China has a trump card, which none of its predecessors had in conflicts with the ruling power at sea: the PRC has removed the threat of a major land war with another continental power, which allows it to allocate for the preparation and conduct of war on sea a much larger share of military resources than the Russian Empire, second and third Reich, and the Soviet Union could afford, Ilya Kramnik writes.
Rivalry at sea is one of the most visible components of the confrontation between the United States and China, leading many to wonder once again about the goals that China can set for its fleet, and the means that can enable these goals to be achieved. Given that naval rivalry in this case is part of a larger global confrontation between the great powers, it would be logical to try to find an answer to this question in the confrontations of the past.
The most useful in terms of analogies and possible lessons are, in my opinion, the stories of rivalry that developed in the second half of the 19th century and in the 20th century, which at different times involved Britain, the USA, Germany, Russia/the USSR and Japan. It would be impossible to retell the entire history of naval rivalry, from the beginning of the era of armour and steam to this day, within the framework of one article, but certain general provisions can be kept in mind.
The Zeroth Cold War
The first global maritime rivalry of the industrial era can be called the Russian-British confrontation in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, which began after the Crimean War and ended with the Russo-Japanese war. First of all, the asymmetry of this race must be noted: during the entire period under review, the Russian leadership did not set the goal of surpassing Britain in the power of its main naval forces and winning a hypothetical general battle with these main forces. In fact, the Russian fleet developed with two main tasks in mind: protecting its own main bases and ports (primarily St. Petersburg) from a possible attack from the sea, and countering British maritime trade in the event of a war. This predetermined the landmarks of naval development for a long time: to solve the first task, coastal defence ships were actively built — armoured floating batteries, monitors, gunboats. For the second task, the Navy first received sail-steam clippers and corvettes, and later cruisers of various types, including specially designed “trade fighters” — large fast ships with powerful weapons and relatively light armour, capable of autonomous voyages lasting many months — including transitions from the Baltic to the Far East. Their characteristics gave them superiority over any British ship that was able to catch up with them, and the ability to evade any ship that was capable of sinking them. These ships, originally classified as armoured frigates, became the first vessels of a new class — armoured cruisers.
In fact, in a possible clash with the British Empire, Russia planned to rely on its cruisers, in order to disrupt the enemy’s maritime trade as a more attainable goal than gaining dominance at sea. Thus, ideally, it was supposed to prevent the enemy from taking advantage of its domination — forcing it to divert the forces of the fleet to protect trade routes instead of solving combat missions. These actions ideally fit into the doctrine of cruisers’ war, where the indirect damage caused by the disruption of planned voyages, the need to form and maintain a system of convoys, and other measures restricting free navigation, could exceed direct damage caused by the direct sinking or seizure of merchant ships.
The disadvantage of this approach was demonstrated during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Despite Gorchakov’s memorandum, by which Russia regained the right to build warships in the Black Sea, by the beginning of the war, the Russian Navy in the region was represented by two floating batteries (known as “popovka”) and several armed steamers. The Turkish fleet was significantly superior to both the Russian Black Sea fleet and the possible forces of the Baltic fleet, which could be sent to the Mediterranean. A war of cruisers against Turkey made little sense, and, as a result, the main strategic purpose of the fleet, preparing for a hypothetical war against Britain, was inapplicable in a real conflict with a much weaker opponent.
As a result, Turkey retained dominance at sea during the war, although its ability to operate along the Russian coast was significantly limited by the activity of the hastily created sea mine forces of the Black Sea Fleet. As we remember, Turkey lost the war, but the weakness of the naval forces did not allow Russia to end the confrontation with the capture of Constantinople and the final defeat of the enemy: there was nothing to resist the main forces of the British Mediterranean fleet that appeared in the Bosporus.
As a result of the war, it was decided to revise the navy build-up policy. A Special Meeting, gathered to develop a new shipbuilding programme, assessed the situation as follows:
This defeat for a long time excluded Russia from the sea rivalry of the great powers, and the subsequent events, well-known to all, only exacerbated the situation.
Dreadnought and submarine race
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the Russian-British rivalry was replaced by a German-British one. Germany, which by the beginning of the 20th century surpassed the British Empire in gross industrial production and the level of its general technical development, without further ado, relied on a general battle of the fleets in the North Sea. At the same time, the position of the Second Reich as a continental power, which made it necessary to allocate significant funds for powerful ground troops, did not allow the nation to count on an overall quantitative superiority of German warships over British ones. But the position of Britain as a global naval power, which required the presence of the Royal Navy in all areas of the world’s oceans significant for the Empire, made it possible to expect that British superiority would be spread too thin, yielding an acceptable balance of power for Germany in the main theatre of operations. It was assumed that in a general engagement, the German Hochseeflotte could inflict damage on the British Grand Fleet, which would undermine British dominance at sea and prevent it from maintaining a reliable naval blockade of Germany, which, in turn, would facilitate the war against British sea trade, and, ultimately, force Britain to admit defeat.
These hopes were almost justified — in the autumn of 1914, the two sea rivals were nearly equally matched. However, it hardly matters: after the start of the war, the superiority of Britain’s naval forces only grew, and the losses of the British in the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, albeit greater than those of the Germans , were insufficient to undermine the power of the British fleet. Moreover, following the results of Jutland, the Germans did not dare to repeat the attempt at a general battle.
Combined with the not-so-successful course of the war on land, the naval blockade by the British Royal Navy, which undermined the export-oriented German economy, forced Germany to surrender, despite the fact that the hostilities practically did not affect the territory of the Reich. Neither the combat actions of surface raiders, nor the submarine war unleashed by Germany, nor the diversion of the British fleet to other theatres could have any significant impact on the balance of forces, especially given the subsequent entry of the United States into the war.
In World War II, Germany had no chance of winning a decisive battle at sea from the very beginning, although the withdrawal of France from the war and Italy’s activity in the Mediterranean, combined with the need to maintain a presence in the Indian Ocean and the Far East, seriously undermined the position of the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, with the support of the United States, the British created a reliable system of military transport, and the submarine war did not give Germany the expected results — also because, while waging the bloodiest land war in history against the Soviet Union, Germany could not even dream of being able to allocate sufficient forces for naval warfare. However, the opposite was true — the resources that went into the naval war in the West deprived the eastern front of the Germans of a huge number of the most necessary things, ranging from qualified personnel capable of holding technical or command positions in its ground forces, and ending with steel, fuel and expensive electric, optical and radio equipment.
Despite the fact that the outcome of the sea confrontation during the Second World War was decided in the Atlantic, the Pacific theatre witnessed the largest naval battles as such — but neither the impressive fleet capacity at the beginning of the war, nor the brilliant training of the fleet could help Japan win in its war against the United States, which had considerable superiority in terms of its industrial potential. Ultimately, in battles, the Americans suffered greater losses for some time in the beginning, and then less; later, the newly built US Navy ships with fairly well-trained crews and numerous carrier-based warplanes simply swept away the Japanese fleet in summer-autumn 1944, deciding the outcome of the war.
The First Cold War
The next act of the sea race was the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, later Russia. The post-war Soviet fleet did not even come close to resembling a force capable of challenging supremacy at sea, especially the US Navy, but by the mid-1960s the situation began to change, not least due to a sharp leap in the development of technology — nuclear missiles, jet aircraft, nuclear reactors, and finally, a new generation of controls, detection, target designation and communications. This radically changed the technical face of war at sea, forcing everyone to go back to the drawing board. The United States had a noticeable head start in the form of a large “old” fleet, which could be modernised and improved, which Americans were actively engaged in, but by the early 1980s the USSR came close enough to forming a fleet capable of challenging US dominance at sea — if not globally, then, in any case, in the key theatres.
However, this domination itself and the struggle for it was not considered an independent value: the naval strategy of the USSR was reliably linked with the strategy of the ground forces, assuming the use of the fleet, in the event of a war, primarily in the interests of ensuring the actions of ground forces in the European theatre of operations, as well as to ensure combat duty, and, if necessary, the use of naval strategic nuclear forces. This did not exclude either possible battles in remote areas of the world’s oceans, or the active use of the fleet in these areas in peacetime, but as a result, the USSR Navy did not have a number of tools that were considered in the West an integral part of the modern fleet — primarily aircraft carriers and expeditionary forces, which were redundant within the chosen path of development.
Nevertheless, the need to have these means in the USSR came up quite late, and the country collapsed before the Soviet fleet was able to take advantage of the fruits of this need. The collapse of the USSR excluded Russia from the sea race – in fact, for the second time in a century, and this situation persists to this day.
The Second Cold War
One can argue about the correctness of the term “Second Cold War”, but at least it can be said that it looks eye-catching. What do we see in this round of confrontation in terms of the war at sea?
China has surpassed the United States in the size of its naval forces. This is serious, but nothing new — the Soviet Union accomplished it, and now, as then, the United States retains superiority in the combat strength of the main forces of the fleet.
China is building up its main naval forces at a pace that is more reminiscent of the 1930s. However, even if the United States stops building new ships tomorrow, it will take China another 20 years to catch up with the US.
China, obviously, does not pursue global confrontation at sea. The presence of the PLA Navy outside the Yellow, East China, and South China seas can still be called sporadic. It is less than what the USSR Navy maintained in peacetime, and moreover, less than the Russian Navy currently does, despite the significant gap in the size of the main forces of the surface fleet.
With the help of this presence, Russia is able to resolve a number of political tasks related to peacetime and local conflicts; the PRC not only ignores these opportunities, but is obviously focused on the main task — in the event of a conflict in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, be it a war against Taiwan, or Japan, or immediately against a coalition of states, the US Navy, either alone or with the support of allies, should not be able to exercise its dominance at sea. Can this problem be solved? Technically yes. Numerous Chinese ships, with powerful and diverse strike, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft weapons, with the support of numerous air forces and various shore-based missile systems, are able to neutralise the superiority of the United States in aircraft carriers and non-aircraft carriers of the first rank, and the superiority of the US nuclear submarine fleet does not look so convincing in the shallow waters of the East and South China seas, where numerous light ships, coastal aviation and diesel submarines of the PLA Navy operate.
In theory, this should allow China to solve its problems in a possible local conflict around Taiwan, or the Paracel Islands, or in other disputed areas, without crossing the line beyond which the use of strategic nuclear forces will be inevitable. At the same time, the PRC has one more trump card, which none of its predecessors had in conflicts with the ruling power at sea: the PRC, obviously, has removed the threat of a major land war with another continental power, which allows it to allocate for the preparation and conduct of war on sea a much larger share of military resources than the Russian Empire, second and third Reich, and the Soviet Union could afford.
Will this be enough? Does it make sense in principle to talk about naval war as an independent struggle in a confrontation between nuclear powers? I really hope that these questions will remain hypothetical.
However, it’s an extremely interesting hypothesis.