Friday, February 8, 2019

Ruling the waves..?

Rob Farley has a post up at the National Interest discussing the current expansion of the PRC's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), comparing that to the Great Power navies of the past century.
He asks whether the PLAN can succeed in advancing the PRC's geopolitical ends compared to the Imperial German, Russian (and Soviet), Imperial Japanese, and United States navies.

It's not a bad little article, but I think it asks the wrong question.

I'd start, rather, with the question "Does (fill in the blank nation) need a blue-water navy?"

Two of the four examples Farley picks - Germany and Russia/the Soviet Union - were primarily continental powers and as such the answer seems obviously "No".

As such their fleets were superfluous at best and, for Germany, disastrous at worst; dragging Wilhelmine Germany into a naval arms race with Great Britain that diverted resources that the Reich could have put to better use.

The "good cases" would seem to be the maritime empires, Japan and the U.S.; both depend on overseas trade, both are isolated by oceans, at least partially in the case of the U.S., both had, or have, imperial ambitions.

Oddly, Farley chooses to ignore two other great maritime empires.

The "success" is, obviously, the British. Britain obviously needed a blue-water navy, and, in general, did pretty well with it. Unsurprisingly that naval power disappeared with the Empire, but it had a hell of a good 400-odd-year run.

Spain, on the other hand, needed a fleet but always seemed to find its ambitions were greater than its capabilities.

Someday I should really find a good Spanish naval history to understand why the Dons never managed to figure out what the British seemed to manage so effortlessly. Whatever the reason, lacking a fleet capable of long-range power projection surely helped doom the Spanish colonial empire, whether from foreign enemies like the U.S. or from colonial revolt.

Looking at the historical examples, and the current geopolitical needs of China, I can't really see how putting time, money, and effort into a big fleet helps them.

Anyone willing to take the counterpoint?

Let's discuss.


  1. USA Percent of exports to GDP in 2016 - 12%
    China Percent of exports to GDP in 2016 - 19%

    China is buying / has bought up a shit tonne of assets in the third world.

    China's Sea Road initiative.

    China's ambition to be the dominant player of the 21st century, displacing the USA from to top of the greasy pole.

    1. Here's my question, though; how does a blue water navy help them do that? Or, more specifically, how does a big, carrier-centric, USN-style navy help them do that as opposed to, say, a force built around submarines and land-based aircraft?

      Mike's point about the West Pacific/China Sea area seems to point out that a PLAN strategy could be simply based around denial of the region to competitors. That doesn't seem to need a bunch of carrier task forces if you had a bunch of hardened island bases for aircraft and a combination of ballistic and submarine-launched missiles and torpedoes.

      I don't doubt that the PRC wants a big navy, because Great Powers have Big Navies. My question is; are the two naturally linked? Does a Great Power HAVE to have a big fleet? I'd argue that for the German and the Russian/Soviet the answer should have been NO; almost anything spent on navies that weren't designed to simply prevent an enemy fleet from farkling about off the German or Russian shore was wasted.

      The big maritime empires; British, Spanish, American, Japanese...those seem to make a better case.

      And yet, Spain's empire lasted some 300 years, with bits and pieces lingering into the 20th Century, while the Spanish fleet was never more than mediocre at best and downright disastrous at worst.

      So my "big picture" question isn't so much "does the PRC want a big navy?" as "does the PRC need a big navy?"

  2. Clout within the South and East China Seas is a must for them as they see it.

    As AEL alludes to they have become a commercial maritime power. It follows that their Navy will need to evolve from a littoral defense force into a blue water navy.

    Although I don't believe they will emulate the Imperial Japan model and expand into the Pacific. So perhaps not a threat to USN dominance of the Pacific. They seem to be following the Rule Brittania example but in reverse as you can see by the "string of pearls". They have sallied westward establishing port facilities one by one in Malaya, Indonesia, Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Oman, Djibouti, Somalia, Tanzania, & Mozambique. And have now matched that in the South Atlantic with eight additional ports on the west coast of Africa.

    Whether or not their becoming a blue water navy will be a success is another question.

    1. See my reply above. My question would be - why?

      Consider a single aspect of naval war; commerce raiding.

      The big navies (and the merchant fleets) of the last time a naval war involved attacking and defending maritime commerce were very different. As Sven points out below, the one successful anti-shipping naval campaign was the USN vs Imperial Japan, and that was very much skewed by the IJN's exceptionally poor ASW practices and the extreme vulnerability of the Japanese merchant fleet.

      Contrast the conditions of 1944 with 2024; merchant commerce has, like all our other industrial activities, become intensely concentrated. Instead of dozens of small tankers petroleum moves in a handful of immense ones. Instead of scads of small merchant ships goods move in a relatively small number of huge container ships.

      Better torpedoes, better missiles, better aircraft, better submarines...all of those combined with the smaller fleet of larger merchies make conditions really, really different.

      So...could even a big PLAN fleet successfully prevent a USN antishipping campaign from devastating Chinese sea lanes through the Indian Ocean? And why would the PLAN need to challenge the USN in the central Pacific...short of a general, global war between the US and the PRC (in which case...yike! All bets would be off)?

      So, again...I have no doubt that the rulers of the PRC would LIKE a big navy. But I think it's as much because the paradigm is "big power/big fleet". I wonder, it possible, in fact, would it be more practical, for the PRC to widen its global reach without a naval arms race?

      China seems very likely to be capable of expanding commercially without needing to expand much militarily. Construct a force capable of dealing with local issues, plus able to deter a peer foe by making an attack painful enough.

      It would seem to me that to attempt to emulate the IJN or the Imperial German models - build a fleet designed to take on the USN/RN in blue water - is both provocative and pointless; a general war with the US is not in China's interest any more than it was in Japan's or Germany's with Britain.

      It just seems to present more potential troubles than solutions.


    2. "Instead of dozens of small tankers petroleum moves in a handful of immense ones."

      I disagree. There are a gazillion of tankers, bulk freighters and container ships today.

      16,206 General Cargo ships
      318 Specialized Cargo ships
      5,202 Container ships
      1,493 Ro-Ro Cargo ships
      11,748 Bulk carriers
      13,431 Oil and Chemical carriers
      1,979 Gas tankers
      1,062 other tankers
      7,155 Passenger ships (though this may include inland sea ferries)

      37% of ships are small and have only 1% of total tonnage.

      I looked at these figures back when I wrote about the Italian navy and concluded that ASW was pointless for them since the entire submarine threat in the Med would likely amount to less than 50 torpedoes launched and the average cargo ship is worth no more than USD 100 million when new. It's cheaper and more economically sensible for the Mediterranean countries to not spend on ASW ships.
      Naval bureaucracies couldn't process that idea because their budget depends on their inefficiency.

    3. Interesting. The takeaway I get is that about 40% of the merchie hulls are little intramural haulers hardly worth the sinking; tramp steamers loafing around the Med, little junk-freighters doing the Hanoi-Manila-Pusan-Shanghai run, that sort of thing.

      So of the remaining 60% there's a bunch that will be completely uninvolved; EU and South American/Caribbean and African cargo ships plying the Atlantic, leaving, let's say about 20-30% that are Chinese and will be hauling petroleum out of the Gulf and minerals and other raw materials out of the subcontinent ports and across the Indian Ocean.

      And I suspect those might be terrifically vulnerable, regardless of the size and composition of the PLAN. As I noted below, I'm not sure that there's a way to protect them from modern attack subs and aircraft. Combine that with the obvious hesitance of flag-of-convenience shippers to get involved in a PRC naval war...I suspect that the possibility of a commerce-protection mission from a modern fleet must keep the PLAN staff up at nights...

  3. "dragging Wilhelmine Germany into a naval arms race with Great Britain that diverted resources that the Reich could have put to better use."

    That wasn't the problem. The stupid British obsession with balancing alliances out in Europe would have led them to ally with France anyway. The utterly useless and nonsensical entry of the U.S. into the war on the other hand was triggered mostly by submarines (built in wartime) and just a few more army corps as demanded by the armies but refused by the national parliament until 1912 could have led to Paris' fall in 1914.

    Overall, navies tend to achieve their mission for those countries that can be dominant at sea. There's very little utility in a surface fleet if it's inferior to hostile forces. Underdog navies can use submarines, but that makes sense mostly as a diversion effort. The only submarine campaign that ever came close to being decisive was the American one against Japan; the USN was the underdog in some waters and only dared to send subs there. The insufficient Japanese ASW, pre-war merchant fleet and wartime merchant ship production capacities were no match for an actually rather mediocre sub campaign effort. That was the easy mode.

    1. The British obsession with naval predominance played a big part in the turn towards an anti-Germany policy, though. And even if that played only a minor role in eventual Entente, it was a pointless one; you yourself have pointed out that German naval expenses are pointless; there's no reason the Germany has EVER really needed a blue-water fleet.

      (There was the imperial greed for colonies, but that was just as ridiculous, frankly).

      So it's not so much that the dreadnought race was a critical piece of European geopolitics, but that it was an exceptionally useless one for Germany.

    2. It's even worse than that. Battleships were a pointless concept by the time the Great War broke out:

      Raiding cruisers on the other hand had gotten into trouble because of wireless telegraphs.

    3. Combined with the raider's dependence on coaling stations (or capturing prizes to coal from).

      Today's satellite surveillance seems to make surface raiding impossible. Submarine campaigns, though...

  4. @Sven - " actually rather mediocre sub campaign effort."

    When World War II started in September 1939, Germany already had 65 U-boats ready for war. And they had a two year head start on the subs of COMSUBPAC. That extra two years allowed them to rack up their impressive record of sinking 2,825 merchant ships and 175 warships. As compared to the COMSUBPAC record of 1,300 Marus and 200 IJN warships.

    But you are right that the US effort should have done better. Most US submariners chalked that up to:
    - M14 torpedo issues not solved til 43;
    - Obsolete S-class boats early in the war;
    - Beaucoup missions other than hunting i.e. transporting special forces and guerrillas, other taxi service a la MacArthur's trip from Corregidor to Austrlia, search and rescue, screening surface task forces, SSR radar pickets, etc;
    - Divided command between Nimitz and Mac;
    - and probably early on lack of aggression and/or training.

    1. I was mostly aiming at the quantity of subs the U.S. employed (77 Gato and 120 Balao were built, but not all of them during WW2) and the modest determination shown by limiting commanders' careers to a mere four patrols.

      The German effort was huge by comparison with 703 Typ VII and 194 Typ IX submarines alone (though not so much in submarine tonnage), but it faced such merchant marine stocks and production capacities that it failed to achieve much more than a diversion of resources.

    2. Sven -

      The admirals in the Navy Department mostly surface warfare sailors. They had US shipyards focused on building destroyers for the Battle of the Atlantic, amphibs, and Liberty Ships. They seemed to have grudgingly put in orders for subs and aircraft carriers both the big boys and the baby carriers.

      Four patrols was to bring home the lessons learned and use those commanders to train newbies. Something similar was done for aviators. But it did not hold true for the crews. Although according to several accounts they did treat the crews like royalty in between patrols booking entire Waikiki hotels for them, and overlooking many drunken brawls. Although the hotels were probably glad to get the business as the tourists dried up after 12/7/41.

  5. "Instead of dozens of small tankers petroleum moves in a handful of immense ones."
    All the more important to protect them. Modern supertankers can transport 2M barrels of crude as opposed to the typical 90K barrels back in the 40s. Similar stats for container ships and bulk carriers perhaps. So yes you may need fewer ASW escorts, but you might need and entire task force just to escort a single VLCC tanker.

    "could even a big PLAN fleet successfully prevent a USN antishipping campaign from devastating Chinese sea lanes through the Indian Ocean?"
    Not now, no. But in 2034, or 2044 perhaps.

    "why would the PLAN need to challenge the USN in the central Pacific."
    My point above was that they would NOT be a threat to USN dominance of the Pacific. My meaning was that they would not challenge the USN there.

    "That doesn't seem to need a bunch of carrier task forces if you had a bunch of hardened island bases for aircraft and a combination of ballistic and submarine-launched missiles and torpedoes."
    A fleet of ballistic and guided missile submarines is in fact a blue water navy IMHO. These are NOT littoral subs similar to the Iranian Ghadir and NK Sang-O, or the Soviet's Red Fleet subs in the WW2 Baltic. Maybe your question should be does the PLAN need eleven Carrier Strike Groups, and not whether they need a blue water navy? The terms are not synonymous.

    Lastly there is no comparison of the PLAN with the German and Imperial Russian (or early Soviet) navies. The latter were never going to be naval powers just because of their limited access to the sea. China with her 9,000 miles of coastline has no such disadvantage. Per Wiki she has 34 major seaports and more than 2,000 minor ports, few if any of them have significant ice problems like Murmansk or Vlad. And few if any have restricted access like the Black Sea or the Baltic.

    1. Good point on the problems inherent on German and Russian access to the open sea.

      I’m still intrigued by the potential difficulties of a PLAN anti-commerce-raiding scheme. Could convoying the merchies still work? Even in do you protect the thin-skinned monsters from missles and guided torpedoes? Seems like a huge ask.

    2. Thing is, I’m not sure anyone has tried the “subs as capital ships” model for an ocean-control navy. I’m not sure how that would match up against a USN carrier-centric force. Obviously the US thinks it’s ASW is good enough to win, and I havent stayed current enough to know if that’s true. Hmmm.

    3. "subs as capital ships for an ocean control navy"?

      Combined arms is not just limited to land warfare. Irrational to depend on just a single type of hull in any navy, blue water or not. The USN is not now nor has never been dependent on Carrier Task Groups only despite the hype of the jet jockeys.

    4. The problem for a "subs as capital ships" is that subs need to find targets, which means they are most effective when queued by other intel/recon sources in open waters.

  6. Interesting. Any idea how many are PRC flagged? And that actually raises another question; how would the flag-of-convenience system that has dominated for the past 40 years or so affect a commerce raiding campaign? Could an enemy strangle Chinese maritime trade by simply threatening traffic in and out of Chinese ports to the point where neutral flags refuse to sail into Shanghai or Guangdong? That would make for a tough choice for the shipowners...

    1. Warring great powers offer insurances to civilian shipping lines to motivate them. The Filipino crews would probably be easily motivated with money and one (alcohol-tolerant) catholic chaplain per ship as well.

    2. But their owners might not be so sanguine. Within days the PRC might have to rely overwhelmingly on Chinese-flagged hulls...

    3. Japan grabbed a couple million tons worth of cargo ships in 1941. China could grab all foreign cargo ships that are close to its ports or in it sports as well.

  7. "Could convoying the merchies still work?"

    Great question. It would be tough. And it would take more than ASW with the current advances in over-the-horizon targeting by missiles.

    Even the ASW would be stretched to the limit by torpedo advances. Current range for USN torpedoes (Mk-48 ADCAP) is said to be 50 kilometers as opposed to the WW2 max range 8,000 meters. There have also been an improvement in speed. And there has been a quantum leap in both acoustics and guidance & control systems. Plus now they are looking for longer range with the Torpedo Advanced Propulsion System or TAPS.

    1. Submarines of 1940 were capable of hearing a convoy well beyond the horizon.
      We can safely regard it as unrealistic to expect convoy escorts to defeat a submarine before it can unleash an anti-ship missile salvo even without external targeting info.

      The torpedo range record is well beyond 100 km. Submarines could send a torpedo out to move to a distant strait, lay there in wait for days or weeks until it engages a target in a sprint. The ingredients were all published already, and it may in fact be available as a software mode with modern electric torpedoes.

      ASW can counter the classic submarine attack with torpedo at a distance where the sub has really good targeting info (at least when low frequency active sonar is available), but anti-submarine convoying may very well be a combination of MCM in straits (and in front of ports) and AAW against incoming missiles in 'blue waters'.

      We could think of submarines as a substitute for bombers - they could be used where bombers would not survive or reach, and defence against those subs would be very similar to defence against bombers; defenders would have to defeat the threat munitions.

      I actually wrote at great length about these things in my warship series a year ago.

    2. True.

      But modern ASW has not been sleeping: sub-vs-sub combat, newer seabed SOSUS-type sensors, satellite wake detection, thermal detection, anti-sub torpedoes, stand-off OTH ASW missiles, anti-submarine UAVs/USVs/UUVs, to name a few.

    3. The West doesn't really have any stand-off OTH ASW missiles. VL ASROC was produced in some numbers (not terribly many), and is conceptually unsatisfactory and quite short-ranged. Anti-sub torpedoes are 1960's concepts already - anti-torpedo torpedoes are rather new, but not in widespread use.
      Subs were able to fight each other for real since the 60's or so, but nowadays they cannot hear each other any more becuase modern subs are too silent. They cannot search actively without giving up all their stealth, either.
      Drones are not really in operational ASW use.

      Satellite wake detection and thermal detection (the latter is even in theory limited to nuclear subs that are close enough to the surface for VLF reception) are highly questionable approaches. That stuff likely belongs to the "works in the laboratory only" category, same as sub search with lasers.
      SOSUS is passive and thus of little relevance to modern subs unless they were hit by some active sonar sweep (and then they should be picked up by other sonars before SOSUS does) or careless enough to cruise quick (not an issue with conventional subs).

    4. Sven -

      Yes SOSUS is passive but it is not yet useless. Every navy is "trying" to quiet their submarines. The Russians and Chinese have done great work there but have not caught up yet. The Chinese Yuan class diesel-electric sub with air-independent-propulsion (AIP) is the one that the USN fears most because of its quietness. But even though it has AIP it still has to come up for air now and then (two weeks?). Much of SOSUS has been dismantled but that was because they found they did not need multiple arrays. And as you mention they are being upgraded. As is SURTASS and various towed arrays for subs and destroyers. Not as good against modern diesels it is true. But those still have to stick up a snorkel periodically.

      You are right about thermal detection being limited to nukes close to the surface. How close I don't know. What is the VLF reception you mention? I understood the thermal sensors were reacting to the transfer of heat to surrounding seawater?

      Satellite wake detection has been around for over 40 years. Civilian researchers have even done it with SPOT5 commercial earth observation satellite. Sure it would probably never find deep subs, and even somewhat shallower ones might present problems in storms with high sea clutter.

      The USN created UUVRON-1, its first underwater drone unit two years ago. Prior to that they had a smaller detachment of operational UUVs working with a Submarine Development Squadron, DEVRON-5.

      The USN Sea Hunter, an operational USV, just sailed from San Diego to Pearl Harbor without a crew for nav and steering. The Navy developed it primarily for anti-submarine warfare but are now realizing many other applications - EW platform? Decoy?

      Anti-sub torpedoes may be 1960's concepts but new ones and/or upgrades have come out recently: French F21 last year. Latest Mk-48 upgrade (ADCAP) came out in 2007 and new upgrades for better ASW are being conducted now. Even the Mk-54 MAKO a dedicated ASW torpedo is only 15 years old.

      VL ASROC is or can be employed by any Ticonderoga Class Cruisers, or Spruance Class & Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers. It is true that the 1990s version of vertical launch ASROC has only an unclassified 22 kilometer range, which is by no means considered OTH. Combine that with the MK-54 torpedo warhead and the range is well past an OTH envelope. Am I splitting hairs?

      While not really a missile, the P-6 Poseidon has tested ALA glide kits on Mk-54 ASW torpedoes for the past two years. Kind of like an extended range JDAM kit on steroids. The Navy awarded a full production contract last month. This gives P-8s an OTH capability when they launch from high altitude.

    5. Very logn frequency radio waves can penetrate the seas to a couple dozen metres depth, enabling large land-based radio emitters to transmit usable amounts of info to submarines thousands of kilometres away. Extremely long frequencies penetrate the sea deeper, but their bandwidth is so small that they can only transmit a code which sub has to be ready to receive a VLF message soon.

      So a nuclear submarine at depth for VLF reception (and not using a long antenna floating at that depth, while the sub is lower) could be close enough to the surface that its thermal energy output into the sea could be detectable on the surface.

      Wake detection is an ages-old mine fusing mechanism. It worked for mines only if the mine was really close and the ship created a powerful wave with its cross section and speed.
      Small AIP subs (SSI) do cruise (linger) at 4 kts or so, and leave almost certainly too little a wave to be detected by aircraft (much less satellites). Wave detection is more a thing for transiting (20+ kts) SSNs or snorkeling SSKs. It's certainly the first thing to look at when trying to detect surface ships (their wake is more easily visible than the ship, especially when they have reduced radar signature).

      Sea Hunter is at most comparable to the Soviet "fishing boats" that kept "fishing" close to NATO warships. It's nothing but an easy target in wartime and not equipped with an actual ASW suite.

      UUVs are to my knowledge nowhere near operational. Feel free to point at evidence to the contrary.

      Mk-54 is only partially 15 years old. It has the Mk 46's propulsion unit, which is crap. Hundreds of VL ASROC in service (probably about half of the inventory) use the very likely utterly useless Mk.46 LWT as warhead. Only the C model has the Mk-54, and that one has a greater detection range, but no significantly greater movement range than a Mk.46.

      I wrote many times that ASW-SOW (Sea Lance) should have been developed with Mk.50 LWT warhead.

      BTW, ASROC had the design deficiency that it was ballistic; it did not allow for corrections based on sonar data processed during the flight. This and the small detection footprint of the Mk.46 made a hit against deep-diving high speed submarines very unlikely. Patterns of multiple ASROCs would have been necessary. The high false contact rate of submarine detection by sonar made that impractical.

      VL ASROC is disclosed as using INS (inertial navigation autopilot), without any published info about whether it has a data downlink. It may very well still have the shortcoming. The somewhat improved Mk.54 (VL ASROC C-series only) sonar detects subs at a greater distance than the Mk.46, but the proliferation of anechoic tiles on large submarines may keep the lack of a datalink a relevant flaw.

      Overall, from what's publicly known, naval munitions are mostly very unsatisfactory. This also applies to the ultra-belated introduction of active radar seekers in naval air defences and the 30+ years break in Western anti-ship missiles development. There might also be another Tigerfish story somewhere or two.

    6. Sven -

      I think Russia still has an ELF system which is not depth limited in salt water like VLF. The US shut theirs down a while ago.

      Their have lately been some SatComm systems that submarines do not have to be surfaced for reception. But depth is probably a limitation like it is for VLF.

  8. "how many are PRC flagged?"

    From the below link, it would appear they are leaders in the field:

  9. S0...let's get back to the question; DOES a true "blue-water" navy really help the PRC, or is it, like the Russian and German ones, more of a nuisance than a help?

    Or is the PRC like Spain, able to maintain a maritime empire (of sorts, in China's case, simply ensuring their goods can go out and come in) without having to have a dominant navy?

    1. The USN is a land attack navy. China couldn't win a war (or deter one) by playing defence only.

      It's somewhat reasonable to deter war by threatening more than just the destruction of attacking military forces.
      The ability to conquer Taiwan and South Korea without surprise and to destroy Japan's electrical power plant turbine rooms is probably not enough deterrence if Americans keep electing morons to White House and Congress.

      About their nuclear deterrence:
      The old DF-5 ICBMs are vulnerable to first strike.
      SLBMs (in SSBNs, do I use too many stupid abbreviations?) are vulnerable as long as Chinese SSBN/SSB tech isn't stealthy enough.
      Only about a dozen mobile DF-31A ICBMs exist, DF-31 could only reach Seattle, Anchorage, Honolulu according to public info.
      So Chinese nuclear deterrence is relatively weak. This was fine when facing people like Clinton, but may prove insufficient if the U.S. keeps having morons as president.

    2. I'd say the USN is a land attack navy mainly because it simply hasn't had a genuine blue-water peer foe in a longtime. It still has the capacity to contest an open-ocean war, yes?

      The scenarios you posit; threatening Taiwan, the ROK, and Japan, seem do-able with a relatively large "coastal defense navy", though. No real need to sortie out into the central Pacific or Indian Ocean for those. Would a globe-bestriding PRC need to do that, to be the first-rate superpower it might aspire to be? Could it gain that sort of oomph by dominating eastern Eurasia and the SW Pacific littoral?

      And I agree that a lot of the sort of strategic thinking that might go into PRC naval planning is more-or-less void in the orange-face of Trumps. The GOP has clearly ceded whatever they had for geopolitical ideas outside of the Ledeen Doctrine to Trump, settling for nibbling the rough edges off whatever greedy stupidity he lights on. If the GOP is not destroyed in the near future it's fairly inevitable that it will throw out more of these angry, bigoted, short-sighted rubes; that's what their "base" wants, and that's the only hope they have for electoral victory - surprise! Nobody REALLY wants "small government" and "economic conservatism". They want to hurt the darkies and not pay taxes but still have a Big Stick to beat the furriners.

      I have NO idea how the hell you actually strategize against that level of Stupid. Hell, I have no idea how you govern with it.

    3. It's simple, UBL already showed how to do it. Kick them, then watch how they crazily hurt themselves for a decade or more.

      Imagine what would happen if Prince Bonesaw commissioned a hacking of the electrical grid in the U.S. that causes a recession with blackouts, and lays fake traces to North Korea.
      Seoul, Honolulu and Tokyo might get partially blown up in the process, and the U.S. would add another three trillion or so to public debt.

      The one part that UBL got wrong was the lack of misattribution. He could have laid the blame on the Saudis. Instead, the idiotic neocons did the misattribution for him, with three trillion $ consequences.

    4. Problem with that is you end up with a lot of resentment and anger from the blown-up places, but the US is still way the hell up on the descending branch of its trajectory. That's the problem with my country; it started out so damn "overpowered" (as my kid calls his videogame characters) that even the worst self-inflicted wounds are not enough of a shock to the system to knock sense into it.

      For all we here complain about the pointlessness and stupidity of most of the U.S.'s post-ww2 overseas adventures the domestic political cost to those involved in making those mistakes almost never pay for them. You'll notice who is sleeping with the fishes and who is painting crappy pictures in his cozy retirement?


      So it's a good trope...but at the moment three trillion is still walking-around money. Further down the slope of imperial decline, maybe not. But right now? I don't see how that really works.

  10. Definitely not a nuisance. I guess it depends on what you consider to be a "true" blue water navy. They need something of the sort to face what they fear as possible aggression from us or some form of lesser aggression from others, India? Aussies? Indonesia? Japan? the Philippines?

    Regarding Spain, I too would like to find a good Spanish naval history. According to Wiki they were initially never as bad as portrayed. Before Spain's unification Aragon conquered "the largest collection of territories of any European power in the Mediterranean, encompassing the Balearics, Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy and, briefly, the Duchy of Athens. " But then many of the coastal people in Aragon were descendants of the Phoenicians. Castile in dealing trade with the low countries turned the the English Channel into a “Spanish Channel". And in 1375 a Castilian fleet "destroyed a large English fleet at Bourgneuf, and Castilian ships raided the English coast."

    The Armada was probably the breaking point. Took the heart out of their naval dreams. But I suspect we just hear the Sassenach version of naval history. Unfortunate. We tend to forget about Lepanto. And Magellan's circumnavigation of the world would not be matched by England until over 50 years later.

    The naval battles of the Spanish-American War were so one-sided probably because of the internal struggles in Spain in the 19th Century. The Carlist Wars and the glorious Revolution deposing Isabella II.

    1. Spanish naval power was broken for good in the Napoleonic Wars when it was partially consumed by Napoleon's efforts (including Trafalgar). The loss of almost all Latin American colonies in 1815 weakened the Spanish treasury to the point that Spain was no great power any more.

    2. Hmm.

      Not sure I buy the Armada as the breakpoint; the Dons did relatively well against the Brits in the latter part of the 16th Century. But the Spanish are described as being fairly rotten BY the late 1700s, so I wonder if the overall decline of the Spanish imperium in the 17th and 18th Centuries caused by the idiot Hapsburg insistence in getting stuck into every boneheaded European religious war didn't have the effect of helping to drain the treasury and exhaust the country, including the traditional sources of naval manpower and resources.

      The loss of the western hemisphere does seem to be pretty critical. Spain in 1805 could afford a big battleship fleet; Spain by 1850 or so is struggling to rebuild in the sail-and-steam era, and by 1890 it's pretty much clapped out.

      The big question I'd still have is about the people involved. The USN was pretty damn dire in the period 1820-1880, but the US still produced some outstanding naval officers and naval strategists. Likewise the British went through some pretty sterile periods, but still managed to throw out enough first-rate officers and managers. Why was Spain the exception? What happened to make the Spanish admiralty so lame? Or was it ALWAYS lame, and just had a run of good luck early on?

      Like I say, I've really got to find a good historical work about Spanish naval power...

    3. Frankly, the Americans overrate their historical generals and admirals (and all of their military theorists). This includes naval officers of the 19th century.

    4. ??? Most of the USN for most of the 19th Century was a dumpster fire, and I think most historians emphasize that; top-heavy with senility from rigid seniority rules, plus political appointments...the USN was mess. Still, it DID throw out a handful of fairly decent flag officers.

      Spain..? Not so much. Not at ALL, actually.

  11. Sven -

    Good points on Spanish naval power and also on Chinese deterrence.

    As for the state of ASW, I realize that the West neglected ASW research after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But I do not see as dismal a picture as you do. We will have to agree to disagree.

    Tigerfish story? Are you referring to its failures in the Falklands? What is your opinion on the Spearfish and the latest mods to the German Seehecht?

    1. Well, ASW is as dismal as the submarine threat...

    2. There was a fictional USS Tigerfish in the movie version of Ice Station Zebra...

  12. My other thought - re: Sven’s reminder that there’s no “strategy” that can anticipate the randomness of a Trump-grade moron - would be that the PRC might be better off building a “non-traditional” ( i.e. non-carrier-centric) fleet. The chances of triggering a Trumpist freak out might be reduced. Trump “gets” carriers; they’re in movies an’ shit. His dumbfuck Fox And Friends advisors “get” them. Build carriers and you poke the bear. But a different approach..? Might work and still not elicit the same level of Trumpkin reaction...

  13. "USN was pretty damn dire in the period 1820-1880," Spoken like a true soldier. I recommend you read 'DIVIDED WATERS' by Ivan Musicant instead of trying to decipher naval historical tomes in Madrid.

    Without Flag Officer Andy Foote's Western Gunboat Flotilla at Fort Henry then Grant would have beat feet back to Cairo and perhaps never have gotten a higher command.

    Without the James River Flotilla then Lee would have totally destroyed Little Mac's Army of the Potomac during the Seven Pines Battles of the Peninsular Campaign.

    Without Rear Admiral Porter's gunboats and amphibious ops at Vicksburg that bastion would never have fallen.

    Without the blockade, without Farragut taking New Orleans, without Rear Admiral Porter and his Riverboat Sailors cutting the Confederacy in half, then Bobby Lee's surrender may have never happened. But I will concede that the Navy followed the strategic advice of an old Army man with the "Great Snake Strategy". Lincoln should have listened more to Scott who wanted to use the blockade alone to bring the south back into the union. But Lincoln decided to go with blockade PLUS invasion of the south and we ended up with 600K dead and over 1.6M total casualties.

    The above are just a few of the major contributions of the Navy. Without them and others Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman would have been floundering around until 1868 or longer. Or maybe the northern public would have gotten battle weary and given up the fight and we would have an independent CSA to this day.

    1. Well, it didn't hurt that the CSA was effectively navy-less. The USN simply had to exist. The blockade was pretty much a walkover. Several individual ship actions to the contrary,however, the CSN commerce raiders were remarkably effective, given that their numbers barely ever reached into double figures at any one time.

      My understanding is that the wartime expansion was a disaster; many of the ships outside the river monitor classes commissioned between '61 and '65 had serious design or construction flaws, or both, and had to be broken up soon after 1866.

      The river monitor fleets were effectively an army-navy; their operations were (sensibly) directed by the commander of the army they were supporting.

      That said...the USN won, and that pays all debts.

      Now...that said, the state of the Navy between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of the Civil War was pretty notional. The operations during the Mexican War were the Civil War writ small. There may have been some decent individual officers, but the USN as a force was fairly risible by Great Power standards.

      And between 1865 and 1885 the USN really WAS a dumpster fire. The physical plant of the fleet was neglected badly and the officer corps was notorious for incapacity, worse even than the Army. It wasn't until the end of the century that the USN had dragged back up to the level of the peer foes.

      And I'll be the first one to admit that the U.S. Army was 1) pathetic between 1815 and 1861, 2) undersized and poorly led between 1865 and 1917, and (in general) poorly trained and poorly led between 1917 and 1942. Since then we haven't exactly covered ourselves in glory, either; the George Marshalls and Matt Ridgeways are typically grossly outnumbered by the Fredendalls and Westmorelands.

    2. What irritated me a lot was the writing of the military theory "stars" of America.
      MacGregor, Poole, Warden, Hughes, Vandergriff and whomever I forgot now - all of them are utterly unimpressive. I was told that much of what they proposed or write about was concerning specific American deficiencies that I did not understand - becuase they don't exist like that in Germany, UK, France.

      Leonhard is the only impressive American military theory writer of late IMO, and he's no celebrity author.

  14. "a walkover" The Union blockade of the South was the largest ever attempted in world history at that time. 3500 miles of coastline, much of it double due to the barrier islands, plus 180 ports and thousands of inlets. The Union Navy at the start of hostilities had just 35 warships that were combat capable. And yet in just four years they captured 1,149 ships trying to run the blockade and destroyed 355, of the 1504 total 295 were steamers. Not any State has ever conducted such an effective blockade.

    "CSN commerce raiders were remarkably effective" That reputation rests solely on a single ship, the CSS Alabama who took over 60 prizes. But the majority of those were whalers or small traders, and those were just a pinprick in the North's commerce. Built in England she never went into a southern port, always replenishing stores and gunpowder in so-called neutral ports. The Alabama met her end at the Battle of Cherbourg; it was her poor gunnery that defeated her and made her Captain raise the white flag.

    "wartime expansion a disaster" Well, of course. The Union Navy grew to over 600 ships in just four short years, an increase of well over 1000 percent. Many were chartered or outright bought from commercial shipping companies and then armed and put immediately into service. The ones built specifically for the Navy between 61 and 65 were sure to have been rushed precipitously down the slipways. With the shipwrights yelling wait, wait, we haven't yet bucked down all the portside rivets. They were stamped out like tin whistles. Ironclads were new. Galvanic corrosion was not widely understood at the time, not even in the British and French Navies.

    "operations were (sensibly) directed by the commander of the army" Operations were typically on a completely cooperative basis between the local army and navy commanders. The principle of naval command afloat and army command once ashore was put into doctrine during that war.

  15. What Americans routinely forget when they talk about accomplishments or officer qualities during the ACW is that Americans fought Americans there.

    Remember how the Iraqi army looked daunting when it was fighting the Iranians?

  16. Great and interesting post.

    I'm not current on my Chinese naval strategy knowledge, but these are the main factors behind Chinese thinking:

    1. Nationalism/great power/prestige. The Chinese think it's their time, that this is their century. Prestige demands the ability to project power, show the flag and exercise gunboat diplomacy.

    2. Taiwan, the SCS and the limited utility of a littoral force. China conspicuously has not taken war off the table to regain control over China. Therefore, they need the credible ability to carry out that threat. And they must also plan for a US intervention. It's no surprise that the Chinese are specifically building military capabilities designed to fight the USA, especially in the sea, air and cyber domains. A littoral naval force is, IMO, inadequate to this task. A blue-water force is necessary to accomplish two things:

    - Protect the Taiwan invasion oparea from US naval forces for long enough to secure the Island
    - Deter the US from coming to Taiwan's defense.
    - In the event of a war, be able to attrit US naval forces enough to secure the Chinese littoral permanently.

    The problem is that a littoral naval force cannot protect littoral waters from the US Navy with our long-range strike capability. The major tactical problem (besides submarines, a huge issue for all modern fleets) is over-the-horizon targeting. The Chinese have weapons systems that can engage US naval forces from long distances, but they lack the ability to employ them effectively due to inadequate ISR capabilities. Additionally, a blue-water force expands their defensive bubble and allows, in theory at least, the Chinese to operate unmolested (ie. sea control) in their littoral waters.

    In some ways the combined effects of long-range precision strike weapons and air power are mirrored for sea warfare as they are for conventional land warfare. Littoral-focused navies simply cannot compete - they don't have the ISR and deep strike options necessary to detect and engage a mobile blue-water fleet yet they remain vulnerable to strikes either underway or in port.

    The alternative for the Chinese is a submarine-focused strategy, similar to what the Soviets planned for. But the Soviets mainly wanted to stop US reinforcement and supply to the European theater, I think Chinese intentions are much bigger.

    1. Oh jeez I should have proofread.

      "China conspicuously has not taken war off the table to regain control over China" - that last China should obviously be replaced with Taiwan.