Small Navy, Strong Navy
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Small Navy, Strong Navy

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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.

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