by James de Waal

Will the East's growing economic power be accompanied by a similar rise in its military power?

This is a key question for today's policy-makers searching for signs of a shift in the world's military balance.

The strength of the world's navies is one of these signs. But counting warships can be misleading. A headline tally of carriers, destroyers and submarines takes no account of the differing technical capabilities of vessels which notionally are in the same category. For example, one nation's destroyer may be 30 years younger than a similar vessel fielded by a neighbour, with double the range and an advantage in weapons, radars and computers comparable to the gap between a smart phone and a first generation mobile.

Equally important, headline numbers give no guide to some of the important components needed to build an effective navy, in particular levels of training and maintenance, range and sophistication of communications, and stocks of munitions, fuel and spare parts. It is no good having a large fleet if it is quietly rusting in harbour with inexperienced sailors unable to fire torpedoes from faulty tubes. These elements of naval strength are more difficult to assess, in part because they are often state secrets.

Even more secret is whether the navies have a credible plan for their deployment both in peace and wartime, and an effective operational doctrine that enables sailors to take the right decisions at the right time. Public oversight of this planning varies, but even the most democratic will try to preserve some secrecy.

As a result, analysts often try to draw conclusions based on the overall shape of the fleet. For example a fleet with large aircraft carriers may be intended to project its power far from its own shores, while a navy with small missile boats may be designed to prevent such a carrier force approaching its coast.

Much of the speculation about the long-term military intentions of India and China is based on this sort of analysis, in particular the question of whether China's acquisition of the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag implies a superpower-style plan to apply military power far from its shores. The problem is that the form of a navy only partly follows function. Military planning is just one factor in deciding to build or buy a warship. Industrial policy can play a big part, whether to promote a national shipbuilding industry, develop design and production skills and technology, or simply to provide employment.

Crucially, conceptions of national prestige can be a central driver of naval policy. Governments, militaries and the public have long seen naval strength as a measure of international status.

In Britain, some see recent reductions in the Royal Navy as implying that the country is no longer a first-rank power, rather than focusing on the Navy's ability to achieve specific defence and security tasks. Likewise, there are reports from China that admirals there have been arguing for the development of a carrier capability largely as a matter of status.

A subsidiary factor here can be institutional rivalry between a country's armed services, particularly for navies in continental powers, who may resent their traditionally inferior status compared to armies or air forces. This gives them an incentive to argue that new, larger naval capabilities are a way of gaining prestige and capability.

The ex-Soviet carrier now acquired by China is itself a result of this dynamic, as fruit of the last in a series of abortive Russian and Soviet attempts to build an ocean-going fleet dating back at least to Peter the Great. In this, the Varyag is an exercise in failure, as the Soviets' challenge to NATO naval forces came through submarines and land-based aircraft. Financially, the carrier programme was an unsustainable cost for the Soviet economy. It is to be seen if China can be any more successful.

Tables of naval strength, therefore, may indeed be evidence of newly assertive military power. But they may also be more a sign of an intense domestic political and economic debate. They may be less useful as an indicator of military intent, than as a reflection of economic power, and also as an indication that rising powers must satisfy a range of internal constituencies in formulating their policy.

Understanding these domestic pressures, rather than counting warships, may, therefore, be the most important way to spot whether a new global military power is coming over the horizon.



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