Money to spend on a military buildup affects the balance of power as well. Which hypothetical alliance has it?
The cost-for-capability gap is further illustrated in China’s acquisition plan for Littoral Combat ships versus the American plan. The Chinese went for a corvette-sized missile boat which retired United States Navy Commander John Patch described as “a thoroughbred ship killer”. The United States went for a small, cheap, mass-produced hull as well. In a decade the Chinese built eighty-three 400-ton trimarans at a cost of about $40 Million each. In the same time period the U.S. Navy built two 2,700 – 3,000 ton ships (two different designs), at a cost of more than $600 Million apiece. Some analysts laughed off the difference, suggesting small missile boats operating in the littoral zone are easy meat for submarines and helicopters. Those are probably the same analysts who laughed off the joint China/Russia exercises as a comedy bringing together a great power wanna-be and a great power has-been. The Russian navy was and is very capable in anti-submarine warfare, and submarines are already uncomfortable operating in the littoral zone, which is typically shallow – sometimes shallow enough that a submarine can be seen from the air. Those who think helicopters will butcher the missile boats are forgetting fighter air cover from enemy aircraft carriers, and how far they will have to stand offshore owing to the enemy’s missile envelope – 200 to 300 miles is a long flight for an armed-up helicopter unless it is planned to be a one-way. The most-quoted critic of littoral missile boats, Bob Work, bases his assessments on the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel experience of the U.S. Navy against Iranian and Iraqi Fast Attack Craft (FAC) in 1988 and 1991. Those boats were Boghammars and Kamans. The Boghammar is a twin-drive open boat that looks quite a bit like what you might use for bass fishing, with a machine gun in it. The Kaman and Kaman II boats were an export version of the French La Combattante boat, with MM-38 Exocet and Harpoon missiles respectively. Although the Harpoon is good for 70 miles, the radar carried (Thomson CSF G-Band) could see only 18 miles on a good day, and there were no surface-to-air missiles. Pride goeth before a fall, Bob. The Houbei (Type 022) class sports an X-band dedicated air-search radar that can see three times as far, and surface-to-air missiles. And it’s twice the size of a Kaman.
But where are my manners? I largely left out the Russians. Aside from having a pile of money and an avowed intention to bring back its navy from death’s door, Russia purchased the Mistral Class assault carrier from the French last year, and intends building 3 more. To hear The Moscow Times’ Pavel Felgenhauer squeal about it, you’d think Moscow had taken the U.S. navy hostage and was sending its ears home to its mother by registered mail, raving on about airspace defense missile brigades and the U.S. leapfrogging the Kuriles to invade the Sea of Okhotsk. Russia already had a fairly good sealift capability with 20 landing ships, although most are quite old and only the Ropucha II’s could really be called modern. But there’s no denying the Mistrals will bring an added dimension with helicopters to fly air cover in support of landings and offer rapid logistic resupply to consolidate a beachhead. They will also carry a sizable troop component. The Jamestown Foundation isn’t laughing about Russia’s ambitions to restore and upgrade its navy, and reckons Russia is serious about regional power projection. And that’s just Russia on its own.
Also, the who-would-win projections are usually made on the assumption that it’s total war, only firepower matters and devil take the hindmost. In reality, it’s almost never like that any more. In an atmosphere of less than total war, is it possible for asymmetric action using unconventional and unexpected tactics to blunt even an overwhelming advantage by a force that almost never changes its patterns? Why, yes, it is. Remember the Royal Navy’s humiliation at the hands of the relatively weak Iranian Revolutionary Guard when the latter captured 15 sailors from HMS Cornwall during a boarding event? In this instance, the navy had become complacent owing to operation after operation with nothing going wrong, and Cornwall was too far away to support the boarding party when they came up alongside the vessel they intended to board, and there was a small Iranian naval vessel on the opposite side. We’ve talked before about the massive exercise Millenium Challenge 2002, two years in the planning, in which the Commander of the Red Force – retired Marine General Paul Van Riper – “sank” some 13 ships including an assault carrier and a large support vessel in less than half an hour. Western navies have been accustomed to knowing what the enemy will do almost before he knows himself, owing to an ability to listen in on his communications with sophisticated intercept equipment. General Van Riper used preplans and couriers to pass his orders, and had a single massive attack launched on a common signal. If real, the exercise enemy (widely thought to have represented Iran) would have won a decisive sea battle and done tremendous damage to the western image of seaborne invincibility. I’m sure everyone remembers the tension created in the Straits of Hormuz when 3 naval vessels were approached by small Iranian vessels, and a coincidental radio transmission – probably from a local prankster who calls himself “Filipino Monkey” – threatened the warships. Not to mention the immediate effect on oil prices, which leaped 49 cents a barrel.
One more time. China is assessed, by the individual whose job it is, to be the greatest military threat to the United States. China rates the Russian navy as more advanced and professional than the Chinese navy. More advanced than the forces of the country that is America’s greatest military threat, in case the point escaped anyone. Both China and Russia have plenty of money with which to build up their military forces, and Russia has announced an intention to do just that. Russia is assessed as the USA’s second-greatest military threat. Although the DNI was talking about the nuclear forces of those countries and not their naval forces, I find it hard to believe the two biggest threats as nation-states are carrying out joint naval exercises and the USA’s response is yawn, wake me up when something exciting happens. Especially when one of those countries holds enough U.S. debt to tip the economy over, and the other is a major energy producer. Both countries have recently united to oppose NATO regime-change initiatives in the United Nations. Although exercises in the past have focused on joint anti-terrorism measures, the joint naval operations focused on air defense and anti-submarine warfare at the multinational fleet level, similar to the RIMPAC exercise hosted by the USN.
Mind you, the DNI also said he thought Colonel Gaddafi would prevail against the rebels. So maybe he’s just the village idiot dressed up as the DNI.
I’m not sure what Alfred Thayer Mahan would have said about the notion that the country he had marked out for dominion of the seas had decided to laugh at a building naval threat and ignore it until it got big enough to take seriously. So let’s seek wisdom from another great American naval strategist; Hyman G. Rickover, former four-star Admiral and, at 63 years of service, the longest-serving naval officer in U.S. history.
“You have to learn from the mistakes of others. You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
Note: all information in this post was drawn from unclassified sources.