Arms Races - Money is not enough: Part I

Naval challenges have been a major focus of two arms races that led to the global conflicts of WW1 and WW2. So, they should be taken very seriously. In the first arms race, the Royal Navy defeated the challenge from the Imperial German Navy in WW1 by a combination of enormous expenditure and a wave of naval invocations. Those groundbreaking innovations started with the launch of HMS Dreadnought and included steam turbines, all big guns centralised gunnery, submarines and aircraft carriers in their nascent form. We can see a direct parallel with the USN facing off against the PLN today, in that both money and innovation will be critical to success. In the second race prior to WW2, America fell behind the Japanese navy with respect to the capabilities of its carrier forces and paid a high price at Pearl Harbour as a result. The parallel also holds today with the growing friction in the South China Seas.

Thus, quite correctly the main beneficiary of Trump’s increase in defence spending will be the US Navy with its 355 ship programme of which 350 will be built. This shipbuilding programme equates to a $5Billion project over 30 years which in truth is still relatively small.

Today, the US Navy has fallen into a state of weakness and currently has 274 deployable main battle units which is far short of its old minimum goal of 308 ships. The US Navy's revised Force Structure Assessment (of 355 ships) called for adding another 47 ships including an aircraft carrier built in Virginia, 16 large surface warships built in Maine and Mississippi, and 18 attack submarines built in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Virginia. It also called for more amphibious assault ships, expeditionary transfer docks and support ships that would be appropriate for Pacific power projection roles. The big question though is, how quickly these new ships can be built and deployed and will they be serviceable by 2020 when the friction between America and China will increase significantly? With the lead time on shipbuilding, there is no chance that these targets will be met without increased expenditure and accelerated building programmes. As such numbers of main battle units will remain a problem into the foreseeable future.

However, numbers are only part of the story when factoring in how to win an arms race, as the challenging power always seeks new innovations to overturning the hegemony’s power base. Thus, innovations in military affairs are a critical part of the power balance. In most cases, the challenger is always more open to new war fighting concepts than the old power; a mechanism that will inevitably sorely test American war planners when faced with China’s asymmetric challenge. The key considerations that America must allow for are:

1. In China’s case we have to recognise that once China has the right designs for its weapons, it will build more of them at a cheaper price than America is able to do, due to its massive production capability. This was an advantage that America once wielded which allowed it to be a dominant factor in late WW1 and throughout WW2. Admiral Yamamoto's comment, post his attack on Pearl Harbour summed it up when he said that "he feared all they had done was to wake a sleeping giant." Today, China, not America is that giant. As Stalin once said "numbers have a quality all of their own".

2. America is no longer protected by its massive post-'star wars' investment in advanced weapons technology, thanks to over a decade of cyber espionage conducted by China which has left very few secrets in America’s hands. Thus, America can no longer depend on quality as its protective shield as the gap is narrowing very quickly.

3. China has another big advantage, in that it can produce weapon systems at a serious discount to America. This means that China will get at least twice the number of similar weapon systems as the USA for the same price.

4. China is seeking to build a more numerous military capability than America with similar unit capabilities. This would mean that mass wins. A good example is that the Chinese have invested heavily in conventional long-range surface-to-surface and ballistic missiles that are designed to make access into the South China Seas too risky for the USN to contemplate. They are specifically designed to swamp the missile defences of a USN carrier battle group.

5. Lastly, as the challenger to Pax America, the PLN will inevitably be highly creative in finding asymmetric opportunities and in adopting new technology that will give them a rapid advantage in the arms race.

In our next blog, we will look at examples of the impact of these five elements on US defence policy going forward.