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Ilya Kramnik

RIAC Expert

The renewed rivalry between the world powers, almost formally dubbed the second Cold War now, could not but fuel the development of new weapons and military equipment. Naval forces chose not to stand on the side-lines of this new race, despite a certain conservatism of the hardware they employ, which is predicated on the life cycle these products. Incidentally, many questions that the new round of technological advancement is set to answer were first raised back in the 19th century, and these questions remain relevant to this day.

The guidelines for the development of national naval forces across the world, both today and in the foreseeable future, are governed by the standoff between the United States and China.

The naval part of this confrontation is characterized by opposite trends in the development of their respective fleets, while the countries focus on similar approaches in exploring new types of weapons and military equipment.

Let us examine the main features that determine the similarities and differences in the American and Chinese approaches. In terms of similarities, both sides pay considerable attention to the development of new types of naval weapons and equipment, such as unmanned surface and submersible vessels, unmanned aerial vehicles, hypersonic missiles, laser and electromagnetic weapon systems, etc. An undeniable similarity lies in the level of attention that both countries devote to upgrading naval aviation (both carrier- and shore-based) and expeditionary forces, even despite the difference in their current standing with these components, where the United States has been the unconditional leader for many decades. Meanwhile, China has only joined the race this past decade after floating out its first two aircraft carriers and a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship.

The differences are just as striking: the approaches to the development of the naval components of both countries are diametrically opposed to one another. The concept of the shipbuilding programme implemented by the People’s Liberation Army Navy is primarily based on building blue-water surface ships: the pace of building large destroyers and cruisers resembles the shipbuilding efficiency typical for the great maritime nations prior to World War II. Suffice to say that during the past decade, China’s PLA Navy has received, on top of other equipment, a total of 20 capital ships without aviation capability, including 19 destroyers and the first “large destroyer” of new type 055, which many experts classify as a missile cruiser, plus two aircraft carriers. The United States, in addition to other armaments, got 11 destroyers and one aircraft carrier, thus yielding the lead in the construction of capital surface ships for the first time since World War II, even though the country is still able to retain notable superiority over China in the number of such ships and in the overall capabilities of the blue-water navy.

This dependence on coalitions, coupled with the constant need for support from arms and military equipment vendors, who rarely permit self-maintenance by the end user, makes such second- and third-world countries rely on the aid provided by coalition leaders, thus severely limiting their room for manoeuvre. Incredible as it may seem, “freedom of action” in this regard is directly proportional to the age of the available materiel: more often than not, nations that own ships and weapons dating back to the Cold War times already know how to service, maintain and even manufacture some component parts, or they can make up for any parts needed from the vast and hard-to-control “grey” market of weapons and components of the 1970–1990s that were supplied in abundance by certain satellites of the Cold War superpowers. The upgrade or replacement of the old fleet often turns into a honeytrap, increasing the efficiency of their weapons, on one hand, and severely narrowing their leeway on the other. They certainly understand the situation and see the acquisition of military equipment, especially something as complex and expensive as combatant ships and their weapon systems, as a political step, with all that such steps may entail for the decision-making process.

Could we take the next logical step and say that buying these complex weapons systems today also means choosing which military coalition to joint in the future, which is no less important for understanding the prospects of war at sea than the development of naval equipment per se? Perhaps this point of view can at the very least be seen as having its reasons.

The renewed rivalry between the world powers, almost formally dubbed the second Cold War now, could not but fuel the development of new weapons and military equipment. Naval forces chose not to stand on the side-lines of this new race, despite a certain conservatism of the hardware they employ, which is predicated on the life cycle these products. Incidentally, many questions that the new round of technological advancement is set to answer were first raised back in the 19th century, and these questions remain relevant to this day.

Leaders in the Race

The guidelines for the development of national naval forces across the world, both today and in the foreseeable future, are governed by the rivalry between the United States and China.

The naval part of this confrontation is characterized by opposite trends in the development of their respective fleets, while the countries focus on similar approaches in exploring new types of weapons and military equipment.

Let us examine the main features that determine the similarities and differences in the American and Chinese approaches. In terms of similarities, both sides pay considerable attention to the development of new types of naval weapons and equipment, such as unmanned surface and submersible vessels, unmanned aerial vehicles, hypersonic missiles, laser and electromagnetic weapon systems, etc. An undeniable similarity lies in the level of attention that both countries devote to upgrading naval aviation (both carrier- and shore-based) and expeditionary forces, even despite the difference in their current standing with these components, where the United States has been the unconditional leader for many decades. Meanwhile, China has only joined the race this past decade after floating out its first two aircraft carriers and a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship.

The differences are just as striking: the approaches to the development of the naval components of both countries are diametrically opposed to one another. The concept of the shipbuilding programme implemented by the People’s Liberation Army Navy is primarily based on building blue-water surface ships: the pace of building large destroyers and cruisers resembles the shipbuilding efficiency typical for the great maritime nations prior to World War II. Suffice to say that during the past decade, China’s PLA Navy has received, on top of other equipment, a total of 20 capital ships without aviation capability, including 19 destroyers and the first “large destroyer” of new type 055, which many experts classify as a missile cruiser, plus two aircraft carriers. The United States, in addition to other armaments, got 11 destroyers and one aircraft carrier, thus yielding the lead in the construction of capital surface ships for the first time since World War II, even though the country is still able to retain notable superiority over China in the number of such ships and in the overall capabilities of the blue-water navy.

In the next few years, the United States intends to ramp up the commissioning of new ships, but its priority, according to a recent statement by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, is to develop light naval forces. The United States will resume building frigates (the U.S. Navy has no frigates today after decommissioning of the last Oliver Hazard Perry-class ships), small and medium amphibious assault ships for island operations, other small surface combatants, including optionally manned and unmanned vessels, and finally light aircraft carriers, whose price forces the U.S. Navy to consider cutting their number.

Furthermore, the two countries demonstrate continued differences in the concept of their operations. It would appear that China adheres to the Soviet take on the role and place of aircraft carriers, whose first priority is to ensure the combat stability of the navy outside the reach of shore-based fighter jets. The strike capabilities of naval forces are concentrated in the missile armament of destroyers, cruisers and submarines.

In this context, media sources and experts continue to debate the future development of this class of ships by the PLA Navy and the rate at which it rolls out new elements of aircraft carrier technology. It was thought that the third Chinese aircraft-capable ship would be nuclear-powered, but experts now agree that it will have a conventional propulsion system.

One more issue at large is China’s readiness to introduce another important element of the latest carrier technology, namely, electromagnetic catapults. Some media sources have reported that PLA Navy had been planning to restrict the size of their carrier force to four ships and would start building a fifth after a number of essential technologies have been developed.

In the United States, carrier-based aircraft continue to play the role of the main strike power within the Navy’s general purpose forces, but this is also starting to change. First off, the development of light forces and their weapons under the Distributed Lethality concept will inevitably inflate the role of surface combatants, especially in the frigate/destroyer class. Secondly, the role of shore-based aviation is becoming more essential. For example, the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircrafts can be effectively employed against surface combatants, just like the U.S. Air Force strategic bombers B-1B carrying LRASM anti-ship cruise missiles.

The development of mine warfare by the United States and allied naval forces is another important trend: the amount of investment in new mine warfare technologies is growing, along with the capabilities of mine weapons. The allies focus on the development of smart naval mines that can form consistent sweeping-proof mine barriers and are capable of blocking enemy fleets inside their home stations or isolating the combat zone, thus throttling the most probable lines of approach. Mine countermeasures have also seen some substantial development, and the number of unmanned mine-sweeping systems, both surface-operated and submersible, is growing fast. This will possibly make mine warfare and mine countermeasures the initial fault line in the sea, where most operations will be carried out without the direct involvement of human operators.

Gaining a Foothold

The United States may have lost out to China in terms of overall strength at sea in 2019, but it retained its leadership in the number of capital ships. Today, however, it continues to rely on elements other than combat units.

The current progress in all of the nation’s armed services lies in the development of new-generation combat control systems that enable real-time communications among different detection devices, control facilities and weapon carrying systems.

The further development of these systems indicates that the United States is creating a “digital battlespace,” looking to make a quantum leap in increasing the awareness of commanding officers in the field and reducing the decision-making time to negligible values.

The key projects in this area are implemented under the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) programme, which is geared towards uniting all the detection and target acquisition systems employed across the U.S. Armed Forces into a single network. Cross-branch interoperation capabilities have been traditionally limited due to the differences in architecture of existing control systems. Establishing the chain of command, coordinating plans and assigning tasks often took days to accomplish when cross-branch coordination was required. By its design, the JADC2 project will render all processes automatic and reduce the required coordination time from hours to minutes, and in some instances to seconds.

JADC2 envisages the development of a cloud-based platform for exchanging data transmitted via numerous communication networks to fast-track the decision-making process. The project team uses commercial online taxi services as the grassroots model for the JADC2. Under the programme, new control systems are being developed for individual armed services, many of which are already in the trial phase. The key outcome of these trials is the capability to automate data exchange among different platforms that were not originally designed as interoperable systems: for example, Marine Corps fighter jets and Army howitzers, or U.S. Navy destroyers and Army multiple rocket launcher systems, etc.

The development of a new generation of radars for both maritime and aviation navigation systems, including orbital, reconnaissance (including space reconnaissance assets), command and control, and data exchange systems (also involving space vehicles) and weapons capable of real-time receipt and modification of target acquisition data from remote sources, as well as the development of the “digital battlespace” with the heavy interoperation with unmanned aerial vehicles, and the employment of new air-to-air and air-to-surface controlled weapon systems—all this leads us to the conclusion that the United States and a number of other developed nations are gradually and consistently shaping a new type of combat environment, most importantly in the air.

Its pivotal differences from the existing environment are represented by the spike in the level of situational awareness, along with increased analysis capabilities and reduced decision-making time.

Arctic Reflections

The U.S.–China standoff at sea should not eclipse the processes that are more obvious to Russian readers, namely the development of the Russian Navy that is also unfolding in the context of the renewed adversarial relationship with the West. The key element of this confrontation is the fundamental economic imbalance that pushes weapons designers in Russia to look for unorthodox solutions.

It is safe to say that the key trend in the evolution of the Russian Navy is the enhancement of missile weapons, from air defence to strategic missile systems, as well as the development of submarine and special operations forces that are meant, on one hand, to ensure the deployment of the national naval component in the most comfortable conditions and, on the other hand, to make similar deployment by the adversary as challenging as possible.

In this regard, the focus is on designing domestic combat and surveillance unmanned underwater vehicles and stationary underwater acoustic surveillance systems, as well as on developing new technologies for locating enemy submarines and surface ships that enable early detection of such units in a conflict zone and employ both existing and prospective missile weaponry. This development resonates with the ongoing effort to rehabilitate infrastructure along the coast and on the islands of the Arctic Ocean, which is once again becoming an arena of confrontation, like it was during the first Cold War.

To some extent, the current developments in the Arctic may be viewed as a reflection of the U.S.–China showdown in the west of the Pacific. Just like China, Russia has an infrastructural advantage in the vicinity of its continental territory (with its “Arctic” hang, which includes a robust icebreaker fleet) and a larger force deployed in the theatre of operations. At the same time, NATO’s overall supremacy over Russia is more significant than that of the United States and its allies over China in the Far East, making Russia fear the outcome of a potential conflict in this area.

Such an awareness of the inadequacies of Russia’s Armed Forces dictates that the country turn back to the operational strategic approaches employed in similar situations in the past. As a result, the defence system that is now being deployed in the Arctic region to set up the bastions, (so-called “Protected Operating Area” in Russian military terms), may be compared with the central mine and artillery position that the Baltic fleet was primarily tasked to develop and defend during the First World War, now adjusted for geography and technological advancement. The transformation of this concept depends not only on the future development of the Russian economy and the creation of new types of weapons, but also on the evolution of views on the naval force, which Russia has seen for more than a hundred years as an auxiliary asset, rather than an independent strategic element.

Who is Next?

Speaking of trends in the development of naval forces in second- and third-world countries, we chiefly point out their dependence on cooperation with one of the leaders (or balancing between them), and this aspect largely governs the series of technological and operational solutions. It is important, though, that this mostly applies to countries that are not among the top five, and often not among the top ten largest naval powers.

There are several common trends in this context. For instance, a number of countries are showing increasing interest in deploying shore-based maritime patrol aviation. The market offers several light aircraft of this class today—typically redesigned turbo-prop passenger planes used for local flights or light military transport aircraft, such as ATR-42/72, С-212, 235, 295 and others.

In this case, relatively inexpensive and commonly used local-fight (less often medium-range) airliners and business jets are used in maritime patrol aviation. With this approach, even relatively poor countries can purchase individual units or small sets of such airplanes, thus being able to control their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. For major powers, this approach, combined with the use of long-rage radar detection aircraft, opens the door for building special operations wings and setting up major anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zones with a robust control and target acquisition systems, depending on the country’s economic capacity and views on existing threats.

Speaking of ships, in the vast majority of cases, secondary naval powers do not trouble themselves with building a balanced and self-sustainable naval element, which would be an extremely expensive initiative. Instead, they focus primarily on coastal defence systems with the deployment of individual components for operations in offshore maritime zones and blue-water theatres, predominantly as part of a coalition.

This dependence on coalitions, coupled with the constant need for support from arms and military equipment vendors, who rarely permit self-maintenance by the end user, makes such second- and third-world countries rely on the aid provided by coalition leaders, thus severely limiting their room for manoeuvre. Incredible as it may seem, “freedom of action” in this regard is directly proportional to the age of the available materiel: more often than not, nations that own ships and weapons dating back to the Cold War times already know how to service, maintain and even manufacture some component parts, or they can make up for any parts needed from the vast and hard-to-control “grey” market of weapons and components of the 1970–1990s that were supplied in abundance by certain satellites of the Cold War superpowers. The upgrade or replacement of the old fleet often turns into a honeytrap, increasing the efficiency of their weapons, on one hand, and severely narrowing their leeway on the other. They certainly understand the situation and see the acquisition of military equipment, especially something as complex and expensive as combatant ships and their weapon systems, as a political step, with all that such steps may entail for the decision-making process.

Could we take the next logical step and say that buying these complex weapons systems today also means choosing which military coalition to joint in the future, which is no less important for understanding the prospects of war at sea than the development of naval equipment per se? Perhaps this point of view can at the very least be seen as having its reasons.


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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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