Naval forces of great powers

Historical navalism, “navigare necesse est”

One of the America’s greatest military strategists, Alfred Thayer Mahan, in his book “The Influence of Sea Power upon History” about a hundred years ago, saw the value of world oceans and activity there as the foundation for national greatness and power. The pivot of this greatness was a powerful navy. The theory of Navalism reached the US administration later in the 19th century and all other major powers at that time, Great Britain, Japan, Germany, Russia.

As a central postulate of Navalism – large, expensive fleets became the main force which embodied both national prestige and safety for the trade of the nation which possessed them. The era of battleships and cruisers was followed by the era of submarines. The doctrine of the Shipping Lanes of Communications (SLOC) and maritime Choke Points became defined factors in Western strategic thinking of the 20th Century during WW I and especially during WW II.

When entering the 21st century, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US Navy lost its only modern peer the Soviet Navy. Up to now, the US Navy has reigned supreme over the vast spaces of the world oceans, thus controlling the world’s maritime trade which amounts to almost 90 percent of all global trade. However, winds of change have begun to blow on the world’s oceans where “navigare necesse est”.

Overview of the present posture 2020

Summary statistics of warships by great powers, in the beginning of 2021 (source: GFP)

The US Naval forces

Structure of the Naval Forces

The US Naval Forces consist of three services: US Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

The chief of naval operations presides over the Navy Staff, formally known as the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV), which is one of the three headquarters staffs in Department of the Navy mainly based at the Pentagon. Total amount of naval personnel is about 330.000.

The United States Navy currently has seven active numbered fleets. Various other fleets have existed but are not currently active. These active fleets are:

US naval strategies

The 2007 naval strategy titled “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” focused on preventing wars rather than winning wars. The confidence of the US in maintaining the international order was high at that time. The strategy considers a major conflict between the great powers as a remote possibility and does not mention any state’s name in this context. The next strategy, published in 2015, signals significant changes in global politics in the past eight years. The concept of forward naval presence constitutes the core of the strategy. The topic of geopolitical challenges was in the form of geopolitical risks by region. Partnerships and alliances played an important role in this strategy. The 2015 strategy mentioned China as an important stakeholder that accommodates both opportunities and challenges. Russia was mentioned once but this issue was openly delegated to NATO.

The new US naval strategy titled “Advantage at Sea” (December 2020) is a document prepared jointly by the three naval services (Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) as was the case of the previous two strategies in 2007 and in 2015. “Advantage at Seafocuses on assertive power projection targeting China and Russia, which are leading peer military challengers of the US Naval Forces. The document stresses the importance of assertive, if not outright aggressive, power projection to targeting these countries and covered both blue water and littoral operations. The document is much of a conflict-oriented strategy rather than a peacetime one.

The 2020 naval strategy has a quite different narrative from its predecessors. The era of great power competition is a characterizing feature and the situation will inevitably turn into a Cold War or even a limited conflict in the document. The US perceives the great power competition as a real threat to the global order, which the US has led for decades and described as “international rules-based order”. Unlike the previous strategies, the 2020 naval strategy clearly defines China and Russia as rivals and even adversaries. It places China in an exceptional position among these two, given its economic and military capacity. It clearly states that China is the most important and long-term strategic threat to the United States’ dominance in the world oceans.

The 2020 naval strategy highlights the following five themes:

  • to generate Integrated All-Domain Naval Power,
  • to strengthen alliances and partnerships,
  • to prevail in day-to-day competition
  • to control the seas in conflict,
  • to modernize the future naval force to maintain credible deterrence and preserve advantage at sea

The strategy document focuses quite much on China and the Chinese naval power showing that China has tripled the navy battle force in the past 20 years and the Chinese shipbuilding capacity enables rapid production growth in case of a conflict. Referring to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the strategy emphasizes that China will have the opportunity to operate far from its coasts thanks to the ports it has access to in this regard. The Arctic sea is also an issue that finds a place in the strategy.  

New and Converging Technologies” is another important issue, defined in the new strategy, covering such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, additive manufacturing, quantum computing and new communications and technologies, which will be able to generate enormous disruptive change. These technologies have been mentioned also in the NATO 2030 report prepared by the NATO Reflection Group as “Emerging and Disruptive Technologies” some weeks ago.

This updated naval strategy comes as the US Marines Corps has begun a drastic restructuring program, under which its heavy battle tanks and much of its other heavy equipment will be retired for a greater focus on light, low cost and mobile operations.

The US Navy too, is considering drastic cuts to its planned orders for Gerald Ford Class supercarriers, possibly of up to 60% reductions. The Navy has considered several alternatives to supercarriers, most notably lighter ships like the “Lighting Carriers” it has started to field – 40,000tn Wasp Class and America Class amphibious assault ships. Another alternative would base loosely on the British Queen Elizabeth Class design. It remains to be seen how the US Navy will proceed and while supercarriers are costly, they are far more efficient and arguably bring better value for money than their lighter counterparts.

The viability of supercarriers has increasingly been in question in recent years as “carrier killer” missiles have been developed and deployed by China and Russia.  New hypersonic missile systems such as the Chinese DF-21D or Russia’s Kh-47M2 (Kinzal) all having engagement ranges at least a thousand kilometers, capable of striking at hypersonic speeds and able to disable even the largest supercarriers with a single direct hit. The US Navy currently has no defense against such weapons. The proliferation of ‘carrier killer’ weapons is only growing when Russia is now deploying the new Zircon hypersonic anti- ship cruise missile and even North Korea has developed its own carrier killer weapons. 

The prominent point in the new naval strategy is the importance given to the crisis and conflict period rather than the competitive activities during the peace period. Alliances and partnerships are a true force multiplier in a crisis period with the intelligence, logistics, cyber, and space capabilities they will provide. According to the strategy, allies and partners could control critical chokepoints and cause serious military and economic damage to adversaries in a time of conflict.

In the last part of the strategy, under the topic of “Developing Naval Forces,” priorities for integrated all-domain naval force are listed as follows:

  • Training and education of qualified professional personnel in dynamic environments
  • Generate sufficient readiness and capacity to conduct forward operations and preserve combat-ready forces
  • Expand concepts and capabilities, together with allies and partners, to manage the whole competition continuum
  • Emphasis on sea control relative to other naval missions
  • Provide all-domain, long-range precision fires, supported by integrated networks, to destroy adversary forces
  • Operate and maintain the most survivable part of the US nuclear deterrence triad

Advantage at Sea, which is the first naval strategy in the era of great power competition, bears the first signs of the bilateral competition between the United States and China. Global commons will undoubtedly be the main grounds of the ​​competition between these two great powers. The US has started to clearly define China and Russia as adversaries in official documents.

Overseas naval bases

US military presence around the world has expanded dramatically over the years since the end of the Cold War, in other words along with the US unipolarity. The geopolitical outreach of the US is based on the worldwide network of military bases and this installation covers the whole planet (all continents, oceans and the outer space). The US operates and/or controls some 800 military bases worldwide covering over 150 countries and totaling over 300.000 US military personnel deployed. These bases can broadly be classified under four main categories: Air Force Bases, Army or Land Bases, Naval Bases and Communication/Spy Bases.

The US has overseas naval bases in Bahrain, Cuba (Guantanamo), Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Spain, UK (a British island Diego Garcia in Indian Ocean), Guam (an island in the Pacific Ocean, belongs to the US) and Hawaii (a Pacific state of the United States of America).

New Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. David Berger, also highlights the growing military threat posed by China. In response, he explicitly reallocates Marine forces away from the Middle East and other combatant commands, to double down in the Pacific.

The US Navy has taken a number of actions to counter China’s naval modernization effort, in last few years. The US Navy has shifted a greater percentage of its fleet, its most-capable new ships, aircraft and its best personnel to the Pacific. Navy maintains or increases general presence operations, training and exercises as well as cooperation with allied and other navies in the Indo-Pacific. The size of the Navy will increase along with developing new military technologies. New operational concepts (i.e., new multi domain operations) will be developed for countering Chinese maritime A2/AD forces. Finally, the Navy will shift to a more-distributed fleet architecture that will feature a smaller portion of larger ships, a larger portion of smaller ships and a substantially greater use of unmanned vehicles. China’s military modernization, including its naval modernization, has become the top focus of US defense planning and budgeting.

New major warships in last and next 3 years

The list here below is not the all-inclusive but points out key features and focal points in the US naval procurement program in the periods of 2018-2020 and 2021-2024.

Period 2018-2020

Various littoral combat ships 12, amphibious warfare ships 1, destroyers 5, attack submarines 5

Period 2021-2024

Various littoral combat ships 9, aircraft carrier 1, amphibious warfare ships 1, destroyers 7, attack submarines 6

In the global ranking 2020, US Navy is the first in aircraft carriers, helicopter carriers and destroyers, while among top three in submarines and in total number of warships. The US Navy still counts on large and heavy offensive fleet like destroyers, aircraft carriers and helicopter carriers in the surface vessels and Virginia-class attack submarines in under-water fleet. Over expenses and delays in majority of new ship projects (Zumwalt, Gerald G. Ford aircraft carrier etc.) have been massive and thus slowing down the pace of modernizing of the fleet.

The absence of frigates (now the first new one is in order) is a characterizing feature like the large number of littoral combat ships, whose usage and usefulness have been so far quite limited and which still seek their clear-cut mission purpose.

Weaponry of naval forces

The basic weaponry of naval forces (mines, missiles, guns, torpedoes etc.) is a large and versatile area, left outside of this blog, but some new “game-changers” and other notable innovations will be shortly examined.

US Marines will soon have Long Range Unmanned Surface Vessel system (LRUSV), which will launch loitering munitions during amphibious attacks. Marine Corps is taking a completely new way to provide fire support during amphibious landings: unmanned boats stocked full of suicide drones. The shipbuilder Metal Shark is building a new type of unmanned surface vessel, which would act as a mobile fire support platform, servicing calls for fire with salvos of drones equipped with explosive charges. According to Metal Shark, the LRUSV program represents a significant milestone of autonomous technology for the defense world.

New Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. David Berger, argues that future adversaries will be increasingly able to contest and even deny access to the maritime domain, where the US has long held unchallenged superiority. He therefore intends to overhaul the Marine Corps so that it can operate inside this contested space during a major maritime fight. When the Marines hit the beach during an amphibious assault, they will have air cover from the unmanned Metal Shark, which will launch loitering suicide drones.

Previous Defense Secretary Mark Esper has proposed and recommended the Navy to invest in as many as 50 extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles, or XLUUV, to massively boost the number of robot submarines. The study, which envisions the fleet of 2045, is the same one that recommended the Navy drop to nine carriers from the current 11, and add dozens of large and medium-sized unmanned vessels to rapidly boost capacity for less money than it would cost to invest in a comparable fleet of larger manned vessels. Esper said publicly that the US Navy must get away from relying on large manned combatants to deliver capacity and rapidly develop and field a fleet of unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles. The Navy is also developing a family of unmanned surface vessels that are intended to increase the offensive punch for less money.

Conflict regions and other hot spots with heavy US Navy engagement

The US Pacific State of Hawaii houses critical Navy and Air Force infrastructure, 50.000 US military personnel, as well as the base and center of the US Pacific Command, from where the military operations across 50% of the Earth’s surface – covering most of the world’s population and five of the seven US collective defense treaties – are run. It is by far the most critical command center outside the US mainland, likely the most critical in the world after the Pentagon, and its value as a target is immeasurable. Aside from targets on US territories such as Hawaii and Guam, the United States maintains military facilities in Japan, South Korea and Okinawa, among several other East Asian nations. Facilities in Japan and Korea alone house over 70,000 US personnel. Therefore, the air defense of these targets is of crucial importance.

The Taiwan Strait has become a real hot spot in the region. US warships conduct “freedom of navigation” exercises often in the strait triggering angry responses from China which keeps Taiwan as part of its territory, according to “one China” policy as stipulated in the bilateral communique between the US and China. Latest incidents took place in February 2021 under Presidency of Joe Biden. The US military has also quite dramatically increased spy plane flights near Chinese territory accelerating tension further in this sensitive region.

The South China Sea has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between the West and Beijing, as China secures territory and built military installations on artificial land, which the US has claimed is illegal. US warships have been carrying out operations frequently in the region, latest in February 2021. Two Carrier Strike Groups conducted dual carrier operations in the South China Sea on February 9, 2021. China reminded the US publicly that PLA has capability to utilize “powerful ballistic missiles, DF-26 and DF-21D, aircraft carrier killers”.

Mediterranean Sea has risen again as an international hot spot due to the MENA region’s versatile turbulences, Turkey’s strengthening operations and new findings of oil and gas. This topic will be examined later in a new blog.

Black Sea has become a new hot spot, when the US Navy and NATO started naval exercises in this region and in the vicinity of Russian borders. The latest incident took place just in February 2021. This region is attached to the Ukraine conflict, which will be examined separately.

Arctic area, this is a new, growing hot spot whose strategic clout and importance will “skyrocket” in 2020s. This topic will be examined in a separate blog.

China’s Naval forces

Structure of the Naval Forces

China’s military is formally called the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Its navy is called the PLA Navy or PLAN and its air force is called the PLA Air Force PLAAF. The branches-based structure of PLAN covers Surface Force, Submarine Force, Coastal Defense Force, Marine Corps and Naval Air Force. Total amount of naval personnel is about 250.000.

The PLAN is divided into three fleets:

  • The North Sea Fleet, based in the Yellow Sea and headquartered in Qingdao
  • The East Sea Fleet, based in the East China Sea and headquartered in Ningbo
  • The South Sea Fleet, based in the South China Sea and headquartered in Zhanjiang

Each fleet consists of surface forces (destroyers, frigates, amphibious vessels etc.), submarine forces, coastal defense units and aircraft.

China’s Naval Forces has already surpassed the US in number of warships and anti-ship missile deployment under the plan to achieve a global posture by 2049. China’s long-term goal, although not directly expressed, is to have a superior blue water navy operating globally, by the year 2049.

When counting the size of naval troops, the US Navy is bigger, with more than 330,000 active-duty personnel to China’s 250,000. The US Navy still fields more tonnage, bigger and heavier armed ships (like guided-missile destroyers and cruisers) than China. Those ships give the US a significant edge in cruise missile launch capability, because of more vertical launch missile cells in its surface ships than China’s ships. Meanwhile, the US attack submarine fleet of 50 boats is entirely nuclear powered, giving it significant range and endurance advantages over a Chinese fleet that has just seven nuclear-powered subs in its attack submarine fleet of 62.

However, the closer to mainland China, the numbers move in Beijing’s favor. The big advantage the Chinese navy holds over the US Navy is in patrol and coastal combatants or corvettes. Those smaller ships are augmented by China’s coast guard and maritime militia with enough ships combined to almost double the PLAN’s total strength.

The PLAN has already established its first overseas military base (naval base) in Djibouti. The US DoD assessed that China has likely considered locations for PLA military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan, from which the majority will be potential naval bases.

Modernization of Chinese Navy

China’s navy, which has been steadily modernized for more than 25 years, has become a formidable military force within China’s near-seas region and is conducting a growing number of operations in more-distant waters, including the broader waters of the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean and waters around Europe. Modernization process encompasses a wide array of ship, aircraft and weapon acquisition programs, as well as improvements in maintenance and logistics, doctrine, personnel quality, education and training and exercises.

China’s naval modernization aims at

  • developing capabilities for addressing the situation with Taiwan militarily
  • achieving a greater degree of control or domination over China’s near-seas region, particularly the South China Sea, including 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone
  • defending China’s commercial sea lines of communication (SLOCs), particularly those linking China to the Persian Gulf
  • displacing US influence in the Western Pacific and asserting China’s status as the leading regional power and a major world power

Additional missions for China’s navy include conducting maritime security (including antipiracy) operations, evacuating Chinese nationals from foreign countries when necessary and conducting humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) operations.

China’s recent decision to increase its annual defense budget by 6,8% for coming years, gives a strong indication of China’s assertiveness and determination to achieve the goal of world-class military might. China’s capability of shipbuilding is unique, being the world largest commercial shipbuilder, which support in concrete way also naval ship building.

Beijing has been methodical in its naval buildup concentrating on craft such as corvettes, frigates and diesel-electric-powered submarines that would be useful in waters around China and in South China Sea. The ships the PLAN puts to sea near Chinese shores are protected by a large ground-based missile force. US military leaders are aware that the PLA Navy is much more than just ships. China is investing heavily in anti-ship missiles as well as satellite systems to be able to target ships. All that gives China a strong hand to play in any possible conflict close to home and China is adamant its military is defensive.

Two concepts

Protecting the Chinese mainland and its near territorial waters around the region, is called “near seas defense.” Islands and reefs in South China Sea have unique advantages in safeguarding national sovereignty and maintaining a military presence and therefore China has made a massive naval buildup by constructing artificial islands heavily fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems. However, in the events of hostilities, China may become vulnerable to a distant naval blockade that could deprive it of vital materials from abroad, severing what are termed sea lines of communication. The regional focus of near seas defense is also insufficient to address the increasingly global scope of China’s economic interests.

To bring Chinese military power to bear on its global interests, China has begun implementing “far seas protection.” Far seas protection reflects Beijing’s direction for the PLAN to “go global” and is a part of a larger Chinese government policy to encourage the expansion of China’s economy and cultural outreach. Sending out the PLAN is essential to establishing China’s image as a great power projecting military power overseas. The question is of China’s profound perception of “a real blue water navy and great power image”. So, China has ramped up its production of ships that form an aircraft carrier task force, guided-missile cruisers and nuclear-powered submarines.

The PLA Navy has two aircraft carriers (diesel-engines) now in service but their endurance without refueling is limited to less than week making them more suitable for use in near sea region rather than in far oceans but more carriers are in planning and production. The new Chinese carrier is expected to be equipped with a nuclear power reactor and electromagnetic catapults that will enable it to launch aircraft with more firepower and greater range than the existing carriers.

By 2049 China aims to have a global military that is able to fight and win wars and project power globally. More overseas bases, today only one in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, will be established to support the PLAN as well as building heavy air transport system to supply those bases.

Some gaps and shortcomings

Despite the progress made by China’s military over the past two decades, certain gaps and shortcomings remain in readiness and operational capability but China’s leaders are aware of the problems and have detailed plans to overcome them. While China can copy a lot, without real combat and extensive blue water experience it will be hard to attain the US Navy level. PLAN’s impressive force structure build-up may not translate into combat power unless it can address the command issues onboard its ships.

Lack of combat experience and limited blue-water experience

The combat experience of the senior leaders is of vital importance in fighting complex naval battles. PLA has been afflicted with “peace disease” as it has not fought a war since 1979 Vietnam war. Only a handful of old officers have personal combat experience from Vietnam War before 1979 or from Taiwan crisis of 1995-1996 or a minor naval action with Vietnam in 1988. The top and middle-level officers of PLAN have limited experience of blue-water operations, many officers have PLA ground forces experience (or in some cases PLAAF) and transferred to PLAN at a later date. This situation has been remedied to some extent in the middle and junior level officers.

New military training system, a cure for “peace disease”

Unlike the US military, which has operated around the globe and has been constantly engaged in battles, China has not fought a “real war” for decades but that may be about to change. In February 2021, the Central Military Commission (CMC) announced it will build a new type of training system that would improve military training in all respects, strengthen the capability “to win wars” and build the Chinese military into a world-class one. The new system will focus on ensuring PLA (and all other services) exercises to be as real as possible with rapidly changing global situations and external threats. The decision stressed efforts to speed up the establishment of the new training system, to improve military training programs in all respects and to build the PLA into a world-class armed force.

The Chinese Navy has a command dilemma in its fleet

Along with the impressive rate the PLAN is adding ships to its fleet, a specific underlying problem exists in its frontline ships, the command structure and quality of leadership. PLAN’s unique dual-command model of sharing of command between a ship’s captain and political commissar has operational implications. Besides, the lack of combat and blue-water experience of its seagoing officers is an important leadership issue affecting the PLAN’s combat power. In the PLAN system, the captain and the political commissar have equal ranks making it a dual command system. The decision making on a ship is done in a collegiate style by the Party Standing Committee (PSC). A political commissar, though equal in rank to a captain, forwards a report on him recommending his suitability for promotion. The captain-political commissar relationship is thus far from equal. The political commissar exercises a dominant influence on administrative and operational issues. 

Mission Command

Most of the world navies follow the mission command or model of leadership, which is focused on mission accomplishment in the face of uncertainties. Mission Command gives naval commanders sufficient latitude and mandate to make split-second decisions in conditions of uncertainties. It also lets them exercise flexibility in the execution of battle plans to achieve the stated mission. In many practical cases, a naval commander has very limited time for decision making in a dense and uncertain environment. In the PLAN’s dual command system, the naval commander will have to rely on the political commissar and PSC for operational decisions in a fast-moving scenario. This can cause crucial delays in operational decision making.

Overly cautious or no “Loss of Face” approach

War in practice is usually chaotic and unpredictable, accidents, chance and luck abound. The zero-defect mentality is present in many navies but the Chinese culture places a premium on “loss of face” and it is to be avoided at all costs. The PLAN like the other wings of the Chinese military is a component of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and therefore its victories (and defeats) are considered to directly impinge on the CCP’s prestige. The risk-averse approach of PLAN’s leadership model is at odds with the need for offensive action and owning attendant risks in battle.

China’s Anti-Ship Missiles

China is fielding two types of land-based ballistic missiles with a capability of hitting ships at sea

  • the DF-21D, a road-mobile hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) with a range of more than 1.500 kilometers and
  • the DF-26, a road-mobile, multi-role intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a maximum range of over 4,000 kilometers that is capable of conducting both conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets as well as conventional strikes against naval targets

Until recently, reported test flights of DF-21s and DF-26s have not involved attempts to hit moving ships at sea but in August 2020 test firing of both missiles resulted in successful hitting a moving target ship. In December 2020, Admiral Philip Davidson, the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, “confirmed successful test results”. China is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles (DF-17) that could make Chinese ASBMs even more difficult to intercept.

Observers have expressed strong concerns about China’s ASBMs, because such missiles, in combination with broad-area maritime surveillance and targeting systems, would permit China to attack aircraft carriers, other US Navy ships, or ships of allied or partner navies operating in the Western Pacific. The US Navy has not previously faced a threat from highly accurate ballistic missiles capable of hitting moving ships at sea. For this reason, some observers have referred to Chinese ASBMs as a “game-changing” weapon.

China’s extensive inventory of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) includes both Russian-and Chinese-made designs, including some advanced and highly capable ones, such as the Chinese-made YJ-18, from which there are several variants. Although China’s ASCMs do not always receive as much press attention as China’s ASBMs, observers are nevertheless concerned about them. The relatively long ranges of certain Chinese ASCMs have led to concerns among military analysts that the US Navy is not moving quickly enough to arm US Navy surface ships with similarly ranged ASCMs.

New major warships in last and next 3 years

The list here below is not the all-inclusive but points out key features and focal points in the US naval procurement program in the periods of 2018-2020 and 2021-2024.

Period 2018-2020

Aircarft carrier 1, amphibious warfare ships 4, destroyers 10, frigates 5, corvettes 26

Period 2021-2024

Aircraft carrier 1, amphibious warfare ships 4, destroyers 17, attack submarines 6

In the global ranking 2020, China’s Navy is the first in frigates, patrol vessels and total number of warships, while among top three in submarines. The PLAN counts heavily on frigates, corvettes and smaller ships and boats (suitable as littoral combat ships) but on the other hand is investing also in large and heavy offensive fleet like destroyers, aircraft carriers and helicopter carriers in the surface vessels. This “dichotomy” is striking but is comprehensible when taking into account “near seas defense” (Taiwan, South China Sea) and “far seas protection” (China’s great power ambitions). China has an ambitious plan in shipbuilding, aiming at least 400 warships by 2025 but the massive overall building capacity will make this aim highly likely achievable.

Conflict regions and other hot spots with heavy Chinese Navy engagement

Taiwan case

Taiwan is a historical and inalienable part of China’s sovereign territory, according to Beijing’s official policy. In a speech in 2019, President Xi said “We should safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and achieve full unification of the motherland.” The PLAN fleet is to do that. Beijing’s longstanding interest to compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland and deter any attempt by Taiwan to declare independence has served as the primary driver for China’s military modernization. Beijing’s anticipation that foreign forces (= the US) would intervene in a Taiwan scenario led the PLA to develop a range of systems to deter and deny foreign regional force projection.

One of the two mainlines of China’s shipbuilding is the concentration of smaller surface ships like corvettes and coastal patrol craft that are suited for combat near shores and there is only about 130 kilometers of relatively shallow water between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, ideal for the corvettes.

China’s shipbuilding also consists of the Type 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD), a 35,000- to 40,000-ton multipurpose ship with a full flight deck to handle helicopters. It also has the capacity to carry 900 ground troops. The new class of ship represents a significant step forward for enhancing China’s amphibious capabilities. In addition, China’s coast guard and maritime militia have hundreds of boats and other small vessels, which are available for troops transport.

The latest intelligence of early 2021 discloses that Beijing is constructing a large helicopter base facing Taiwan Strait. This is one step more in the process that clearly raises the stakes for Taiwan’s future.

South China Sea

The other of worst discomfort points in China – the US relationship is South China Sea, where strategic military analysts worldwide have made various scenarios for future incidents and even war potential. Both Taiwan and South China Sea are especially sensitive and essential to China and geopolitically vital near-regions as well but not vitally important to the US. However, the US resumes the arms sales to Taiwan and supports its military preparedness and maintains “freedom of navigation” in South China Sea and Taiwan Straits for political reasons.

The PLAN has expanded and militarized China’s outposts in the South China Sea and China’s Coast Guard, backed by the PLAN, commonly harasses Japanese, Philippine and Vietnamese ships in the region. There have been already several incidents between Chinese PLAN and the US Navy since the beginning of 2021. The US has organized “freedom of navigation” convoys and passes maritime exercises both in Taiwan Strait and in South China Sea. China, on its behalf, organized numerous PLAN exercises, even a month-long drill in South China Sea. The tension in this area is rather escalating than easing.

South China Sea – dispute in the nut shell

  • Sovereignty of two largely uninhabited island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys, is disputed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia
  • China claims the largest portion of territory, saying that its rights go back centuries – in 1947 it issued a map detailing its claims
  • Nowadays, main dispute between China and the US with “freedom of navigation”
  • The region is a major shipping route, a rich fishing ground and is thought to have abundant oil and gas reserves as well as valuable minerals

Russia’s Naval forces

Structure of the Naval Forces

The present structure of Russian Naval Forces consists of the following branches:

Surface Forces of the Navy, Submarine Forces of the Navy, Naval Aviation, Coastal Troops of the Navy, Marine Infantry of the Navy. Total amount of naval personnel is about 150.000. The headquarters of the Russian Navy is located in St. Petersburg and consists of four fleets

  • Baltic Fleet
  • Black Sea Fleet
  • Northern Fleet
  • Pacific Fleet and
  • flotilla in the Caspian Sea.

The fleets receive administrative orders and guidance from the Navy Staff in St. Petersburg, whereas operational orders are issued from the various Joint Strategic Commands (OSKs). Each fleet and the Caspian Flotilla are operationally subordinate to one of these OSKs.

The Russian Navy has experienced somewhat of a rebirth since 2008, after 15 years of decline due to the collapse of Soviet Union and thereafter incurred economic problems and political turmoil experienced by Russia during the 1990s until early 2000s.

Key mission areas and types of warships

The Russian Navy today (2020) has strong capabilities in some key mission areas. However, it is quite long away from being a full spectrum, ocean-going navy that can exercise sea control in distant regions of the globe, in other words being a real blue water navy. At present, the Navy is able to effectively conduct three major missions: strategic deterrence, coastal defense and short-term ocean presence operations.

Strategic deterrence, submarines.

Russia has focused heavily on expanding its attack and ballistic missile submarine fleets as well as a number of special mission submarines. Russia’s submarine fleet today is among the world’s three largest submarine fleet with 63 – 72 vessels in service depending on different basic statistics (the United States 70 and China 68; in fact, North Korea belongs also to this group with approx. 70 submarines but their capability and purpose may be quite different from great powers).

While the US fleet is comprised exclusively of nuclear-powered attack submarines, Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) invested heavily in both nuclear- and diesel-powered vessels. Diesel submarines are far quieter than those of their nuclear counterparts making them extremely difficult to detect, thus enhancing survivability.

In the aftermath of Russia’s announcement of new strategic hypersonic weapons systems in March 2018, reports have emerged that Moscow is also planning to develop a new generation hypersonic missile for submarines to strengthen its deterrent force. The timetable of deployment of hypersonic Zircon submarine variant remains uncertain but work to apply hypersonic technologies to a submarine launched platform are currently under way and testing will likely commence shortly if it had not already. 

SSBN subs

The highest priority for Russian naval investment is modernizing the ballistic missile submarine force. The Russian Navy is in the process of transitioning from a force of old Delta III and IV-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) to the new Borei-class boats that will be quieter and carry a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. It also carries more counter-measures against anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems and will permit Russia to field more accurate warheads.

The cruise missile submarines (SSGN) are modernized through the introduction of a new class of nuclear attack subs and the addition of improved diesel electric boats. The new Yasen-class of submarines, which will be made up of seven vessels in total, will add a substantial long-range conventional cruise missile capability.

The Project Borei-A strategic submarine Knyaz Oleg and the Project Yasen nuclear-powered submarines Kazan and Novosibirsk will enter service until the end of 2021. The submarines of this Borei-A class are designed to renew the basis of Russia’s seaborne strategic nuclear forces. They carry 16 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles as their basic armament. Yasen-class submarines carry Kalibr-PL and Oniks cruise missiles as their strike weapons. Defense Ministry’s plan discloses that the Russian Navy would get four submarines in 2021 including the Project-Borei-A nuclear-powered subs.

Other subs

Russia today operates 28 Kilo Class diesel submarines, which serve complementary role to the country’s long-range nuclear-powered fleet. From the operative subs, 22 are older Kilo variants, six Improved Kilo vessels and has six more Improved Kilo subs (Lada class) on order for its Pacific fleet set to enter service by 2024. Improved Kilo Class submarines are equipped with Kalibr-cruise missiles, capable of striking surface, land based and submarine targets. The ships can also deploy advanced torpedoes and mines.

Perhaps the most valuable asset of the Kilo Class subs is its survivability, a result of its quietness which makes it extremely difficult to detect. While it cannot stay submerged for months as longer ranged nuclear vessels can do, the Kilo Class’s air regeneration system can supply the crew with oxygen for up to almost two weeks. The Kilo Class is set to be replaced by the even more capable Lada Class submarine, of which one currently serves in the Russian Navy. The whole series of six Lada submarines will be handed over to the Pacific fleet by 2025.

Russian Navy and some other Russian authorities possess quite large fleet of special-purpose submarines of various sizes for deep-sea research, spy operations, repair and rescue operations and other purposes. The information of these subs is partly classified.

Coastal defense

Coastal defense is the most important conventional mission for today’s Russian Navy. This involves protecting key strategic areas, such as the Black Sea coast, the Baltic Sea coast areas of Kaliningrad and the Gulf of Finland, the Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea and the Pacific coastline along the Sea of Okhotsk, from enemy air/missile attacks delivered from naval platforms and from enemy amphibious assaults.

Costal defense combatants

Russian Navy has placed a high priority on building up a force of small coastal defense combatants to guard Russia’s key coastlines and littoral areas, such as corvettes and frigates. These vessels are far less expensive than guided missile destroyers and cruisers and can also be manned by smaller crews. New anti-ship cruise missiles, SAMs and guns that can now be installed on these vessels are potent weapons that give these combatants a strong punch, even against enemy major surface combatants. The emerging Russian coastal defense force will be made up of two main platforms: a corvette (Buyan-M, Steregushchiy and Karakurt class) to defend the close maritime zone and a frigate (the Admiral Gorshkov class) that will defend broader areas.

Amphibious Ships.

The cancellation of the French Mistral sale to Russia dealt a serious blow to Russia’s ambitions in the field of amphibious assault. However, Russia is developing new capabilities in this area that are being designed and built by Russian shipyards. Along with the two Zubr-class large hovercrafts currently used by Russia’s Naval Infantry, Russia will maintain numerically quite large amphibious capabilities (landing ships and other landing craft) waiting for commissioning of new domestic amphibious warfare ships.

Short-term / long-term ocean presence operations

Short-term ocean presence operations are the third mission area, where the Russian Navy has a limited capability, although a growing. Since 2008, Moscow has been proceeding, in increasing amount, high-profile long-distance naval deployments into the Caribbean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and in Pacific region. These deployments have been partly symbolic exercises designed to show the world that “Russia is back” as a major military power but an increasing number of Russian warships are taking part in Russia’s Syria operations in the Mediterranean Sea region.

A heavy increasing operation area is multi-country naval drills in the Pacific and Indian oceans as well as in Mediterranean Sea. Russian Navy is exercising regularly with China, Iran and India as well as intermittently with some other countries. A small task force, led by the new frigate Admiral Gorshkov, circumnavigated the globe between February and August 2019.

Major Combatants.

As was mentioned above, the major surface combatant portion of the Russian Navy has the weakest modernization program, because of the Navy’s emphasis on building new submarines and coastal defense vessels. At the moment, the focus of the Russian main surface fleet is on upgrading and reactivating old Soviet-built heavy warships.

Other ships.

Russian Navy possesses a fleet of various size, special-purpose ships for different purposes like intelligence collection, another group is mine warfare ships, where Russian Navy is the world’s largest.

Naval shipbuilding

Russia has a substantial, relatively technologically advanced shipbuilding industry that has produced both small and large surface ships and submarines. The United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) was created in 2007 during Putin’s drive to consolidate enterprises in the arms sector. The company is 100 percent state owned and the third-largest defense company in Russia after Almaz Antey and the UAC. The United Shipbuilding Corporation is an amalgam of former state-owned enterprises employing 74,000 workers and is engaged in design, construction and repair of ships. USC’s Sevmash is one of the few shipyards in the world capable of building nuclear-powered submarines; it is currently building Russia’s new Borei-class nuclear submarine and produces diesel submarines.

Old Soviet-built warships overhauled and upgraded

The Russian Navy currently comprises mostly Soviet-built warships. In 1990-2005, Russia lost a whole generation of warships due to well-known difficulties. The military shipbuilding cycle broke down and it has been difficult to fully restore it. As a result, the Navy has faced major problems both with green and blue-water warships. The whole infrastructure and know-how of ship building industry are slowly recovering and improving in Russia.

The situation makes it reasonable to extend the life cycle of Soviet-built ships to the maximum, which is possible to do by overhaul and upgrade. The overhaul with a technical upgrade replaces weapons, radars and communication systems to provide new combat capabilities and extends the life cycle. Thus, the life cycle of an old warship is extended by several years but combat capabilities and firepower may increase manifold.

The overhaul and technical upgrade are particularly effective way regarding the heavy, Soviet-built warships (aircraft carrier, battlecruisers, cruisers and destroyers, together some 20 warships available), because Russian Navy of today has a biggest deficiency in heavy surface combatants. The same procedure applies to many Soviet-built frigates as well. Some examples of renovation projects under way are battlecruiser Admiral Nakhimov, destroyer Marshal Shaposnikov and Admiral Vinogradov and cruiser Ushakov. Majority of those Soviet-built, heavy combatants will be reportedly overhauled and upgraded by 2025.

With only two Kirov Class ships (battlecruisers, 28.000 tn) in service, the relative overall weakness of the Russian surface fleet can only by partially compensated for by the warships’ modernization no matter how formidable they are and Russia will eventually need to consider the long-term expansion of its shipyards and construction of new carrier, destroyer or cruiser sized vessels as its Soviet built fleet continues to age. 

The commissioning of the first Admiral Gorshkov Class new frigate and renovation of a number of Soviet-built heavy combatants (battlecruisers and destroyers) could thus be seen to represent the beginning of a new era for the Russian surface fleet, which is likely to be centered more around the increasingly important Pacific theatre.

New major warships in last and next 3 years

The list here below is not the all-inclusive but points out key features and focal points in the US naval procurement program in the periods of 2018-2020 and 2021-2024.

Period 2018-2020

Amphibious warfare ships 4, frigates 2, corvettes 9, patrol ships 3, submarines 5

Period 2021-2024

Amphibious warfare ships 4, frigates 4, corvettes 8, patrol ships 5, mine warfare ships 4, submarines 15

In the global ranking 2020, Russia’s Navy is the first in corvettes and mine warfare vessels, while among top three in submarines and total number of warships. The Russian Navy counts heavily on frigates, corvettes and small ships and boats (suitable as littoral combat ships) as well as submarines but has been so far clearly behind the US and China regarding the major surface combatants like destroyers, heavy missile cruisers, aircraft carriers and helicopter carriers. This lack is striking but is comprehensible when taking into account the historical background. However, this “capacity problem” may be solved, at least partly, in versatile ways and means in next 4-5 years.

New game changers


Poseidon is the largest torpedo ever developed in any country. At around 2 meters in diameter and over 20 meters long, it is approximately twice the size of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Poseidon’s length makes it more like a mini-submarine. Poseidon is propelled by a nuclear reactor to a maximum speed of 200 km per hour and operates at deep depths up to 1.000 meters. The high speed of Poseidon is possible due to supercavitation, whereby a gas bubble envelops the torpedo at maximum speed. It is armed with a massive 2-megaton warhead powerful enough to generate a tsunami wave up to 500 meters tall, which would contaminate a wide area on an enemy’s coast with radioactive isotopes, as well as being immune to anti-missile defense systems.

The Belgorod K-329 special-designation nuclear submarine that was commissioned in 2020 will be the first carrier of Poseidon being capable of carrying eight Poseidon. The second basic carrier, a submarine Khabarovsk, is expected to be floated out by the autumn of 2021. Two Poseidon-carrying submarines are expected to enter service with the Northern Fleet and the other two will join the Pacific Fleet. Each of the submarines will carry a maximum of eight drones, thus the total number of Poseidon on combat duty may reach 32 vehicles.

The coastal base for Poseidon craft is under construction and will be completed in June 2022 according to the technical assignment. Trials of the first carrier are nearing completion. Defense Ministry has not disclosed the deployment location of submarines armed with Poseidon. In late 2020, Ministry said the creation of the complex was proceeding successfully and the crew of the first submarine carrier is mastering the new weapon.

New missiles

The importance of more sophisticated missile types is increasingly significant in the naval warfare but in the case of Russian Navy, this characteristic is crucial in assessing the whole firepower capability. There are especially two new missiles of vital importance: Kalibr-cruise missile and Zircon hypersonic missile, which both may be called as “game changers”.

Kalibr-cruise missile

There are over ten different variants in the Kalibr missile family but all packing a 450kg warhead or a nuclear payload, with the range of 2.500 km. The anti-ship variants for the ship- and submarine-launched versions respectively have shorter range, estimated up to 1.000 km. Active-radar homing Kalibr missiles are performing evasive maneuvers, flying few meters in altitude and accelerating speed when approaching the target, making them difficult to shoot down. Yasen-class guided missile submarine can reportedly carry up to 32 Kalibr-missiles in its eight vertical launchers. Recent US naval analysis tell that Russia is arming its naval forces in the Pacific region with a new Kalibr cruise missile, which give them substantially increased anti-ship capabilities and the ability to conduct long-range strikes against land targets for the first time. Admiral Phil Davidson, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress this analysis in January 2021.

Zircon hypersonic missile

The most notable munition deployed to replace the old P-700 in Soviet-built warships is the Zircon, a hypersonic cruise missile with a range exceeding 1000km and a speed of approximately Mach 9. Combined with superior maneuverability and a more complex course trajectory, the new missiles are set to provide the Russian destroyers and cruisers with an unrivalled anti-ship capability and with the ability to threaten even the best defended enemy warships well beyond retaliation range. The renewed Admiral Nakhimov, a battlecruiser can deploy about 100 Zircon and Kalibr missiles, in addition of navalized air defense systems.

Other navalized missiles and systems

The navalized S-400 air defense system provides several munition types for renewed warships making them the versatile combat ships in an anti-aircraft role while providing the ship itself with multi layered air defense for improved survivability. Strike capabilities can be further augmented by short and medium range air defense systems, with the Pantsir-ME and the new Redut-radar system (a navalized variant of the S-350 Vityaz). These innovations give the warships a multilayered air defense system which makes them very difficult to target with air and missile attacks.

Conflict regions and other hot spots with heavy Russian Navy engagement

Mediterranean Sea has risen again as an international hot spot due to NATO-Russia escalating relations, MENA region’s versatile turbulences, Turkey’s strengthening operations and new findings of oil and gas in Eastern Mediterranean seabed. Russian Navy has the key local naval base in Tartus, Syria. Other important interest points here to Russia are Libya, Egypt and Sudan, Israel, Turkey and Cyprus. This topic is part of MENA region and will be examined later in a new blog.

Black Sea has been alwaysa Russian home area”, which has become a new hot spot, when the US Navy and NATO started naval exercises in this region and in the vicinity of Russian borders some years ago as a result of Ukraine crisis. The latest incident took place just in February 2021. This region is attached to the Ukraine conflict, which will be examined separately in the coming blog.

Arctic sea area, has also been “Russia’s home area” for centuries but is now rising as a new, growing hot spot whose strategic clout and importance will “skyrocket” in 2020s. This topic will be examined in a separate blog.

Prospect for the period of 2021-2025, summary and conclusions

Using allegories, one could say that in this poker game of naval hegemon, the US is the present King, China is the rising Ace and Russia is the surprising Joker.

The US and China are maintaining a steady quantitative growth in their navies, increasing particularly the number of heavy warships. China’s growth rate is faster and it will strengthen its position as the largest navy worldwide but on the other hand, the base network of the US will be by far the largest globally.

In the worldwide “hegemon game” China, the main challenger, will approach the US position. In other words, the relative position of the US will decrease clearly but still keep its first place by 2025. The situation may be different by 2030, if/when China will enlarge its global base network.

Russia Navy seems to be a Joker in this naval hegemon game, possessing real chances to reach a near peer position with the US Navy. Russia’s strategy is more in the asymmetric measures than in the conventional growth process, obviously due to more limited economic and financial capacity compared with the US or China.

The US Navy: will retain its present capability with some prominent increments and obviously keeps the position of the only global naval force in mid 2020s but the overall position will relatively decline clearly. Some special features:

  • steady shipbuilding program
  • maintaining the capacity of super aircraft carriers
  • new doctrine: multi-domain operations, applied to naval forces (navy, marine, coast guard)
  • extensive combat experience and qualified blue water know-how
  • updates of submarine nukes
  • prime focus of naval forces is on “superior” attack capability, just like in the ground army and air forces
  • new feature will be a growing role of unmanned, robotized vehicles

The Chinese Navy: will be regionally the strongest player in China’s near regions (South and East China Sea and Taiwan region), China’s Navy is and will be the biggest in the world in the number of warships and the only global challenger to the US Navy from the late 2020s on, if/when China will enlarge its global naval base network. Some special features:

  • rapid shipbuilding program, especially with heavy warships (aircraft carriers, helicopter carriers, destroyers)
  • increasing of littoral and small vessels for local and near regional use (Taiwan, South China Sea) combined with construction of ground-based facilities (military bases in the vicinity of Taiwan, military installations on artificial islands in South China Sea) and A2/AD measures
  • deployment of new missiles (carrier killers)
  • low/moderate combat experience and blue water know-how but obviously getting better
  • new military training system February 2021(simulation of real combat experience) intended for “peace disease
  • PLAN’s command dilemma (captain – political commissar) shall be decided

The Russian Navy: will be regionally the strongest player in near waters (Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Northern and Arctic region) and the major player in Mediterranean Sea along with the US Navy, Russia possesses chances to become a rapidly rising near peer competitor to the US Navy in the Atlantic Ocean and a major challenger in the Pacific Ocean. Some special features:

  • overhaul/upgrade program regarding majority of available, Soviet-built heavy combatants (aircraft carrier, battlecruisers, destroyers, cruisers up to 20 vessels) is an “asymmetric” opportunity
  • continuing modernization of the navy by floating new frigates, corvettes and two helicopter carriers according to released plans
  • carrying out released floating program of new submarines including Poseidon project
  • deployment of new naval missiles (Kalibr, Zircon)
  • moderate/qualified combat experience and blue water know-how
  • the aforesaid measures will make manifold the firepower of Russian Navy by 2024

More information on the military affairs and military forces of each great power is available on this website: here the US, here China and here Russia

here military-political positioning and here the overall assessment  and here RMA and new weapons