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Smaller Navies in an Uncertain World

Dr. Norman Friedman har gennem flere årtier indgående beskæftiget sig med  sikkerhedspolitik og strategi og i særlig grad med flåderelaterede emner. I  perioden 1973 – 84 var han Director of National Security Studies på Hudson  Institute og fokuserede i denne periode sin skribentvirksomhed på den  militærstrategiske balance mellem NATO og Warszawapagten. Han har gennem  årene flittigt været benyttet som forlæser på amerikanske institutioner som bl.a.  U.S. Naval War College, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, men også på det  australske og det canadiske National Staff Colleges. Herudover deltager han  fortsat hyppigt i internationale konferencer rundt om i verden.  Han har udgivet op mod 30 bøger, hvoraf en af de seneste er Seapower as  Strategy: Navies and National Interests (Naval Institute Press 2001, Annapolis,  MD), som bl.a. uddyber nogle af de aspekter, der berøres i nedenstående indlæg.  Derudover har han en fast månedlig klumme ”World Naval Developments” i  det meget ansete amerikanske tidsskrift U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.  

With the end of the Cold War, the potential importance of the smaller Western  navies has increased dramatically. During the Cold War, only a very powerful  navy could deal with the only overriding threat, that presented by the Soviet  Union. Smaller navies within NATO, such as the Royal Danish Navy, generally  had specialized and localized roles, such as the direct defense of the nation,  which were tenable only within a larger supporting alliance. The disappearance  of the Soviet threat did not, as we have learned, make the world safe, but it did  remove the enormous disparity between small but very effective Western  fleets and the problems they were likely to face in what now seems likely to be  a limited form of war. Perhaps it ought to be emphasized that, on a long  historical scale, the present disorder in the world, which occurs mainly on a  local level, is much more characteristic than the superpower confrontation of the fifty‐year Cold War. It might be likened in some ways to the situation in the  second half of the Nineteenth Century, the current U.S. position being in some  ways analogous to Britain’s at that time.  

It would be improper for an American to advise any other country as to its  national policy. Obviously Americans would prefer it if friendly governments  generally supported U.S. initiatives. We must, however, accept that not all  governments will always feel impelled to do so. During the Cold War, it was  painfully obvious that Western Europe was vulnerable to a Soviet assault. The  governments which joined NATO understood as much. They generally also  appreciated that without a U.S. contribution, NATO probably could not stand  off a Soviet attack (there were many times that analysts wondered whether the  proffered U.S. contribution would have been enough). The alliance members  often argued about just what alliance policy should be, but one effect of  forming the alliance was that its members could adopt specialized or local  defense policies as part of a coherent alliance strategy.  

With the Soviet threat gone, there is a real question as to what future  threats deserve the sort of attention NATO gave the Soviets. Individual  governments will naturally have their own views. It seems likely that they will  want to support force structures which both give them independence and  provide support in cases in which they feel they ought to become involved. For  European countries there is also inevitably the question of whether the  European Union will become something more like a federated state, in which  case leverage over pan‐European foreign policy may well depend on the nature  of the nation’s contribution to overall Union military strength.

In an abstract sense, navies embody national sovereignty. Unlike armies or  ground‐based air forces, they can operate at the behest of their national  owners, without requiring support or permission from the countries off whose  shores they operate. They can arrive ‐‐ and leave ‐‐ based on the needs of their  national governments. That is, what is special about navies is their  independent mobility, which includes their ability to wait off a shore. These  virtues are consequences of physical, not man‐made, law: it takes no  expenditure of energy to support a ship unless she is moving, and even when  moving she is a supremely efficient form of transportation. That is why  seaborne trade is growing so rapidly ‐‐ and it is also why naval forces are easy  to position near areas of conflict. By way of contrast, because an airplane burns  large amounts of fuel just to remain in the air, it cannot just wait outside some  country’s air space ‐‐ it needs a base, and hence needs someone’s permission  to be present. Ground troops do not burn anything (except food) when they are  waiting, but they can wait only in someone’s territory ‐‐ or on board a ship, in  which case they are an element of sea power.

From a political point of view, because they can simply wait offshore,  navies offer a unique kind of presence, which may either encourage an ally or  dissuade a potential enemy. Other types of military forces can do little without  acting; even when waiting, they have direct effects because their presence  requires the active cooperation of a state near the one which is to be affected.  In a post‐colonial world, there will be few places where troops can stay without  such active acquiescence. Another way to put this would be that other types of  force have very limited endurance. They often must either act or leave. That is  particularly the case when total forces are very limited, as tying down forces  may be unacceptable. This is not an abstract point; it seems to have applied  very much to the build‐up in the Gulf prior to the war with Iraq in 2003.

Another interesting factor is that, unlike ground power, naval power offers  leverage for those with sophisticated technology rather than with large  numbers of personnel. That has long been the case. Clearly a country with high  technology and large resources will likely field a larger and more effective fleet  (if it chooses to), but at sea limited numbers have often been quite effective.

The kind of naval warfare characteristic of superpower vs. superpower  confrontation is different from the sort we are likely to see over the next  decades. Superpower warfare often demands concentrated sea power. For the  U.S. Navy, the way to achieve concentration at the highest technological level  was to reduce the fleet to a relatively small number of very powerful ships.  That was true even during the build‐up to the 600 ship fleet, and the sheer  complexity of the ships guaranteed that numbers would fall dramatically once  the Cold War ended. Such reductions were acceptable as long as sea power  would be applied in a very concentrated form. That was the case, for example,  during the attack on Iraq in 2003.

However, on a day to day basis crises occur in many widely separated  places. It is impossible simultaneously to concentrate forces to deal with such  crises. On the other hand, in many cases it takes far less than a massive force to  handle a local situation. The key point is that whatever local opposition is  present it is likely to operate on a far less effective scale than did the Cold War  Soviets and their allies. Of course there are exceptions, and of course even  relatively small states wield quite dangerous anti‐ship weapons. However, the  overall scale of their sea power is limited at best.  

This means that in many cases even the most powerful navy in the world  that of the United States, will wield its sea power on a scale comparable with  that available to smaller Western fleets. The difference is that the United  States can hope to operate on that scale simultaneously in many places,  whereas the smaller navies cannot deploy to more than a few places (perhapsone) at any one time; but it is striking that the smaller navies now have much  greater relative weight.

Put another way, a smaller navy now potentially offers its government a  much greater alliance or coalition contribution to offer (or withhold) than in the  past. In cases in which some foreign crisis touches the nation directly, a smaller  Western power can field a fleet with a real chance of affecting the outcome.  Moreover, time may be favoring small but sophisticated naval forces. The  states most likely to be objectives of various forms of Western naval power  were largely armed, during the Cold War, by the Soviet Union. In many cases  weapons were transferred without real payment, on the theory that their  presence would be an effective counter to the West. The effect of the end of  the Cold War and of the transformation of the Russian and Ukrainian  economies is that little or nothing is transferred without payment in hard cash ‐ and, in many cases, the hostility of the states involved is bound up with their  disastrous economic situation (there are, of course, exceptions). Similar  considerations apply to arms purchases from China. The overall consequence is  that for many countries most hostile to the West the level of their defenses is  declining, a consideration which applies particularly to sophisticated naval and  air weapons.  

All of this suggests that naval power now offers a small but technologically  sophisticated country unusual leverage on several levels. As always, it has an  independent means of applying pressure to governments abroad. That  independent power is limited, but it is relatively more important than in the  past. Clearly there are instruments of power far beyond the means of a small  power ‐‐ it is difficult, for example, to imagine the Danish Parliament  authorizing construction of a nuclear ‐powered aircraft carrier ‐‐ but the  instruments which are affordable, such as the new support ships, are  impressive enough on their own.

A deployable fleet offers two complementary kinds of contributions to a  coalition. For a government, an important advantage of coalition membership  is that it can provide a say in what the coalition does. Clearly, the stronger the  contribution, the greater the say ‐‐ although it will probably never quite  amount to a veto.  

One type of contribution is membership in a larger naval force. To make  that possible, ships and their communication systems have to be compatible  with those of the other partners. For years, for example, the ability of NATO  navies to operate together depended on their use of a common digital data  link, Link 11 (which Denmark adopted in the 1990s). Now it depends on access  to satellite systems. The more capable the ships, the more vital their  contributions are likely to be. That is a strong argument for adopting the most advanced naval technology, even at a considerable expense in numbers of  ships.  

The other type of contribution is the ability to operate independently, the  coalition having to cover many operating areas more or less simultaneously.  Certainly that is relevant from a U.S. point of view; to the U.S. Navy, the main  strategic lesson of September 11, 2001 was that crises could arise suddenly,  and that they need not be directly connected. That was in contrast to Cold War  thinking, in which it was imagined that any crisis the United States faced would  have originated with the Soviet Union. Hence the appropriate response could  be pressure applied anywhere along the Soviet periphery. Hence, also, the  expectation that there would be few if any simultaneous crises, since the  Soviets would fear uncontrolled escalation. We now know, by the way, that  Soviet fear of escalation was real, and that it often affected their policies. If  there is no single unified enemy, there is no particular reason for crises to occur  singly. Indeed, those interested in aggression may well see the response to one  crisis as an opportunity to gain what they want while their enemies are  concentrating elsewhere.  

Indeed, the current U.S. Navy interest in building a larger surface  combatant fleet, in the form of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), is a direct  consequence of the new perception. In the aftermath of the September 11  attacks, the U.S. Navy circulated a briefing describing what it saw as the new  basis for naval strategy. One slide was labeled “a bad day in 2003.” It showed  four independent crises which the United States could well have to confront.  They were independent because those who would have caused them were  unrelated to each other. Note, for example, that before September 2001 most  Americans who feared involvement in a new quagmire war thought in terms of  the narco‐terrorists who threaten Colombia in South America, a country whose  government has received considerable U.S. support. One might also note that  there is a continuing need for troops to enforce the fragile peace in Kosovo.  These problems are entirely aside from familiar ones such as the threat posed  by North Korea.  

In the case of Afghanistan in 2001, alongside the force which was  supporting ground operations against the Taliban (which was largely a naval  force, as it happened), the United States and coalition partners were enforcing  an embargo against Iraqi oil smuggling. These were nominally unrelated  activities, although it turned out that the embargo also stopped many Al  Qaeda operatives from fleeing to Somalia to set up a new base of operations.  The important point about the embargo is that it could not have been  maintained without the vital presence of coalition navies. It was, moreover, absolutely vital both to the campaign against Al Qaeda and to the ongoing  campaign against Saddam Hussein.  

From an American point of view, even with the coalition forces helping,  U.S. forces were badly stretched to deal with both Afghanistan and other  existing problems ‐‐ such as North Korea. One can speculate that one reason  for attacking Iraq in 2003 rather than continuing the attempt at containment  was the feeling that it was impossible to continue to tie down the mobile forces  involved in containment, particularly the aircraft enforcing the No‐Fly Zone,  while the war on terrorism escalated. Clearly the United States badly wanted  coalition help, but even with coalition navies in place overall resources were  perceived as very limited. That does not affect the view that sophisticated  coalition navies make a vast difference to the United States ‐‐ and that their  absence can be keenly felt.  

There is a third type of contribution, but it is likely to be far less attractive.  When the Cold War ended, the Nordic navies were concentrating on selfdefense in the event of a Soviet attack. They had become expert in littoral  warfare, for example in concealing missile boats along their coasts so that they  could strike at approaching invasion forces. For the United States and other  powers interested in projecting sea power abroad, one main problem is  overcoming exactly such defenses. For some years NATO fleets have learned  the art of littoral operations, both against mines and against missiles, by  exercising against the coast defense navies, such as that of Denmark. This  exercise role is clearly still very relevant, and the assistance offered by the  Royal Danish Navy is probably invaluable.

However, this type of assistance falls short of what a government  reasonably expects from its investment in sea power. Too, while the assistance  is well appreciated on a navy‐to‐navy basis, it probably has only limited impact  on a government‐to‐government basis; it offers only limited leverage within a  coalition or an alliance.  

The more fundamental question is, why should small powers spend  valuable money on military forces? During the Cold War, that was more than a  rational question, because individually no small power had much of a chance of  standing off a superpower attack. The rational answer was that unless the  small power did its best as part of an alliance, no one would protect it when the  crisis came. Moreover, participation in an alliance gave every member some  say in what the alliance would do. The larger the contribution, the larger the  say. That was the rationale for the very close British participation with the  United States in the nuclear deterrent.  

Post Cold War, the rationale is much simpler. Small but sophisticated  forces really can make a difference. The most important threats, it now seems, are based far from their targets, in countries which are generally accessible to  sea power. That was the case with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, for example.  Clearly military power alone does not deal with such threats, which are often  mounted on a sub‐national level (although Al Qaeda came very close to being  the effective government of Afghanistan in 2001). However, military action  seems to have a vital role.  

The solution to the current terrorist threat seems inevitably to involve a  coalition. Coalitions are not as rigid as alliances; members join and drop out, or  limit their contributions as they like. However, the ability to provide valuable  assistance to a coalition helps ensure that the coalition will help the  contributor. In that sense the situation is not so very different from what it was  during the Cold War ‐‐ the main difference is that a small but advanced country  can make a much more visible contribution. Sea power, which can mean the  formation of a national naval unit like the Danish Task Group, seems to be the  optimum one.