The Increasing Importance of Small Navies

First published: 12th November 2016 | Colum Hawken

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As western navies decrease in size and a variety of threats proliferate across the world, their forces are becoming stretched. Indeed, they have been declining ever since the end of the Cold War as nations sought to capitalise on the peace dividend. [1]

This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by reductions in aircraft carriers, such as those during the Clinton administration. [2] The ramifications of such cutbacks were demonstrated when ISIS made rapid territorial gains across northern Iraq and Syria, and the US Carrier group in the Persian Gulf was diverted to conduct airstrikes in Iraq. [3] This left Afghanistan without air support, which the Taliban took advantage of during their 2015 summer offensive. [4] In addition, the Royal Navy has experienced severe cutbacks over the years. While the absence of a British aircraft carrier will soon be rectified; by the launching of HMS Queen Elizabeth, and there remains a core of modern nuclear submarines, as well as some highly capable amphibious vessels, there are too few other escort vessels. [5] This leaves the British Navy potentially top heavy, with powerful capital ships and the ability to project force and staying power into far flung regions, though dangerously limited in its ability to protect these prestige vessels, the British coast and sea lanes.

This mismatch in capabilities and objectives means that smaller regional navies are becoming relatively more important, benefiting from the split between commitments and resources. As the strategic landscape becomes more complex, these smaller navies, through growing roles and threat capabilities, will become increasingly relevant. Small navies have been chronically under examined, and this article seeks to rectify this in some small way, by examining what makes a navy small, and how these navies can step into gaps created by western cutbacks.

The term ‘small navy’ is vague and open to interpretation. Likewise are the metrics against which a navy can be measured. They might include, in the simplest terms, its number of active vessels, type of thereof, and their geographical reach. [6] The contribution of the former is obvious but the latter two merit further discussion.

In addition to sheer numbers, the purpose and modernity of ships is also crucial. A nation with a vast number of obsolete warships would almost certainly be outmatched by a smaller number of well-handled modern vessels. Some of the most advanced classes of vessel are aircraft carriers, amphibious vessels and nuclear submarines. [7] A navy possessing vessels of this character shows that it has larger ambitions than mere coastal defence, as these vessels allow for substantial reach and force projection.

This reach is also crucial to labelling it as large or small. A navy incapable of acting outside of its territorial waters is a small navy, no matter its size. This is because of its inability to influence world events through sea power. However, navies that would normally be classed as small or intermediate are extending their reach through missile capabilities. Several small naval forces are acquiring Sea-Launched Land-Attack cruise missiles (SLCM), such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Israel. [8] However, this reach must also be combined with staying power for a navy to deserve the characteristic large. A navy capable of delivering a single barrage of cruise missiles and then being forced to withdraw hardly merits the adjective large.

Therefore a truly large navy not only possesses a large number of modern vessels, including nuclear submarines, amphibious vessels and aircraft carriers but is capable and willing to utilise these to project force across the globe for extended periods. It follows then, that an intermediate navy can only fulfil some of these characteristics. A small navy cannot or only in part meet these criteria; it may have, for instance only a few modern vessels and some operational or strategic reach but little staying power.

Traditionally, small navies were consigned to coastal defence, and perhaps anti-smuggling or similar operations. The increasing relative importance of small navies, due to cutbacks in larger navies, as well as weapon acquisitions mean that they can play larger roles than just sea denial. These small navies can augment the forces of western navies, making up for cutbacks to support and escort vessels. Two small navies that have demonstrated the ability to take on larger roles are the Swedish Royal Navy and the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). The latter has contributed to regional stability in several ways, such as supporting operations as far away as the Gulf of Aden and working with its ASEAN partners to police the Malacca Strait. [9] In addition, Singapore has avoided alienating her neighbours by not acquiring greater missile capabilities, such as anti-ship and land attack weapons, even while pursuing a technological edge. [10] However, while Singapore demonstrated an urge to work with the US in 2004 on anti-piracy operations, the other ASEAN countries disagreed and Singapore was forced to toe the line. [11] This shows that small navies may work together to reject western interference and sway others to do the same.

The Royal Swedish Navy has also been greatly cooperative with its neighbours. This undeniably small navy has contributed to mine clearance operations in the Baltic as well as to anti-piracy operations in the Persian Gulf. [12] However, unlike the RSN the Swedish Navy has had funding problems, demonstrated by its difficulty in locating a suspected Russian submarine near Stockholm in 2014. [13] Russian aggression has nevertheless prompted increased spending and collaboration with allies. [14]

One such method of collaboration has involved Swedish submarine crews playing the enemy on American exercises. [15] These diesel-electric submarines, and those crewed by other allies have successfully “sunk” US carriers and surface ships on exercise. [16] The difficulty in locating such vessels was demonstrated when in 2006 a Chinese diesel-electric submarine surfaced amongst a US carrier group, a worry prospect considering that many small and potentially hostile navies, such as Iran, have these types of vessel. [17]

This is not the only threat that small navies pose, for instance missile capabilities are improving. Russia demonstrated this when it used SLCMs against Syrian opposition forces in 2015. [18] While Russia is not a small navy, many nations are also acquiring these types of missile capability such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. [19] The proliferation of more powerful missile technology, combined with the reach displayed by small navies like Sweden, show that soon small navies could have the ability to strike targets much further afield, albeit in a very limited manner. While this threat would not force the Western nations from the sea, it could allow smaller states to pre-emptively target capital ships or basing facilities to undermine an opposing naval task force.

Finally, China’s String of Pearls strategy merits discussion due to how it may influence small navies in the Indian Ocean. While China has not confirmed the existence of this policy, it is conspicuous throughout Chinese foreign policy. The policy consists of building bases throughout the Indian Ocean which would undermine India’s ability to project naval power. [20] Whether or not the policy formally exists China is funding maritime infrastructure throughout the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, such as Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. [21]

Currently, the Indian Ocean Pearls are not overtly militarised, unlike the Chinese defensive Island Chains in the Western Pacific and South China Sea, but rather are for commercial interests. [22] China’s diplomatic efforts have nevertheless not yet swung the littoral states in her favour vis-à-vis India, preventing a substantial shift in the region’s balance of power. [23] Regardless, the military implications of these infrastructure investments is very clear. These ports can be used to resupply surface vessels and submarines throughout the region and extend China’s ability to project force, albeit to a limited extent. [24] Moreover, the Gwadar port facility in Pakistan is likely to be converted to support military operations by the Pakistani government to prevent blockade of their shores by India. [25]

While currently these bases are isolated and individually vulnerable, in the long term they may become increasingly militarised and the host nations brought into the Chinese camp. [26] This will increase their effectiveness for force projection beyond limited operations. The likelihood of China achieving political support is difficult to ascertain. However, as China imports 80% of its oil through the Indian Ocean, it is clear that a great deal of effort would be targeted towards this objective. [27] In addition, if China can show host nations that supporting her interests in the region is profitable for them it will only increase the likelihood of alignment with China.

This infrastructure not only provides China with the ability to project force more effectively but also builds foreign policy links with the smaller navies in the region. If China is able to use smaller navies to bolster its position, then this could severely hinder the West’s ability to preserve freedom of the seas.

Action must be taken now to meet these challenges, including addressing training and capability issues as well as improving co-operation with small navies. Training and capability are the easiest to rectify but will require commitment to extra defence spending, not least for cases like that of the Royal Navy, where there is a great need for expanded escort fleet numbers. Diplomatic initiatives may secure support from smaller navies which could to some extent offset the need for more escort ships, but reliance on third parties must never be a first option and rectified at the earliest possibility.

In addition, better equipment for the detection of submarines will also be needed, alongside training to effectively locate and neutralise them. This could perhaps be accomplished through a naval version of the Fort Irwin training conducted during the Cold War to prepare the US army to fight Soviet tank forces. [28] In this case, submarine crews from several nations, such as Sweden, would refine submarine tactics to determine how an opponent would attack a Western carrier group or lone surface vessel. Western forces can then train against a highly capable opponent and learn how best to defeat this threat.

Diplomatic success will not be as straightforward to achieve as it is not simply a case of adequate funding and effective training but rather long term collaboration and negotiation. Ultimately the West must convince the governments which field smaller navies that they stand to gain from the status quo rather than throwing in their lot with China or another rising power. This will require economic investment in regions like the Indian Ocean as well as military partnerships with host governments. These partnerships can involve joint training as well anti-piracy or anti-submarine exercises.

These three measures will not be cheap or instantaneous and so would require firm political commitment to see through, but as with any sound investment, their dividend will be clear in time.

It is clear then that small and intermediate navies are becoming more capable, and the cuts to larger, more established navies will only magnify their role to play, whether for good or ill. As they become better-able to project force, their flexibility and relevance will expand internationally; handled correctly, western navies can pursue this as a chance to offset recent cutbacks. The threats involved must nevertheless be taken seriously by potentially 'top-heavy' force such as the Royal Navy, where the loss of escort vessels will dramatically increase the risk to capital ships whose loss would derail British force projection.


Footnotes

[1] J. Pay, ‘Full Circle: The US Navy and Its Carriers, 1974-1993’, in G. Till (eds.), Seapower: Theory and Practice, (Ilford, 1994), pp.124-147, p.141.

[2] J. Pay, ‘Full Circle: The US Navy and Its Carriers, 1974-1993’, in G. Till (eds.), Seapower: Theory and Practice, (Ilford, 1994), pp.124-147, pp.141, 143.

[3] D. Kilcullen, Blood Year, (London, 2016), p.96

[4] Ibid, pp.173, 174.

[5] IISS, ‘Europe’, The Military Balance, (2016), pp.55-162, p.153

[6] S. Koh, ‘Emerging from obscurity: small navies and sea-launched land-attack cruise missiles’, Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India, 12 (2016), pp.46-57, p.47.

[7] Ibid, p.48

[8] Ibid, p.53

[9] S. Koh, ‘ ‘Best Little Navy in Southeast Asia’: The Case of the Republic of Singapore Navy’, in M. Mulqueen, D. Sanders and I. Speller (eds.) Small Navies, Strategy and Policy for Small Navies in War and Peace, (Surrey, 2014), pp.117-132, p. 127, 128

[10] Ibid, p.124.

[11] Ibid, p.128.

[12] N. Granhom, ‘A Small Navy in a Changing World: The Case of the Royal Swedish Navy’, in, Small Navies, pp. 167-184, pp. 175, 176.

[13] Ibid, p.184; E. Groll, ‘The Swedish Navy Is Hunting a Russian Submarine and Doesn’t Have the Tools For It’, Foreign Policy, (2014), http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/10/20/the-swedish-navy-is-hunting-a-russian-submarine-and-doesnt-have-the-tools-for-it/ (Accessed: 19th August 2016)

[14] IISS, ‘Europe’, The Military Balance, pp. 61, 89

[15] W. Wheeler, ‘More Than the Navy’s Numbers Could Be Sinking’, Time, (2012), http://nation.time.com/2012/12/04/more-than-the-navys-numbers-could-be-sinking/, (Accessed 19th August 2016)

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid; M. Hickley, ‘ The Uninvited Guest: Chinese sub pops up in middle of U.S. Navy exercise, leaving military chiefs red-faced’, The Daily Mail, (2007), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-492804/The-uninvited-guest-Chinese-sub-pops-middle-U-S-Navy-exercise-leaving-military-chiefs-red-faced.html, (Accessed 19th August 2016)

[18] S. Koh, ‘Emerging from obscurity: small navies and sea-launched land-attack cruise missiles’, Maritime Affairs, p.46; D. Kilcullen, Blood Year, p.188.

[19] S. Koh, ‘Emerging from obscurity: small navies and sea-launched land-attack cruise missiles’, Maritime Affairs, p.53.

[20] D. Berlin, ‘Sea power, land power and the Indian Ocean’, Journal of the Indian Ocean, 6 (2010), pp.52-66, p. 56

[21] Ibid, pp. 63, 64.

[22] D. Brewster, ‘Beyond the ‘String of Pearls’: is there really a Sino-Indian security dilemma in the Indian Ocean?’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 10 (2014), pp.133-149, p.141; J. Dixon, ‘From “Pearls” to “Arrows”: Rethinking the “String of Pearls” Theory of China’s Naval Ambitions’, Comparative Strategy, 33 (2014), pp 389-400, p. 395; T. Shugart, ‘China’s Artificial Islands are bigger (and a bigger deal) than you think’, (2016), http://warontherocks.com/2016/09/chinas-artificial-islands-are-bigger-and-a-bigger-deal-than-you-think/, (Accessed 25th September 2016)

[23] Brewster, ‘Beyond the ‘String of Pearls’’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, p.142

[24] Brewster, ‘Beyond the ‘String of Pearls’’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, p.142

[25] Ibid, pp.12-13

[26] Dixon, ‘From “Pearls” to “Arrows”: Rethinking the “String of Pearls” Theory’, Comparative Strategy, p. 392; K. Gurpreet, ‘China’s ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean and Its Security Implications’, Strategic Analysis, p.22.

[27] Dixon, ‘From “Pearls” to “Arrows”: Rethinking the “String of Pearls” Theory’, Comparative Strategy, p. 391.

[28] G. Zorpette, ‘Gulf Legacy: Emulating the Battlefield’, IEEE Spectrum, 28 (1991), pp. 36-39, p.36.

 

Bibliography

Berlin, D., ‘Sea power, land power and the Indian Ocean’, Journal of the Indian Ocean, 6 (2010), pp.52-66.

Brewster, D., ‘Beyond the ‘String of Pearls’: is there really a Sino-Indian security dilemma in the Indian Ocean?’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 10 (2014), pp.133-149.

Dixon, J., ‘From “Pearls” to “Arrows”: Rethinking the “String of Pearls” Theory of China’s Naval Ambitions’, Comparative Strategy, 33 (2014), pp 389-400.

Granhom, N., ‘A Small Navy in a Changing World: The Case of the Royal Swedish Navy’, in Mulqueen, M., Sanders, D., and Speller, I., (eds.) Small Navies, Strategy and Policy for Small Navies in War and Peace, (Surrey, 2014), pp. 167-184.

Groll, E., ‘The Swedish Navy Is Hunting a Russian Submarine and Doesn’t Have the Tools For It’, Foreign Policy, (2014), http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/10/20/the-swedish-navy-is-hunting-a-russian-submarine-and-doesnt-have-the-tools-for-it/ (Accessed: 19th August 2016)

Gurpreet, K., ‘China’s ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean and Its Security Implications’, Strategic Analysis, 32 (2008), pp. 1-39.

Hickley, M., ‘ The Uninvited Guest: Chinese sub pops up in middle of U.S. Navy exercise, leaving military chiefs red-faced’, The Daily Mail, (2007), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-492804/The-uninvited-guest-Chinese-sub-pops-middle-U-S-Navy-exercise-leaving-military-chiefs-red-faced.html, (Accessed 19th August 2016)

IISS, ‘Europe’, The Military Balance, (2016), pp.55-162.

Kilcullen, D., Blood Year, (London, 2016).

Koh, S., ‘ ‘Best Little Navy in Southeast Asia’: The Case of the Republic of Singapore Navy’, in Mulqueen, M., Sanders, D., and Speller, I., (eds.) Small Navies, Strategy and Policy for Small Navies in War and Peace, (Surrey, 2014), pp.117-132.

Koh, S., ‘Emerging from obscurity: small navies and sea-launched land-attack cruise missiles’, Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India, 12 (2016), pp.46-57.
Pay, J., ‘Full Circle: The US Navy and Its Carriers, 1974-1993’, in G. Till (eds.), Seapower: Theory and Practice, (Ilford, 1994), pp.124-147.

Shugart, T., ‘China’s Artificial Islands are bigger (and a bigger deal) than you think’, (2016), http://warontherocks.com/2016/09/chinas-artificial-islands-are-bigger-and-a-bigger-deal-than-you-think/, (Accessed 25th September 2016)

Wheeler, W., ‘More Than the Navy’s Numbers Could Be Sinking’, Time, (2012), http://nation.time.com/2012/12/04/more-than-the-navys-numbers-could-be-sinking/, (Accessed 19th August 2016)

Zorpette, G., ‘Gulf Legacy: Emulating the Battlefield’, IEEE Spectrum, 28 (1991), pp. 36-39.




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