The nature of sea power is rapidly evolving as the existing balance of power between major powers at sea is becoming increasingly challenged by a multitude of geopolitical and technological developments. From a surge in Chinese naval capabilities to the rise of new advanced weapon systems, the maritime theater is seeing radical change that has traditional naval powers on the backfoot and strategists rethinking the foundations of the sea power concept. As new actors rise and new capabilities are developed, the world’s seas and oceans have become the stage of growing international competition and tensions that could define global order for the coming decades.
Between these different dynamics, geopolitical evolutions on the one hand and technological advances on the other, defining the true origin of rising competition presents somewhat of a chicken and egg debate. Tensions between great powers drive research and development of new military technologies while these technologies themselves lead to changes in military capabilities, driving threat perceptions and resulting in an arms race that drives tensions at the political level. In the naval domain, two particular fields of technological advancement are currently most influential in defining the future of sea power. New missile capabilities increasingly threaten the survivability of existing fleets, while expanding intelligence capabilities pose a radical challenge to established tactics in naval warfare.
Missile technology has followed a relentless path of improvement since its very inception and naval strategy has evolved along with it over time. Today’s nascent hypersonic capabilities represent another jump in these capabilities, and will require major adjustments in naval tactics or armaments to effectively counter. These weapons, due to their speed and range, question the effectiveness of existing defensive measures and procedures. Anti-ship missiles traveling at hypersonic speeds mean that the available time between detection and impact could be too short for the effective deployment of defenses or evasive maneuvering. A change in this very particular element of naval warfare actually leads to significant consequences. With offensive weapons more certain to hit their target, the survivability of individual vessels is drawn into question and both contemporary compositions of naval task forces and the ways in which they operate will have to adjust to this reality.
The Effects of Sensor Proliferation
The effects of this new generation of weaponry is further enhanced by a radically changing intelligence environment at sea. The maritime environment is witnessing a true proliferation of sensor technology, as well as progressive abilities to analyze and manage this information in real time. This sensor proliferation occurs through an increase of sensors and their capabilities on naval platforms themselves, as well as significant growth in space-based sensors. The latest generations of satellite constellations, leveraging small satellites, have greatly reduced the time between observations of particular areas. This means that far beyond the range of their radars, major military powers are gaining the ability to accurately locate their opponent’s naval vessels multiple times a day. Such a capability leans not only on the proliferation of actual satellites to collect this data - which ranges from optical imagery and radar to the location of electronic emissions such as radio or radar activity by naval vessels - but also on advancements in artificial intelligence applications that are able to interpret such a vast volume of data in real time.
The integration of systems to combine data feeds from multiple sources, not exclusive to space based collection, and be able to distribute this information across military commands and weapon systems requires significant infrastructure investments but builds towards a full-knowledge intelligence environment in the naval domain. A reality where major naval powers are constantly aware of the exact locations of their opponent’s vessels - especially in combination with new missile capabilities - effectively reduces naval combat to a set piece approach, rather than one based on fluid maneuvering. Such a drastic change in the tactical aspects of sea power commands an entirely different approach to obtaining dominance in the naval domain.
The consequences of this development are not limited to implications within the naval domain, however, and it could be argued that the many ways in which space based capabilities affect sea power today are effectively making space strategy a critical component of naval strategy.
The dominant military powers in the world today show great emphasis on space strategy, both in terms of space based capabilities and in terms of separate capabilities that can affect space. For example, the development of anti-satellite weapons is one way for military powers to challenge the new reality that space based capabilities impose upon sea power, though at the same time their focus on increased redundancy in space based platforms aims to negate the effect of such weapon systems.
Tensions on a Global Scale
The development of these new capabilities has emerged as a powerful driver of geopolitical competition, and together with other factors like relative changes in economic power over the past decades this is reshaping the landscape of military ambitions at sea. Following a period of near uncontested naval dominance by the United States during the post-Cold War era, a significant rise in Chinese power has drawn increased attention to the Indo-Pacific region and the role of U.S. sea power in maintaining its alliance structures there. This shift in focus has also re emphasized the importance of peer conflict in naval operations, following a period during which the spotlight was on asymmetric security operations at sea such as anti-piracy efforts or securing major trade routes from lesser powers.
Following that period of undisputed dominance, the United States Navy has increasingly voiced concerns over the rise of Chinese naval capabilities. China’s emergence as a global maritime power is by no means a new or unforeseen development, with the expansion of its naval capabilities closely tracking its steep economic growth since the 1980’s. This gradual growth, however, is right now culminating into a credible challenge to U.S. naval dominance as the size of its surface fleet and the sophistication of its vessels is nearly on par with that of the United States Navy.
China is only taking its first steps towards global power projection, through the construction of aircraft carriers and by conducting naval operations at great distance, but has already radically altered the military balance in its immediate East Asian periphery. By mounting a credible challenge to freedom of navigation in this particular region, China is not only disrupting the U.S. objective to dominate the Pacific theater - which the United States considers critical to prevent the rise of a direct threat to its mainland - but is also triggering a reconfiguration of global naval power that is shifting resources away from other theaters.
The Russian Federation meanwhile also regained prominence in the naval theater as part of its broader military resurgence that has been associated with President Vladimir Putin’s leadership during the past decades. This resurgence has not only led to a vast military modernization drive, including a notable emphasis on naval platforms, but also the research and development of new advanced tactical and strategic weapon systems. Russia’s increased military activity beyond its borders, such as its operations in Syria, have also informed a greater need for naval capabilities in particular. These naval capabilities support the expeditionary ambitions that feature into the modern Russian security strategy and have seen Moscow increase efforts to guarantee their access to the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean as part of its global reach. In a more direct challenge to the existing U.S. naval capabilities, Russia is also the dominant actor in the Arctic region that is growing in prominence due to the melting of the ice cap and the resulting increase in economic and military opportunities in the region.
China violates key norms and provisions of the international law of the sea and at the same time advocates its peremptory application to the Arctic. Meanwhile, the USA cannot agree with the navigation guidelines established by Russia with respect to the Northern Sea Route. For Russia, this is a matter of its own security. Will the US agree to some kind of Code of Conduct for the Arctic? Is Moscow ready to support the Arctic ambitions of the Middle Kingdom?
Smaller sources of naval contention are also proving a drain on naval capabilities, in addition to the larger threats of peer conflicts. The re-emergence of maritime disputes between countries like Turkey and Greece or Iran and other Gulf countries, for example, presents less of a direct challenge to the global capabilities of major powers, though the potential for localized escalations in key maritime territories stretches the capabilities of global navies alike. Even though the occurrence of these disputes themselves is not necessarily new, the proliferation of more advanced naval capabilities among lesser powers, alliance structures, and their overall influence on the broader context of competition between the major powers makes them an important aspect of the future environment in which sea power will continue to evolve.
A Heavy Burden
For those major actors that seek to develop or maintain global sea power, this multitude of technological and geopolitical dynamics imposes a significant cost. The industrial capabilities for one, which support shipbuilding as well as research and development of cutting edge weapon systems, require tremendous material resources and sustained expansion of expertise. Falling behind other powers in either the volume or capacity of relevant platforms, or in the level of sophistication of technology, irrefutably means being relegated to a position of a lesser naval power.
The challenge to keep up with competing powers is not limited to material resources alone, and constant adjustments of doctrinal and tactical models will be required to present a realistic deterrent or combat capability in this modern environment. The ability to adapt to a reality where sea power operates in a full-knowledge environment and becomes closely intertwined with space strategy will likely be a key determinant factor in achieving dominance. Given the significant advances in the fields of offensive weaponry and intelligence capabilities, such changes are likely to explore improving the survivability of individual naval platforms through advanced defensive systems and electronic warfare or by building greater redundancy and into existing fleets through the use of unmanned platforms.
Beyond these different paths that major naval powers will develop over time, likely with their own separate emphasis based on their inherent and unique capabilities, the geographic allocation of naval resources will also play a clear part in how sea power evolves. While the United States Navy may find itself stretched trying to uphold a truly global capability, emerging naval players like China and Russia will find themselves more capable of challenging US dominance in those theaters where they identify comparative advantages. Logically, distance will be a key determinant in this and such challenges will continue to develop most intensely in waters near Chinese and Russian territories. Unique conditions present in those areas, such as in the Arctic and the turbulent waters that surround it for example, will also likely usher a divergence in the focus of technology and capabilities between naval powers looking to concentrate resources in areas that most immediately serve their bids for dominance.
Every two years the Russian and Chinese Navy change place for drills across the oceans. Both countries assume certain responsibilities to guarantee maritime security and peace. Exercises in the Baltic sea made restless the Western media.