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What Can Mussolini’s Navy Teach Us About Chinese Naval Power?

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What Can Mussolini’s Navy Teach Us About Chinese Naval Power?

The history of the Italian navy offers great lessons why overestimating your enemy’s capabilities is dangerous.

What Can Mussolini’s Navy Teach Us About Chinese Naval Power?

The “Motoscafo armato silurante” – torpedo armed motorboat – commonly abbreviated as MAS, was a class of fast torpedo armed vessel used by the Regia Marina (the Royal Navy of Italy) during World War I and World War II.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As I pointed out in January (see: “Problems of Estimating Military Power”), it is inherently difficult to assess military strengths and to accurately predict how one’s opponent will behave in battle. More often than not, estimating military power is a guessing game, camouflaged by pseudo-scientific quantity and qualitative analyses, often punctuated with alarming bits of intelligence about the growing technical capabilities of a likely future adversary.

The history of the inter-war Italian navy, the Regia Marina, which faced a strategic outlook similar to the PLAN and was also confronted by technologically superior naval opponents, provides a great lesson in why overestimating your enemy’s capabilities is maybe just as dangerous as underestimating military power.

In short, miscalculating the fighting strengths of Mussolini’s navy prior to and during World War II diverted precious allied resources from dealing with more important military challenges (and as a consequence it inadvertently contributed to various allied defeats in the first three years of the war, such as during the Battle of France, and especially during the campaigns in North Africa). It also influenced policy making by granting Italy too big of a say in European politics (e.g., look up the history of the signing of the Munich Agreement) in comparison to the country’s real military capabilities.

Like the PLAN today, the Italians were engaged in many military innovations throughout the 1930s. For example, one article notes: “The Italian navy was impressive for its pioneering naval research into radar and its prowess in torpedo technology — the latter resulting in powerful aerial and magnetic torpedoes and contributing to the maiali, or small human-guided torpedoes — the ultimate weapons in asymmetric naval warfare.”

Also, the post-World War I Italian Navy, similar to today’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, harbored regional aspirations. With the conclusion of the war in 1918, the Italian admirals agreed that the navy must first dominate the Adriatic Sea and then expand into the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. China has a similar sequential strategy with attempting to dominate the Taiwan Strait as well as the South China Sea, followed by a push beyond the First Island Chain, and finally projecting power all the way to the Second Island Chain and beyond.

Often echoed in Chinese newspaper editorials, China, like Italy in the 1930s, feels boxed in and claims the right of an emerging power to a strong and powerful navy because the “Chinese nation’s existence, development, and great resurgence all increasingly rely on the sea.” Mussolini in 1926 forcefully asserted that “a nation which does not have free access to the oceans cannot be a great power; Italy must become a great power!” He reiterated this point in 1939 when he argued, “The bars of this prison are Corsica, Tunesia, Malta, and Cyprus . . .The fundamental aim of the Italian foreign policy must be to break free of this prison…”

The alleged strategic straightjacket for China is Taiwan; for Italy in the 1930s it was Malta — both islands often referred to as unsinkable aircraft carriers. Indeed, the Italian Navy’s prime obsession during the 1930s, especially during the Mediterranean Crisis in 1935, was the conquest of Malta, which greatly troubled Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, the head of the Italian Navy ministry, since he, much more than Mussolini, was aware of the inherent weakness of the Italian Regia Marina.

Another similarity between Italian strategic thinking in the 1930s and current Chinese strategy is striking. Afraid to face the might of Great Britain — the most powerful naval force of its time — starting in 1936, Italy began to develop a defensive counter-intervention strategy, based on light cruisers, destroyers, and submarines in order to defend Italy’s exposed coastline.

The Italians also experimented with swarming tactics and underwater assault techniques, built light surface-assault craft, and substantially increased the production of motor torpedo boats. In addition, in the interwar years, the Regia Marina started cooperating with the Italian air force and created torpedo bombers squadrons.

Today, China likewise appears to be implementing a counter-intervention strategy, although it is far from clear how important this concept is in current Chinese military thought.  (see: “This is Still the One Article to Read on Chinese Naval Strategy in 2015”). However, as I stated before, “Anyone studying the Chinese military knows that the PLA is seeing a conflict with the United States through an anti-access and area denial lens.”

Closely analyzing French and British Naval policy towards Italy in the 1930s, one also notices how little both navies factored in cultural and psychological aspects. For example, some naval historians, argue, that due to their experience in the 19th century, the Italians had developed a keen aversion to large sea battles, after a devastating defeat by the Austrian Navy in the Adriatic in 1866, which made any aggressive Italian action in the 1930s less likely.

Today, Western naval analysts also appear to underestimate cultural and psychological factors when analyzing the Chinese Navy. According to two professors, who recently wrote an excellent study on the subject (“Projecting Strategy: The Myth of Chinese Counter-Intervention”), this is due to the fact that, “history has shown—both in general and in previous U.S.–China cases specifically—that countries tend to evaluate their opponents through a ‘military lens’ that is heavily shaped by their own traditions and doctrines.”

Yet, it can also be caused by drawing the wrong lessons from past conflicts. “The outcome of the Spanish Civil War depended as much as controlling sea lines of communication and maintaining local sea control as it did on fighting and winning battles on land. Italy’s participation in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 created false illusions of Italian naval strength. Actually, success resulted from the enemy’s weakness,” notes a article on the Italian Navy in the interwar period.

The result of the French overestimating Italian naval strengths throughout the 1930s lead to a naval arms race in the Mediterranean and substantially influenced the French government’s foreign and naval policies vis-à-vis Mussolini and Hitler. The British more accurately assessed the Italian Navy’s fighting strengths, yet their forces thinly spread out to protect global commerce and the far-reaching British Empire could not withstand the loss of even a single battleship. Consequently, the British admiralty used the “hype” surrounding Italian naval power as an excuse to focus their maritime ambitions elsewhere.

The British concern in the 1930s is very similar to the United States’ fear of losing a single aircraft carrier to Chinese missiles; the psychological impact would be just too shocking to contemplate, yet it appears that the United States opted for the French approach and is engaging in a naval buildup to confront the ostensible growing might of the PLAN (see: “The United States’ New Maritime Strategy: A Quick Look”).

However, while I recognize that it is part of any serious national security professional’s job description to occasionally pronounce Cassandra-like warnings about impending national security catastrophes (I argued before that such commentators usually suffer from the “Gathering Storm Syndrome”), caused by underestimating an enemy’s military capability, I strongly believe that the current hype surrounding the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) military build-up is somewhat unwarranted.

In a previous article, I also noted that the obsession of America naval analysts with the Chinese military reminded me of a quote from the 1985 movie St. Elmos Fire, where one of the protagonists muses about the Cold War: “I enjoy being afraid of Russia. It’s a harmless fear, but it makes America feel better, Russia gets an inflated sense of national worth from our paranoia.” However, the history of the Italian Navy in the interwar years illustrates that miscalculating military power is far from harmless for policymakers, especially in times of meager financial resources.

This article is based on a previous piece published in The Huffington Post.