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Prokhor Tebin

PhD in Political Science, RIAC expert

Over the next hundred years, the military-political situation in the great oceans will undergo qualitative changes. However, the fundamental factors that determine the naval activities of mankind will remain unchanged, and the trends in this area are visible today. Having a long-term outlook for the coming changes of the fleet and naval power will help shape strategic priorities in the Russian state policy in this sphere.

Over the next hundred years, the military-political situation in the great oceans will undergo qualitative changes. However, the fundamental factors that determine the naval activities of mankind will remain unchanged, and the trends in this area are visible today. Having a long-term outlook for the coming changes of the fleet and naval power will help shape strategic priorities in the Russian state policy in this sphere.

Naval Pluralism

In naval terms, today’s world is largely unipolar. The previous Mistress of the Seas, Great Britain, followed the “two countries’ standard” for naval might, meaning that the power of the Royal Navy had to exceed the total power of the fleets of any two other countries. Today the United States is the only global naval power with battle fleet displacement exceeding the next 13 navies combined. Thus, the United States has a much greater naval power advantage than the UK used to have. However, in the next hundred years, a number of fundamental changes may see the existing system replaced by a multipolar one.

The current American dominance in the world's oceans is due primarily to the fact that the U.S. has long been the only state to have the political will, resources and technology to build and maintain so powerful a navy. Other maritime powers have been deprived of these factors. Some countries, such as the UK, lack the political will to actively expand their fleet. Others, like Russia, lack the required resources. And others, such as China, India and Turkey, lack the requisite modern technology.

Photo: southcom.mil
USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70)

Economic development, the spread of relatively cheap and simple naval technologies, as well as acute competition in the global shipbuilding market all combine to increase the number of countries with both the resources and technologies to develop their fleets. In order to maintain their own military-industrial complex and achieve other economic and political goals, the “old” sea powers export high-tech armaments such as large carriers and nuclear submarines (SSNs). France’s sale of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia and Russia’s 10-year lease deal with India over the nuclear-powered attack submarine Nerpa are apt examples of this. Thanks to foreign aid, Brazil and Australia, could well enter the club of countries possessing nuclear submarines, substantially increasing their naval power.

It has become common practice for the importers of naval equipment to insist on building warships in domestic shipyards under license, with technology transfer and personnel training. This approach has already allowed a number of countries to create their own competitive shipbuilding industries. Thus, in December 2012, Turkey made public its intention to gain independence from foreign companies in naval engineering by the 2030s.

For many countries, increased naval power has become solely a matter of political will. By 2060, seaborne trade is expected to reach 23 billion tons, growing almost 4 times against the current 8 billion tons. Globalization, the growth in the world’s population to 9 billion people, higher demand for food and energy all suggest that governments will have to pay more attention to maritime trade, the development of ocean resources and, therefore, to sea power.

Economic development, the spread of relatively cheap and simple naval technologies, as well as acute competition in the global shipbuilding market all combine to increase the number of countries with both the resources and technologies to develop their fleets.

The United States’ status, as the leading maritime nation, was consolidated by other states’ tacit consent. Most modern naval powers were interested in Washington’s role as the guarantor of navigation freedom and stability in the world's oceans. Those states that did not share this view had no real opportunity to challenge U.S. dominance at sea. However, the 21st century indicates the gradual erosion of this consensus.

The United States itself has contributed somewhat to this process. Back in 2005, Admiral Mike Mullen said “ […] a greater number of today’s emerging missions won’t involve the U.S. Navy. And that’s fine with me,”. Against the background of a growing federal budget deficit, the U.S. Navy is unlikely to be in a position to significantly expand its fleet, which is already battling an ever-increasing operational burden. For all its power, the U.S. Navy has to maintain a permanent presence in key ocean regions and has a marked interest in overcoming the tyranny of time and distance. This explains why Washington is seeking to shift part of the burden of maintaining stability in the oceans onto its partners. But many U.S. allies and friendly countries are more interested in developing their own naval power than merely “extending a helping hand” to the United States. They want to promote their own interests, which will not necessarily fall in line with Washington’s foreign policy.

In view of this, in the coming century, we can expect to see the emergence of new regional maritime powers, such as China, South Korea and India. Moreover, technological and economic progress strengthens the naval power and enhances the role of seafaring nations Turkey, Vietnam, Australia and Brazil. The system in which the United States is free to move between playing the role of “marine hegemon” and that of “naval leader” is to be replaced by a system of rivalry and cooperation among numerous maritime powers, as was the case in the first half of the 20th century.

Security Dilemma in the Oceans

Photo: Wikipedia.com
Hyūga-class helicopter destroyer (Japan)

Enhancing the role of maritime powers in the 21st century could entail strengthening multilateral cooperation in collective security and freedom of navigation in the ocean, but it could also exacerbate existing volatility, create new sources of instability, and increase the threat of inter-state conflicts. China’s growing naval power and its ambitions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans could play a key role in this process.

China is already facing a security dilemma, and has been forced to take a cautious approach to developing its long-term strategy for the oceans.

Chinese ambition arouses increased suspicion in other states and may adversely affect China itself. The strengthening anti-China rhetoric in Washington's foreign policy appears to be the most obvious scenario. This situation is further aggravated by the threat of Japan’s remilitarization, intensified disputes between China and India, and the active involvement of Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia in deterrent efforts against China.

Japan today is one of the strongest naval powers. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force boasts roughly four times as many major warships as the British Royal Navy. Japan, with its sophisticated shipbuilding industry, developed military-industrial complex, and close military and political ties with the United States, is in a position to seriously weaken China’s influence in the Pacific. A key factor restricting the development of Japan’s sea power is Article 9 of its Constitution, prohibiting the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

Japan's military expenditure, at 1 percent of GDP, is the lowest among all the great powers. However, recent years have seen a gradual increase in military spending in absolute terms. In early 2013 it was reported that Tokyo plans to boost military budget by over 3 billion dollars. While these increases are relatively modest, amounting to just 6 percent of the war chest, they are still noteworthy and should not be underestimated.

Many U.S. allies and friendly countries are more interested in developing their own naval power than merely “extending a helping hand” to the United States. They want to promote their own interests.

In this respect, the op-ed published by Shinzo Abe in Project Syndicate on December 26, 2012, the day after he became Japan’s Prime Minister, is particularly pertinent. In it, he called for a quasi-alliance of Japan, the United States, India and Australia to jointly safeguard stability in the world's oceans, and urged Britain and France “to stage a comeback in participating in strengthening Asia’s security.” The anti-Chinese orientation of Abe’s op-ed is clearly evident against the backdrop of the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (as Japan calls them, China knows them as the Diaoyu Islands) in the East China Sea. This policy could lead to a revision of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which under certain circumstances the United States may support.

For a long time China has deliberately avoided using its own warships, aircraft, or Coast Guard ships to pressure on their opponents in the East China and South China Seas. But, as the latest developments show, the situation could change. The territorial disputes between Japan and China are part of a broader interstate conflict that could well run and run, as both sides have the potential for escalating disputes.

India, in turn, wants to dominate the Indian Ocean. New Delhi not only fears China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean, which is often identified with the string of pearls concept – a series of strategic naval ports enclosing India – but is also developing a relationship with Vietnam, another longtime opponent of China. The threat of India's interference in the South China Sea territorial dispute runs into sharp opposition from China, which aspires to turn the sea into its domestic “lake”.

Future Fleet

Photo: topwar.ru
Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM)

A long lifecycle, high cost, and the ability to get refitted and modernized account for the fleets’ conservative appearance. Thus, the American “Nimitz”-type aircraft carrier will have a lifecycle of nearly a hundred years, from when it was designed in the 1960s to the end of the operating life of the last ship in the series. This suggests that, in outward appearance and structure, the fleet over the next century is unlikely to undergo major changes, despite advances in technology and changes in warfare methods in the world’s oceans.

Increased effective range of naval engineering, and the means to combat it, will be the first key trends affecting technological change in fleets. The development of Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) as well as improved anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems will all be given an impetus. They will be able to provide, not just cover for individual ships or group formations, but also effective air and missile defense during wartime. It is worth noting the U.S. Prompt Global Strike initiative, which if successful, would enable the United States to strike targets anywhere on Earth with conventional weapons in as little as an hour.

Another key trend is reducing the visibility of one’s own fleet, while also facilitating the detection and destruction of the enemy with precision-strike systems (“battle of signatures”). In fact, it comes down to a modified continuation of the centuries-old struggle between “the gun” and “the armor.” New technologies, restricting ship detection by radar, sonar, and even the human eye, will counter the spread of over-the-horizon radars, reconnaissance satellites, pilot-controlled airborne vehicles and unmanned drones.

In the 21st century, many states will rely on sea power to protect their national interests both in near-coast areas and in the open ocean. The United States’ position of indisputable dominance will be replaced by naval pluralism.

Surface ships’ vulnerability will further expand the range of missions performed by submarines which are already capable of destroying surface ships or other submarines, launching strikes at coastal facilities, carrying out intelligence activities and supporting special operations. A new French DCNS-designed weapons system protecting submarines from air threats appears to be one of the most promising anti-aircraft self-defense technologies. Another promising area in the next generation of navy engineering development involves unmanned aircraft systems like the existing airborne element of the U.S. Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance MQ-4C Triton . It is designed to provide the Navy with persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). The UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) program, developed by European and American companies, will increase the range of action for carrier-based aircraft and facilitate attacks against enemy territory, protected by advanced anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems. In addition to UCLASS, unmanned naval drones, both surface and underwater ones, are currently being developed under the ACTUV Project to track quiet diesel electric submarines. The development of unmanned drones may result in the emergence of new classes of ships with unmanned aerial vehicles as the key weapon. For example, the Royal Navy’s Black Swan Concept involves designing a new 3,000 ton displacement sloop-of-war to protect Sea Lines of Communication.

Photo: aviationnews.eu
UAV MQ-4C Triton

In the 21st century, many states will rely on sea power to protect their national interests both in near-coast areas and in the open ocean. The United States’ position of indisputable dominance will be replaced by naval pluralism. The threat of inter-state conflicts involving naval engineering will increase. Russia's ability to influence the political and military situation in the ocean, effectively develop its resources, and monitor and protect its extensive sea borders, will largely depend on decisions being made now. While updating strategic nuclear forces’ naval component remains an important task of the state, it must not impede work underway to strengthen the general-purpose forces that are critical in the protection of Russia's national interests across the Seven Seas in the 21st century.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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