The New Age of Naval Power

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:
Alessio Patalano is a professor of war and strategy in East Asia and co-director of the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London, where he specializes in maritime strategy and doctrine.

On Tuesday, Ukraine said that it sank another Russian warship, the Sergei Kotov, in the Black Sea. The loss of the Kotov ship and the Tsezar Kunikov before it last month now means that a whopping one-third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet has been disabled. The Kotov and Kunikov have joined Russia’s flagship Moskva at the bottom of the Black Sea and cemented the fact that the maritime theatre of the war in Ukraine remains the single most significant naval conflict since the Falklands war more than four decades ago.

These David vs. Goliath events raise an important question. Are ever-advanced drones rendering naval fleets obsolete? The fact that Ukraine is winning at sea would suggest as much. Yet the temptation to concede to this line of argument fundamentally misses two crucial points.

First, war at sea is deeply attritional. As a recent study conducted at the U.S. Naval War College pointed out, modern naval warfare relies on mass. The numbers of combatants— surface, submarine, and air—and a capacity to regenerate them at scale makes all the difference in war at sea. The U.S. navy’s case in World War II is symptomatic in this respect. In June 1940, the fleet included 478 combatants. By Victory Over Japan Day in 1945, the U.S. navy had 6,768 active vessels, far above any other major power on Earth.

Ukrainian drones and missiles are adding a 21st century meaning to the old truth that the ability to overcome losses makes all the difference in war at sea. In a conflict, a warship is safe only when it is outside the range of a cannon shot. A combatant, especially a numerically inferior one, will seek to close the gap and this is an assumption that navies need to address or else find themselves without a fleet. Yet losses are not a sufficient reason to suggest the coming obsolescence of fleets.

This leads to the second point. Russian losses fail to capture the extent to which naval power—and fleets capable of operating in a contested environment—has come back as a central feature of power struggles from the Black Sea to the Red Sea, South China Sea, and the Strait of Taiwan. This is not just about the strategic value of capital ships to project a nation’s international standing and ambitions in an anarchical international system.

Naval power matters today more than ever because of how modern societies’ relationship with the sea has evolved. Today we live in a maritime century, one in which the very foundations of the prosperity that underwrites open economies rests upon maritime physical and digital connectivity.

Read More: The U.S. Navy Is Sinking in the Sand

Sea-lanes feed us, keep us warm, and deliver the furniture of daily life. Some 97% of the internet, and a major portion of international energy use, relies on an undersea spaghetti bowl of cables and pipelines that closely mirror commercial shipping routes. This multilayered network of physical and digital connectivity is safe and reliable only until it is not.

In recent years, places as diverse as Somalia, Tonga, the U.K., and Taiwan have experienced economic losses because of disruptions to critical undersea infrastructure. By the beginning of this year, the relatively sophisticated capabilities of Yemen’s Houthis exposed just how vulnerable the steady supply of basic commodities—from tea bags to the average household in Britain, to core components of electric cars across Europe—can be.

This unprecedented reliance on maritime connectivity has made activities at sea a primary target of authoritarian regimes and non-state groups. Actions such as the sabotage of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the gas pipeline linking Estonia, Finland, and Sweden, or the disruption to international shipping caused by Houthi missiles and drones share one thing.

These actions highlight a realization on behalf of leaders in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran that maritime connectivity is a pressure point with significant political value. Countries like China, in particular, are pursuing the naval means to seize the opportunities emerging from such a realization. Whether in the field of technologies for deep seabed exploration and exploitation, shipping capacity, and, above all, in the context of sheer naval might, China is setting new records in both quantity and quality of its investments. In the last decade alone, China has added over twice the number of ships to its surface fleet than what the entire French navy commands.

Chinese authorities understand that, in a maritime century, its ongoing naval build-up is a downpayment for maritime superiority, if not supremacy, in a potential major war in the China seas, in the strait of Taiwan, or beyond. Xi Jinping’s appointment of Hu Zhongming, an operationally experienced submariner, at the helm of the navy confirms that a new generation of flag officers is entrusted to deliver readiness if ever needed.

This is why navies matter and why the U.S. and allies in Europe and Asia are actively debating how to invest in them. Leaders in countries like Japan and Australia are investing in their navies, from counterstrike to surface, carrier, and submarine projection capabilities, so that they can collectively meet the growing authoritarian challenge at sea. That includes Japan unveiling in December 2023 its largest defense budget in its post-war history, and Australia, which is already procuring nuclear-powered submarines through AUKUS, announcing last month plans to double its surface fleet.

However, others, like the U.S.and Britain, are finding it harder to meet growing naval demands. In the U.S., the navy will ask for only one Virginia class submarine for the next fiscal year budget instead of two, because of the limits of industrial capacity. In Britain, a recent parliamentary report noted how plans to introduce several new classes of ships needs more shipyards first.

In a contested maritime century, we should start thinking about navies as the ultimate national security insurance policy. Like any insurance, they demand regular investments against risks that are unlikely but potentially grave. Navies work best to deter would-be aggression, but the industrial base to generate their capabilities underwrites military credibility. Crucially, when all else fails, that credibility stands to make certain that in the hour of need, the hardest challenges will be met and overcome.

Correction, March 6

The original version of this story misstated the name of China’s new naval commander. It is Hu Zhongming, not Dong Jun.

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