Lessons From The History of Maritime Hegemonic Challenge


The Age of Sail

In the ancient Mediterranean world, sea battles were decided by the size of the fleets, ramming, boarding and fire. Design innovations were incremental whilst tactical decisions and combat skills paramount. The Roman empire was defined by it control of the Mediterranean, and its ability to allow trade to operate freely between the various elements of the empire that bordered the sea.  A thousand years  later the Western Christian Super Empire started to be  defined by a  sequence of nations who  aspired to control  the world's oceans, and become the maritime hegemonic powers of their time.


Starting with the Portuguese, then the Spanish who extracted gold and silver from far away Latin American empires and used the oceans to transport their treasure home. Interestingly it was England who as the aspiring maritime hegemony, and who adopted the cannon as a ship killer, and designed small agile warships to optimise there use. In so doing they created a weapon that allowed them to plunder and ultimately defeat that Spanish Armada. The moment in History when England became a maritime force to be reckoned with. Next alongside England rose the Dutch and French who all sought dominance. During that period ship design evolved iteratively, as warships became larger and the armament more numerous and powerful. English ship design was not as good as the French design by a relatively small margin, but the introduction of copper bottoms to the Royal Navy in 1760 and its effect upon sustained speed was a significant leap forward and had been deployed fleet wide successfully by 1780. This allowed RN ships to stay at sea for years and still maintain their speed, a critical capability with respect to blockading French warships in their ports for years during the Napoleonic wars. England’s commitment to naval innovation, set the pattern for rising powers to be more creative in the development and deployment of new game changing weapons at sea. This include the harnessing of the early industrial revolution to increase the rate of ships building at Portsmouth dockyard. We will see this pattern repeated through history.


 By the end of the seven years war which concluded in 1763, Britain had mastery of the world's Ocean. If there was any doubt this was the case, it  was expunged in 1805 at the battle of Trafalgar when Nelson crushed the larger combined French and Spanish Fleets.  For 109 years afterwards Pax Britannica followed as Britain became the first global maritime hegemonic power. It was so powerful that it adhered to the two power standard, and was  capable of beating the combined fleets of any two lesser nations. This was a world were sea power was defined by sail power. The Royal Navy's power was defined by its ship design, the topography of a nation and its access to the seas along with the prevailing winds, the number of warships produced by its shipyards that had been revolutionized by the industrial revolution and the highly skilled crews that manned  them. But most importantly I believe was the generational right-brained leadership which created and operated the  meritocracy of the Royal Navy.



The Industrial Age and the First German Challenge to The Royal Navy

By the turn of the century in 1900, the world had changed immeasurably following a series of industrial revolutions.  Britain and its Empire had two economic challengers sailing onto the horizon. The first was America whose GDP was matching the GDP of the whole British Empire, and who having relieved Spain of all its pacific colonises in the war of 1898, now had pacific aspirations requiring sea lane control. To provide a strategic framework for their anticipated challenge to the Pax Britannica, they turned to the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a commander in the USN. Meanwhile, in 1896 the Kaiser having seen his grandmothers Spithead Review of the enormous Royal Navy, which was so big it could take on and defeat the next two largest navies in the world, had  decided that Germany would build a fleet to challenge Britain, and the German Navy also became a student of Mahan’s work.


However, at that time, Britain's lead was so great that it would have been decades before America and especially Germany could build a pre-dreadnought fleet to take on the Royal Navy. Until a revolution in naval affairs changed the balance of power. Because in 1906 in Portsmouth the RN launched the all big gun, steam turbine-powered HMS Dreadnought, whose firepower invalidated decades of naval investment in pre-dreadnoughts. In a flash, the naval arms race has started from a zero point and Germany grasped her opportunity with both hands. Over the next five years, both sides built bigger and bigger super dreadnoughts at a staggering pace. However whilst Britain only maintained a small army, Germany was simultaneously building the largest, most powerful army in Europe and thus by the start of 1914 its was clear that Britain had effectively won the navel dreadnought battle by building more ships (29 to 17 super dreadnoughts). The German, high command recognised the domination of the seas through a superior super dreadnought fleet was not realistic within the time frames set by the accelerating rate of the  Russian armies modernization and  armament. An unenviable  position that would have forced Germany  to have to fight both a powerful Russia and French Armies  simultaneously. In addition, the increasing price of commodities was polarising Germany to become more aggressive in its aspirations.


At a time when naval warfare was going through a full spectrum revolution, with not only super dreadnoughts with all their associated  technology. But in parallel the development of seaplane carriers, zeppelins operating over the sea in reconnaissance roles and most importantly of all. The arrival of the submarine and its now effective primary weapon, the torpedo. It was thus to Submarines  and torpedo-carrying destroyers that the Germany Navy turned their priority, in the hope that destroyers would be able to sink Battleships (which was almost the case at the battle of Jutland) and that submarines would be able to close the Trade routes to strangle Britain(and  by 1917 they almost did). This is the first clear example of a challenging hegemonic power that recognised that its time window was running out to make its challenge as it could  not create the superiority in what was viewed as the dominant weapons system of the day.  So quite logically they turned to asymmetric weapons that could be produced rapidly. However, although they came very close they failed to defeat Britain at sea and it was Germany whose trade routes were constricted to the point where the war became unsustainable, as sea power crushed land power. In the period between the Spanish American Spanish war in 1898 at the end of the war in 1918, championed by the President Theodore Roosevelt, the USN Navy expanded at a staggering rate, such that by 1921 and the Washington treaty the USN  had the same number of capital ships as the Royal Navy. This combined with control of the Panama canal and numerous operating bases overseas put an end to Pax Britannica. Notably America given her industrial power and time (as it was isolated and secure) had built a fleet of similar size and structure to the Royal Navy and had not needed to seek asymmetric advantage. It is interesting to ask the consider that, that if Germany had not challenged the Britain maritime dominance, then it would have been inevitable that America would have  done so, as prior to WW1 it was constructed assuming that it enemy would be Britain.



The Second German Challenge to The Royal Navy

As Germany recovered its expansive ambitions under Hitler in the mid-thirties the army and air force received priority attention due to Hitler's army background. When in 1939 he recognised the need for a powerful navy to beat the RN Hitler conceived the Z Plan to be completed by 1948, which envisaged the construction of a navy to force the RN from the oceans with four carriers and ten battleships supported by numerous cruisers and destroyers with only a small force of destroyers. Interestingly this conflicted with the four-year plan initiated in 1936 put the whole of the German economy onto a war production mode such that by 1940 it would have been bankrupt if it had not declares war and acquired new riches through conquest. Perhaps at that stage, Hitler did not think that Britain would declare war in support of Poland and that he could have conquered the whole of Europe and had time to build a navy to challenge Britain. However, Britain entered the war immediately and the RN with it. Once more time had run out which forced Germany back onto the asymmetric focus of building Submarines that became know as U Boats with the purpose of isolating Britain from its maritime supply routes. Once more on two occasions Germany almost achieved her objectives, but in the end, innovation accelerated shipbuilding and convoys saved the day. It is interesting to note  the Pride of the RN pre-1939 was HMS Hood, as a beautiful battle cruiser whose design dated back to the very same battlecruisers that had faired so disastrously at the battle of Jutland. When she met the impressive German flagship Bismark and sadly faired no better than her ancestors to plunging fire. Thus it  is ironic that Britain as the incumbent maritime hegemonic power glorified a battleship that had won the previous war at the battle of Jutland, and not the potentially far more potent new aircraft carriers in its fleet. A lesson that may well echo true in today's world but this time it may well be the  carrier that is being glorified. Interestingly having developed the first aircraft carriers, by the start of the war in 1939 the RN had 7 fleet carriers in service. However the development of the aviation assets aboard was far behind the RAF planes reducing their effectiveness. None the less in 1940 the Royal Navy pioneered the ascendancy of naval aviation over big gun battleships by attacking the Italian fleet at the Battle of Taranto with 21 obsolete biplane Fairy Swordfish planes nick named string bag, that were  equipped with torpedoes. For the price of two planes they managed to cripple three Battleships. It was the success of this attack that gave the Japanese the idea to preemptively strike Pearl Harbour a year later. However the RN seemed to  have not fully digested the venerability of their battle ships, when on day three  of the war after Pearl Harbour the most modern RN battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse, were sent along the coast of Malaysian to repel an invasion, without air cover. They were attacked by Japanese land based plane and both were both sunk sunk in short order.Hence forth the carrier reigned supreme in the pacific theatre of war.



Japan  Challenge to The US and Royal Navy

As an island culture, the sea had always been vital to Japan, but as it expanded post-1868 following the Meiji Restoration it feel under the wing of the royal navy who helped build it navy into a modern fighting machine, such that its defeated the Russian in 1905 at the battle of Tsushima, confirming the Japanese as a regional power. So much so the  RN withdrew its ships from the region, to focus on Germany whilst its ally japan policed the seas in the region. By 1930 Japan's expansion had continued apace and results in the invasion of Manchuria. Meanwhile, the Japanese navy had continued to expand. Whilst the old school within the navy sought to build battleships, as in their mind they represented the challenges to the established old powers. The ultimate product was the two greatest battleships ever built, the Yamato and Musashi equipped with 18-inch guns that out ranged any other battleship ever built. But in the end, they had a minimal effect on the war except the took away resources from building at least four more carriers that could have tipped the balance in Japan's favour early in the war.Simultaneously there was a new school led by the great admiral Yamamoto who envisioned carriers as the ideal arm to challenge the RN and USN for control of the Pacific. By Pearl Harbour, the Japanese navy was the third most powerful in the world behind the US and RN . But most importantly it had built and trained the largest most capable carrier force in the world that almost allowed it to beat the RN and USN, if were not for the two pacific based  American carriers being out of pearl when the attack came, and some bad judgment and bad luck at Midway. Once more the challenging Hegemonic maritime power had adopted asymmetric and new weapons to tip the conventional balance in its favour and  almost won. Ironically the USN and RN both built over three times as many carriers as the Japanese, and in the process established the carrier as the new dominant weapon of hegemonic



The Cold war and the USSRs challenge to the USN and RN

As a land power, the construction of a Soviet navy to challenge the US Navy head to head was never going to happen. Especially as carrier operations were so intricate and complex in the age of jet fighters. Wisely Russia put its store in new submarines designed to isolate Europe for America, and in time as long anti-ship missiles came of age, they adopted saturation attacks aimed to kill carriers as their primary weapon. However, by the end of the cold war USN anti-missile technology was both effective and deployed across the fleet such that the threat had all but been negated. Thus the carrier remained the queen of the seas.



Chinas Hegemonic challenge to the USN

Over the past two decades, China like Germany beforehand has sought to build a navy that can meet the USN head to head. Initially with a regional focus out to the two dash line and later with a global blue water focus. At the forefront of that objective has been the building of six carriers of sequentially increasing size and complexity along with accompanying new maritime fighters. However, this is a long hard development path even for China. As the technology is complex and America’s lead is significant. The USN’s lead has been cemented with the arrival of the F35 B, which will turn the nine USN assault ships into medium-size carriers- effectively enlarging the US Fleet to 20 strike(11) and assault carriers(9). With this in mind, the Chinese recently announced that they were slowing down their carrier program, as like the Germans before the two world wars, the Chinese have realised that a head to head struggle will ensure defeat. Instead they should be expected to use their carrier fleet to create regional, rather than a blue water force concentration, perhaps around landing zones.


So with such a change in direction, learning from history and the German and Japanese challenges, we should expect the PLN to focus on the asymmetric weapons that could still give them control of the world's oceans. In terms of the time frame that the PLN has to manifests its ambitions for hegemonic control, I believe that it is in the next decade for three reasons.


  • Chinese demographic decline coupled with 56% male to female ratios.
  • The Rise of India behind China(much like the rise of Russian in the lead up to 1914)
  • The expected commodity peak into 2027


So what asymmetric options are open to the PLN?

Firstly they might consider submarines, especially having built a large fleet already. But in truth, their technology is far behind that of the Americas, although localized numbers would give them a potential advantage around shallow choke points. Stealthy AI-controlled Drones and automated attack systems built in large numbers are definitely a potential avenue of asymmetry. But most significantly their new ballistic missile ship killing technology that is relatively cheap and that could with advances in range and the addition of hypersonic warheads have the ability to kill even small corvettes at ultimate ranges of 7500 miles, could be the game changer the PLN is seeking. If these weapons are built in great numbers and become hyper-accurate then they could deny the world's ocean to any other power. These systems combined with long-range air and ship-launched missiles fired in swarm attacks could add greatly to the  potential of the PLN, in p become the next maritime hegemonic power. This is a potential asymmetric threat  to which at present the USN will become increasingly vulnerable  until anti-ballistic and anti hypersonic weapons become widespread across the fleet. This will most probably take the form of lasers on ships, and F35B s flying high above the fleet and clouds to create a reliable top cover. If such long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles do come of age, then not just carriers but also merchantmen will have to be protected in convoys and like in previous wars, escorts ship in the form air warfare destroyers will be hard-pressed unless they are deployed in larger numbers than the present. There is one other revolution that is progressing incredibly rapidly and which could have far-reaching impacts on the military balance. That is quantum technologies. There are three distinct areas

  1. Quantum computing is an area that is led by America but is a private rather than military innovation. Its advent represents a computing revolution on multiple levels. Not just in terms of processing speed, but also in terms of the way it solves problems such as new material design. This would allow in a matter of year the designing of a metal that is able to withstand the heat of the multiple launches of a rail gun. This technology could also in time  be the key to creation of synthetic conscious life.
  2. Quantum communications. The technology to send secure communications, such that if the signal is interfered with it the message is destroyed, and thus safe reception means the signal is intact. An area led by the Chinese and already been tested.
  3. Quantum sensing. The area is potentially the most impactful on the military power balance. Entangled radars that can see stealthy targets, and hypersensitive galvanometers that can detect submarines passively whilst submerged are but a few applications that could be game-changing.


The lesson from the history of Maritime  Hegemonic challenge

The prime lesson is  very simple, that whilst the incuberant hegemonic power invests in the weapon system that allowed it to rise to power, the challenging hegemonic power that is constrained in its expansion by certain variables, will never have the time or resources to create head to head superiority. Instead they will always adopt newer more innovative weapons that could overturn the balance of power.  Undoubtly, in today’s world China's naval innovation is the greatest source of potential threat to Pax America.




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