Monday, April 03, 2006

High Seas Fleet

When the Soviet Union collapsed, I expected their fleet to dwindle away. Czarist Russia rarely had a major sea-going fleet in its history, since it was a continental power that relied on armies to protect its long frontiers. To have a navy--a major expense--required a major effort and strong leadership to push forward. I figured the inertia of history would kill the Red fleet.

Without the will to confront America, Russia had no desire to expend money they did not have on maintaining the large ex-Soviet fleet. After fifteen years of neglect:

Russia recently did a study of their navy and found that, because of the age of their ships, and the lack of maintenance since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the fleet would be reduced to sixty seaworthy warships and submarines in ten years. Because of its geography, the Russian navy is divided into four widely separated fleets (North, Pacific, Baltic and Black Sea). Assuming that the fleet is divided equally into four parts, in a decade, the Baltic Sea Fleet would be inferior to the nearby Swedish and Finnish fleets. The Black Sea fleet would be inferior to the nearby Turkish navy.

It's nearly gone. The fleet that in 1975 practiced a world-wide Pearl Harbor against our carriers will in a few years be a coast guard with some nuclear attack and nuclear missile submarines. Plus a small number of prestige capital ships to show the flag and remind others (but mostly themselves) that they were once a major naval power.

So is China's drive for a blue water navy similarly vulnerable to lack of interest? Is it a vanity project to gain the trappings of a major power? Will this fleet atrophy and die like Soviet Russia's fleet after a flurry of ship-building? Will modern China continue the trend of Imperial China which had no major fleet through most of China's long history?

I don't think so. Unlike Soviet (or Putin's) Russia, China is not just a land power. Chinese trade and energy and raw material needs require access to the world via the seas. China has every interest in building a blue water navy to safeguard their access to these markets and resources.

So Chinese naval power is a fact of life we have to get used to and not assume is just a passing fancy. As long as China remains a unified state, that is.

On the other hand, since China is still a land power in addition to being a newly developing sea power, they may founder on the dilemma of the Kaiser's Germany--too few resources to fund both the armies to defend the land frontier and the ships to patrol the sea frontier at the same time. America and Japan at sea to the east and armies/air power in an arc from Vietnam to India to Russia to South Korea.

We'll see if the Chinese can do better than the Germans of a century ago. I doubt it.