“The 15 minutes I spent imagining what I’d name it were perhaps the happiest 15 minutes of my life.”

If the Royal Navy really does decide to sell HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2020, who might buy it? And even more importantly, what would they name it? Robert Farley handicaps the race, giving odds and possible names to potential suitors:

China
Empress Dowager Cixi
Odds: 99-1

Russia
Imperitsiya Ekaterina Velikaya
Odds: 50-1

France
Carla Bruni
(R92)
Odds:  20-1

Canada
HMCS Queen Elizabeth
Odds: 15-1

India
INS India Gandhi
Odds: 15-1

Japan
JDS Empress Michiko
Odds: 7-1

Australia
HMAS Queen Elizabeth
Odds: 9-2

South Korea
ROKS Empress Myeongsong
Odds: 4-1

Brazil
NAe Empress Isabel
Odds: 3-1

If I were a gambling man…

Also, guess what the source of the title is. Then check your answer here.

Lesser Nobility of the Seas

Depressing developments out of Britain (new motto: “Good, not Great”), where David Cameron has announced the extent of massive budget cuts.  They’re not only targeted at the much-reviled ‘quangos’ and other sundry domestic spending, but significantly cut down on the size of the Royal Navy.

And I do mean significant. HMS Ark Royal is to be scrapped immediately, and while the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will still be built, one will be commissioned pre-mothballed, while neither will be fully operational until 2036 (a rather expensive “jobs program“). One of the two helicopter carriers will be decommissioned. A total of 5,000 personnel cut. And the surface fleet reduced to 19 ships. As many have pointed out, that’s smaller than the task force sent to retake the Falkland Islands.

Obviously, this represents a real threat to British power projection capabilities. But it’s worth asking to what extent they’re still needed. The Guardian, true to form, heralds the cuts as rendering Britain incapable of launching “military operations like Iraq.” Which may be well and good; after all, today’s generals prepare to fight yesterday’s wars, and hopefully there won’t be any more Iraqs or Afghanistans in the near future.

All the same, is this a force capable of defending Britain? Again, the question is what Britain needs defending from. It can’t be the French, with whom the Royal Navy has entered into a sort of timeshare arrangement for the use of aircraft carriers (though hopefully their deployments go better than that of Charles de Gaulle). If anything is to be secure for Britain, though, it must be the sealanes. Britain is an island, and as Patrick Porter reminds us, “for heavy importing island states like Britain, strategy puts food on the table.”

Either way, it’s a huge blow to British prestige both around the world and within NATO. The worst part is that this may be a sign of things to come. As David Betz at Kings of War says:

The thing to grasp is that this is not Year Zero for the UK military, it’s worse than that. It’s more like Year -5 or -10 because that’s what it’s going to take to move all the accumulated bad decisions, and even worse non-decisions, through the system. It will be years before we get to zero and can start to work on building the armed forces we want and need.

Practical considerations aside – and they’re hugely important to consider – it’s almost akin to the death of the battleship, that great “monarch of the sea.” Once the British cuts are complete, the United States will be the only navy in the world operating more than one carrier. Last time the U.S. had to bail out her Anglophone cousin, the Royal Navy had been placed in a similar situation.

By 1939, Britain could not afford the navy that was necessary to ensure security across the globe. While the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty appeared to favor the United States and the United Kingdom, the scattered nature of the British Empire left it without overwhelming strength in any given theater, despite the superiority in absolute tonnage. In the early days of World War II – at least to protect Far East territories and India – the Royal Navy had to rely on the strength of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the South African coastal forces, and the British-controlled Royal Indian Navy.

We all know what happened next: Singapore and Malaya fell, the Japanese preponderance of carrier-based aviation left the entire Eastern Fleet sorely outgunned, and at the Battle of the Java Sea, the entire Allied fleet was wiped out in the largest naval battle since Jutland in 1916. Britain was stretched too thinly.

Obviously, the empire is no more and concerns closer to home are keeping the Ministry of Defence busy, but even so – there is a floor to the minimum amount of required naval force, even for a tiny island like Great Britain. With these cuts, I fear that the UK may have just crashed through it.

Dive, Dive, Dive

An artist's rendering of the Virginia-class submarine.

Lance M. Bacon had an article out in the May issue of Armed Forces Journal warning us (surprise) about deep cuts to the submarine service that have “cripple[d] America’s sea superiority.” I tend to be skeptical of these Dr. Doom-style pronouncements, namely because a different one seems to appear in AFJ every month, and at least one must be wrong.

But with Bacon, I’m actually more likely to agree. More than anything, naval warfare of the future is likely to be fought beneath the waves, rather than atop them. And yet the submarine service’s downsizing flies in the face of what’s proving to be a relatively cheap form of sea denial and even an offensive weapon. Mike Burleson notes:

The small submarine is not just for weaker powers … It can also equip traditional navies to take the offensive against an enemy when its battlefleet is indisposed, such as after a surprise strike from missiles. The use of anti-access weapons in a future peer conflict might induce the US to use its submarine force, the only real stealth vessels it possesses, to lead a counterattack if its surface navy was somehow disabled early in a conflict. Not an unlikely scenario as we recall from Pearl Harbor, and afterward.

In addition to whatever budgetary limitations are imposed, there’s also the problem of simply manning what subs we do keep. Ever since the Navy started providing laser vision correction, there’s been a dearth of bespectacled sailors, who once upon a time would have had their dreams of naval aviation dashed and instead been consigned to subsurface naval warfare.

In one regard, this is not a terrible problem to have. The pool of potential pilots is now larger then ever, and thus more selective – those who eventually qualify will be the best aviators the Navy has ever seen. But it is reducing the quantity of sailors who would have voluntarily or otherwise served beneath the waves. With the Navy’s recent decision to ban smoking on all submarines, I would assume the number of volunteers would grow even smaller.

Of course, let’s not present the future of the Navy as a binary choice between more aviation or more submarines – as Chris Rawley points out, surface warships aren’t about to disappear anytime soon. But it would be wise not to lose sight of the significant benefits and capabilities that submarines provide for a reasonable price.

Trouble in Paradise

And by paradise, I of course mean NATO. Turkey has called an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in order to discuss the recent Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla. It’s a fairly routine response to such an event, except for what it might actually mean for the alliance and for Israel. As a refresher, Article Five of the treaty:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Now, consider Article Six – and keep in mind that one of the flotilla ships, the MV Mavi Mamara, is Turkish-flagged:

For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

[…]

  • on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer [emphasis mine].

There is a whole world of possibility here, virtually none of it good. Whatever the justification is for Israel’s actions, it’s clear there are going to be consequences, the severity of which have yet to be determined.

Unfortunately, I cannot recall the exact source I saw this in (if you know it, remind me), but if there was an “international aid flotilla” steaming for Turkey with its supplies bound for the Kurds, would Ankara act much differently? It’s a good point – but the current membership of NATO renders such a hypothetical mostly irrelevant.

This could very well mean the beginning of the end for the Atlantic alliance. It will at least pose a serious dilemma in terms of composition. After all, who right now is more aligned with policy and public sentiment in Europe: Turkey, or America?

Different Strokes for Different Folks, or, Whatever Floats Your Boat

Regardless of what the true story is with the Israeli interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla, all sides and interested parties will take away from it what they want to. Much like the al-Durrah incident in 2000, the flotilla intercept will be used a prism through which any side can view the conflict as a whole.

For instance, the earliest reports that were unable to describe anything more detailed than Israelis boarding the flotilla and killing ten implied a massacre for which Jerusalem was directly responsible. But already video has come out with the true nature of the “peace activists” revealed (via Information Dissemination):

Of course, this in no exonerates Israel of responsibility for the raid in the first pace. If nothing else, this was a public relations catastrophe that could easily spark a third intifada. And it’s hard to see how the result couldn’t be predicted on either side. Galrahn calls it a given:

It is hard for Americans to draw any analogies, because we don’t have a relationship like the one between Israel and Palestine.

But if 1000 people from Mexico, whom our government presumed was mostly made up of drug cartel supporters, tried to sail into San Diego with the expectation of running the blockade of the Coast Guard and creating a political demonstration through confrontation – I assure you the odds of people getting killed would be pretty high.

Just like they were in this situation.

Either the flotilla itself was an intentional provocation – or not. It really does push the limits of the imagination to assert that no one had any idea a flotilla like that would possibly provoke Israel. But as Abu Muqawama explains, it’s Israel that should have had an even clearer idea of the possible consequences:

But for the sake of argument, and putting ourselves in the shoes of an Israeli naval commander, let’s assume the most malevolent of motivations for the people participating in the peace flotilla. If I am in charge of doing that for the Israeli Navy, I am going to assume these people are smart and are deliberately trying to provoke a crazy response from my sailors and soldiers that will produce ready-for-television images that both isolate Israel within the international community and further raise the ire of the Arabic-speaking and Islamic worlds. I mean, that is my base assumption for what this group is trying to do. So naturally, the last thing I would want my forces to do would be to overreact, right? [emphasis in original]

One need not assign blame to anyone in order to see this as the colossal fuckup that it is. As usual, absolutely no one wins this game.

The Next Island Chain

All too often, a newspaper’s article about an aspect of the Chinese military uses an alarming headline, builds up the “threat,” and then contradicts itself within the first few paragraphs. This time, it’s the New York Times in an article titled “China Expands Naval Power to Waters U.S. Dominates.”

YALONG BAY, China — The Chinese military is seeking to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific, where the United States Navy has long reigned as the dominant force, military officials and analysts say.

Well, OK, so far so good. Nothing there that we didn’t know already.

The strategy is a sharp break from the traditional, narrower doctrine of preparing for war over the self-governing island of Taiwan or defending the Chinese coast. Now, Chinese admirals say they want warships to escort commercial vessels that are crucial to the country’s economy, from as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, in Southeast Asia, and to help secure Chinese interests in the resource-rich South and East China Seas.

Yeah, that’s also nothing new. The ‘three island chain plan‘ has been around for decades; this was just the logical next step. They’re in the Gulf of Aden already conducting anti-piracy operations.

The overall plan reflects China’s growing sense of self-confidence and increasing willingness to assert its interests abroad. China’s naval ambitions are being felt, too, in recent muscle flexing with the United States: in March, Chinese officials told senior American officials privately that China would brook no foreign interference in its territorial issues in the South China Sea, said a senior American official involved in China policy.

Well, seeing as the South China Sea is a part of the first island chain – an arena China’s been capable of defending and projecting itself into for some time – this doesn’t change anything, really. Much like the United States will brook no interference in its own territorial issues. I’m not even sure what the problem is here that Wong sees…

The naval expansion will not make China a serious rival to American naval hegemony in the near future, and there are few indications that China has aggressive intentions toward the United States or other countries.

Oh, there it is. Thank you, Edward Wong, for leading us on with five paragraphs about the growing menace of the Chinese Navy and abruptly telling us “oh, you know what? Don’t worry about all that stuff I just said. It doesn’t matter.” Sea denial has been the constant refrain of the Chinese for a decade; the fact that we’re just catching on now is the alarming part. That’s why China’s focus is on asymmetrical naval warfare – not carriers to fight our carriers, but land-based missiles to sink our carriers.

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“A Small Thermal Exhaust Port…”

Its defenses are designed around a direct large-scale assault. A small one-man fighter should be able to penetrate the outer defense.
[…]
The Empire doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they’d have a tighter defense.

General Dodonna

Some good news for the US Navy:

Military experts say the Fifth Fleet has come a long way since Iranian gunboats crippled it within hours in a notorious war game five years ago.

In fact, says John Pike, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Global Security Web site, the Navy was well on its way to solving the challenge of fending off the swarming swift boats before the war game began.

In that test, an enemy “red team” headed by retired Martine Corps Gen. Paul Van Riper deployed the gun boats and propeller-driven suicide planes to paralyze the Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

It took Riper less than two hours to knock it out of commission.

Key to the shocking result was Van Riper’s strategy of neutralizing the American advantage in big guns and cruise missiles by getting in close before hostilities began.

But the Navy now has the MK 182, “the mother of all shotgun shells,” fired by 5-inch guns deployed on every major ship in the fleet, says Pike.

Nice to see the USN thinking small, fast, and swarming. Even if it’s just a defensive strategy, the vulnerability of the navy as is to asymmetrical threats – be it dinghies or land-based anti-ship missiles – is pretty damning. Clearly a step in the right direction.

Of course, as Norman Polmar insists, “it always depends on how it starts.”

Dragon at Sea: A Brief History of Chinese Navies

The strategic arena of East Asia.

SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, American naval supremacy has been unchallenged throughout the world. Even during that massive, global struggle, the Soviet Navy never came close to rivaling the power projection capabilities of the United States (of course, this was never their intent).

With the dawning of the twenty-first century, however, many commentators are declaring it to be “China’s Century,” during which the People’s Republic will finally assume its rightful place as a counterweight to the United States. Despite the financial crisis currently engulfing the world, the U.S.-China trade deficit reached record levels in 2008, with $266 billion against the United States. If the economic sphere were a battlefield, China would surely be winning.

Yet, the crucial trade arena formed by the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Western Pacific Rim has gone largely ignored in China as an area of vital strategic importance. Half of the largest container lines in the world are owned and based in Asia, and one-third of the world’s shipping is owned by Asian nations.[1]

It would make sense, then, for China to possess and deploy a strong navy. Since the Communist victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949, maritime power has been neglected, but the last decade has seen an ascendant navalist faction in the upper echelons of the Politburo. China has now embarked upon a major program of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and while American superiority in the region is likely to remain for the near future, the rise of the PLAN will pose significant challenges to the United States Navy in decades to come.

While recent history would indicate otherwise, China has a long and storied naval heritage.

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A Peaceful Rise at Home?

From World Military Forum:

BEIJING – A stronger Chinese navy will not seek to build military bases overseas, a retired senior officer has said amid media reports that the country harbors such “ambitions”.

Zhang Deshun, who was till recently the deputy chief of staff of the PLA navy, said a naval force with advanced armaments and enhanced capabilities will contribute more to UN-led anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and disaster-relief missions.

A larger navy with a greater reach does not mean it will seek to play the role of “world police”, said the retired rear admiral, who is a deputy to the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress.

I don’t know how to read this. I see several possibilities, not all of which ascribe ulterior motives to the Chinese. But most of them do. The first would be that they’re serious about this, and genuinely believe that if not now, then in the very near future Chinese naval capabilities will be such that they don’t require any overseas support facilities.

If that is true, their public admission of this could serve a twofold purpose: downplay concerns of a Chinese global power play, and at the same time serve notice to the United States and other maritime powers that China is advanced to this degree. After all, the U.S. operates a network of naval facilities around the world – perhaps Beijing is so powerful it doesn’t have to?

Alternatively, China could be using this to distract from the ‘three island chain’ plan.

The 'second island chain' of Chinese maritime strategy.

By eliminating the ‘third island chain’ – global, blue-water power projection – China’s ambitions of regional hegemony seem much more restrained and reasonable in comparison. But keep in mind that even the ‘second island chain’ in the strategy is demarcated by a line running from southern Japan to Guam through the middle of Indonesia and terminating at Australia. It’s still quite a bit of space.

Am I just being paranoid?