Return of the Dreadnaught Race? Sea Power Theory in the 21st Century

I have always held a great interest in the naval arms race between Great Britain and Imperial Germany at the start of the 20th Century, which contributed towards the outbreak of the First World War. The theoretical ideas that underpinned this arms race are just as relevant to the issue of competing powers in today’s multipolar world.

Specifically, I refer to China and India and their increasing use of Maritime Power to protect key trade interests from each other while gaining a geo-political advantage. This brand of competition between powers can be understood in theoretical context from the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan. After serving in various minor capacities around the world and on the Union side in the American Civil War he entered the US Navy in 1857.[1] Mahan was then sent in 1884 to command the US Navy’s new War College where he developed theories of maritime power, which remain influential today.[2]

By viewing naval power as the main method of great powers to curtail the ambitions of their rivals, Mahan sought to gain advantage over them by blocking supplies to their forces and launching attacks; commentators labelled Mahan the: “Evangelist of Sea Power”.[3] He applied these theories to the American Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in his two key works; theories which were advanced to great acclaim to the then rivalry ridden Europe.[4] Mahan’s contemporary importance finds place in Posen’s argument for a reduced US role on the world stage so the US can focus on its own strategic priorities.[5] Despite advocating fewer interventions in costly wars to conserve its diminished resources, Posen argues the US should continue to place an emphasis on its naval forces in order to continue its “command of the global commons”.[6] Sir Julian Corbett believed Mahan’s brand of theory in sea power was a blunt instrument, Posen, however, still believes Mahan has importance today[7]. This is because contemporary US naval power can project onto land with modern technology for purposes such as mounting attacks and intelligence gathering.[8]

These theories take on an additional potency when Mahan’s theories are placed in the context of China and India, who as emerging powers, seek to utilise naval power for similar purposes, particularly when regional geo-political alliances are taken into account. This has parallels to the situation in Europe prior to WWI where an elaborate alliance structure saw one event dragging other allied powers into an unretractable situation and ultimately a war that changed the world forever.[9] Therefore, this potential for the clashing interests of rival powers in one of the world’s most important oceans demonstrates there are still possibilities to draw allies into localised conflicts which, contrary to popular opinion, will broaden their scope.

China’s New-Found Maritime Strength

In recent years, China’s rapid economic growth has been accompanied by a large increase in military power.[10] This is particularly the case with the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This followed the humiliating climb-down at the hands of the US Navy where two aircraft carriers were dispatched in 1996 to deter China from continuing missile exercises near Taiwan.[11] China recognises its own deficiency in the maritime domain, indeed, rectifying this is now a necessity as the rapid ascent of its economy has led to an increased demand for natural resources such as oil and rare earth metals, sourced from both the Middle East and Africa.[12] The core doctrine of PLAN expansion has been moving from what Chinese General Liu Huaqing called defending the “first island chain” of islands near Japan, to the “second island chain” further out into the Pacific Ocean.[13] Alongside the growing number of more capable surface combatants, the centre piece of this expansion has been acquisition of an aircraft carrier from Russia in 2003, where it had been known as the Varang, in order to train PLAN crews in the key skills of operating an aircraft carrier.[14] This carrier has been renamed the Liaoning and while precise plans are unknown, it is believed China plans to construct another four aircraft carriers, a development granting China considerable power projection capabilities in the region and beyond.[15] This is a policy not just held by China, but also by India.

The Maritime Rise of India

Being a continental power focused on defending itself against arch strategic rival Pakistan, means most defence expenditure is still consumed by the army, India is now, however, engaged in a build-up of its naval forces.[16] Crucially for most of its post-independence existence, India has operated aircraft carriers whereas China has only just began to acquire this key capability.[17] While continuing to sail the elderly former HMS Hermes as INS Viraat,[18] in 2013, India commissioned the former Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov as the INS Vikramaditya.[19] This vessel displaces 30’000-40’000 tonnes and carries advanced Mig29k combat aircraft,[20] a development to be followed towards the end of this decade (if unclear delivery schedules and delays are accounted for) by India’s first home built aircraft carrier.[21] The INS Vikrant will be of similar size and complement of aircraft as Vikramaditya and in the 2020s will be followed by a second, the INS Vishal.[22] Displacing 65’000 tonnes and launching larger combat and support aircraft by electro-magnetic catapult, it could even be nuclear powered.[23] This will allow India to station a carrier with its Western Fleet in the Arabian Sea, a second with its Eastern Fleet on the Bay of Bengal and hold a third in reserve,[24] as displayed in this map. This graphic clearly demonstrates how China’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) cross the planned deployment zones of India’s planned aircraft carrier force. Thus, there is great potential for the strategic interests of these two powers clashing.

Where these two meet

The significant Indian diaspora and their economic interests in Africa result in common strategic interests with China, owing to the natural resources both powers extract from this continent, together with the investments they both hold there.[26] Hence, a regularly cited reason for India’s strategic expansion in the Indian Ocean is to use its navy as a stabilising force, to protect these key interests.[27] This is an area China is all too aware of as being strategically vital to its economic interests.[28] Therefore the US and India are building closer diplomatic and military links in the face of a common rival, China.[29] The proximity of India’s fleet deployments to key Chinese SLOCs demonstrates the vulnerability of these crucial economic links to the forces of a strong US ally.[30] Therefore, this evolving alliance between the US and India draws together the interests of these two powers into an alliance structure beginning to resemble that existing in Europe prior to WWI. This is through one aiding the other in the event of conflict, showing how strategic interests can provide the possibility of inter-state conflict in an era where this is often thought improbable.

Jack Richardson holds a BA in International Relations with Political Science, and is completing an MA in Air Power at the University of Birmingham. He recently completed a two month work placement with the ICCS assisting Professor Mark Webber with his work on the recent Russo-Ukraine Crisis, and now works as an intern in the Corporate and External Relations Department of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Jack’s main interests lie in contemporary geo-political and military strategy.

[1] Crowl, P. “Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian” in P, Paret (ed.), Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, (Princeton, 1986,), pp.444-477, pp.445-446

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid, p.451

[4] Ibid, p.447

[5] See Posen, B. Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, (London, 2014).

[6] Ibid, pp.135-136.

[7] Posen, B. Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, (London, 2014) pp.141-142.

[8] Ibid, pp.142-143.

[9] Kennedy, P. The Rise and Fall of the Great Power: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500-2000, (London, 1989), p.327.

[10] Yahuda, M. The International Politics of the Asia Pacific: Third and Revised Edition, (Abingdon, 2011), p.272.

[11] Emmott, B. Rivals: How the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade, (London, 2008), p.237.

[12] Ibid, p.53.

[13] Cole, B. The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century: Second Edition, (Annapolis, 2010), pp.174-176

[14] Ibid, pp.87-91.

[15] Philips, T. “China silently forges ahead with second aircraft carrier”, The Daily Telegraph, 03/03/2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/11385864/China-silently-forges-ahead-with-second-aircraft-carrier.html (Accessed: 03/03/2015).

[16] The Economist, “Know your own strength”, 30/03/2013, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21574458-india-poised-become-one-four-largest-military-powers-world-end (Accessed 03/03/2015).

[17] Ibid

[18] Joshi, S. “sixty-five thousand tonnes of ambition”, RUSI Analysis, 10/12/2009, https://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4B20EF703EDFF/ (Accessed: 03/03/2015).

[19]Panjit, R. “India puts aircraft carrier plan on fast track”, The Times of India, 23/02/2015 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-now-puts-aircraft-carrier-plan-on-fast-track/articleshow/46336472.cms (Accessed: 24/02/2015).

[20] Joshi, S. “sixty-five thousand tonnes of ambition”, RUSI Analysis, 10/12/2009, https://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4B20EF703EDFF/ (Accessed: 03/02/2015).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Panjit, R. “India puts aircraft carrier plan on fast track”, The Times of India, 23/02/2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-now-puts-aircraft-carrier-plan-on-fast-track/articleshow/46336472.cms (Accessed: 24/02/2015).

[23] Ibid.

[24] Joshi, S. “Sixty-Five thousand tonnes of ambition”, RUSI Analysis, available at: https://www.rusi.org/go.php?structureID=commentary&ref=C4B20EF703EDFF Accessed 28/01/2015

[25] Ibid

[26] The Economist, “Elephants and tigers”, 26th October 2013, available at: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21588378-chinese-businessmen-africa-get-attention-indians-are-not-far (Accessed: 03/03/2015).

[27] Ibid

[28] Parry, C. Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century, (London, 2014), pp.265-267.

[29] The Economist, “Elephants and tigers”, 26th October 2013, available at: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21588378-chinese-businessmen-africa-get-attention-indians-are-not-far (Accessed: 03/03/2015).

[30] Emmott, B. Rivals: How the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade, (London, 2008), p.237.

Image source: Flickr / Jeff Head

One thought on “Return of the Dreadnaught Race? Sea Power Theory in the 21st Century”

  1. “The theoretical ideas that underpinned this arms race are just as relevant to the issue of competing powers in today’s multipolar world.”

    We don’t live in a multipolar world, ours is, for the moment, still very much a unipolar hegemony.

    Like

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