Small Navy, Strong Navy
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Small Navy, Strong Navy


Our friends at the Center for International Maritime Security are running a “Maritime Futures Project” and requested some input on the following question, among others: “What advice would you give to a smaller nation on the maritime investments it should pursue, and why?”

Your humble scribe’s response:

Lesser maritime nations often seem to assume they have to compete symmetrically with the strong in order to accomplish their goals. That would mean that, say, a Vietnam would have to build a navy capable of contending on equal terms with China's South Sea Fleet in order to fulfill its strategic aims. That need not be true. Here at the U.S. Naval War College we sometimes debate whether small states have grand strategies, or whether grand strategy is a preserve of the strong. Small coastal states do have grand strategies. In fact, there's a premium on thinking and acting strategically when you have only meager resources to tap. Our Canadian friends, for instance, take pride in operating across interagency boundaries. Small states can't simply throw resources at problems and expect to solve them. They have to think and invest smart. That's my first bit of advice.

What kinds of strategies and forces should the weak pursue? Here's the second bit of advice. They should consult great thinkers of the past. The French jeune ecole of the nineteenth century formulated some fascinating ideas about how to compete with a Royal Navy that ruled the waves. Sir Julian Corbett fashioned a notion of active defense by which an inferior fleet could prevent a greater one from accomplishing its goals. In effect it could hug the stronger fleet, remaining nearby to keep the enemy from exercising command of the sea. Mao Zedong's writings about active defense also apply in large part to the nautical domain. The notions of sea denial and maritime guerrilla warfare should resonate with smaller powers today. Clinging to an adversary while imposing high costs on him is central to maritime strategies of the weak.

And third, what does that mean in force-structure terms? It means smaller maritime powers should look for inexpensive hardware and tactics that make life tough and expensive for bigger powers. I have urged the Taiwan Navy to downplay its sea-control fleet in favor of platforms like missile-armed fast patrol boats that could give a superior Chinese navy fits. Such acquisitions are worth studying even for a great naval power like Japan. So long as Tokyo caps defense spending at one percent of GDP, it has to get the most bang it can for the buck. Sea denial should be in its portfolio.

Bottom line, lesser powers should refuse to despair about their maritime prospects. They should design their fleets as creatively as possible, taking advantage of the home-field advantage all nations enjoy in their immediate environs. That may mean a navy founded on small craft.

March 30, 2014 at 02:07

VN is a trouble maker in indo-china, china eventually has to chop it. Northern VN will be independent as a state.

December 24, 2013 at 08:33

…With a long coast and narrow shape of Vietnam combined the domestic production of anti-ship missiles in which they have range of 300kilometers…VN needs no aircraft carrier because its coast acts as an unsinkable carrier. When South China Sea conflict starts with Vietnam involvement….within 200k,m from shore of VN will become an…shooting alley of Vietnamese anti-ship missiles. Not mention about under water weaponries and airforce….it will be an expensive way to attack VN….Just my thought..

January 29, 2013 at 22:44

The Canadian Forces are one of the best militaries of any country. RCN Royal canadian Navy is a small navy but you don't need a big one. We have 10 Frigates that are the backbone of the nevy and very capable ships they are also used a lot for international missions like Somalian piracy. We then have 3 guided missile destroyers who are well armed and good leaders in a attacking role. The Frigates and Destroyers carry at most 2 Ch-124 Seakings. We then have around 12 minesweepers who are used for more of a home defense ship. Next up is 2 torpedo and sound ranging vessels who can come into combat but are used as reserve combat in case of defense of the country. Then we have several Yard auxiliary General, and Yard Driving Tenders, and 10 Orca class training vessels. They are used for different jobs in the port and are designed so that a machine gun can fit on the sides. We have then 10 Tugboats which are used for pushing the bigger ships into port. Then we have 2 Fireboats used to take out the fire if a ship gets on fire.  Last but not least we have a old training ship that is a sailboat. That is the Royal Canadian Navy

January 5, 2013 at 06:22

The only one on your list that is effective is S300 missile and Su-27 fighters. All others are old and outdated. Vietnam is a very long country. You will need a lot of S-300 to defend Vietnam. Vietnam only has a couple of sets of S-300. Even S-300 will have hard time counter stealth fighters/bombers. Not to mention the S-300 will be attacked by missiles and UAVs first.
Most of the Su-27 will be destroyed on the ground by missiles. The left over Su-27 cannot fight off a few thousands J-10, J-11, J20 and J-31.
Vietnam has zero chance to protect its navy from air attacks. Let us not remember. Vietnam can win 1000 times. China ONLY has to defeat Vietnam once.

December 24, 2013 at 08:20

What do you think ab the loss of more than 4 thousands aircrafts of USAF in the sky of North Vn during vn war???? The mighty, super power USA against tiny, poor North VN….What do you think ab an united VN of North and South nowadays? With the acquisition of new missiles, full size subs, new frigates, modern flankers… and also domestic defence industry???? VN now is a different VN compared to tiny North VN during VN war…Think well about that on top of their patriotic long history for survival. Any Foreign strategist must plan well and think hard enough before messing with Vietnamese. VN history proves that: Ancient Chinese, Mongol, Japanese, French, American also Khmer Rouge( little more than 10 days campaign, Khmer Rouge, backed by China went to…extinction)….

January 2, 2013 at 14:15

Vietnam ? are you kidding me? shenzhens  government revenue is twice of  Vietnam    , you kown  what i  say?   shenzhen  a city of  China.  so  dont make me laugh .   China destroy Vietnam  need not  navy .  we  use  money  .

bac phat
January 1, 2013 at 06:36

They don't have 'enough money' to upgrade their defense system but they've already had  Su- 27s & Su-30s, S-300s,S-125,S75s, SA-6, SA-13,etc. enough to shoot down all commie Chinese planes daring to enter the Vietnamese sky. These are highly mobile & dispersed, so it's very hard for chinese misiles to destroy them in any possible pre-emptive strikes launched  against the Vietnamese IAD system.

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