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 andlarge 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 (perhaps one) 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 self-defense 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.

Af Dr. Norman Friedman[1]

PDF med originaludgaven af Militært Tidskrift hvor denne artikel er fra:


[1] Views expressed here are the author’s own and should not necessarily be attributed to the U.S. Navy or to any other organization with which he has been associated.