The end of the Cold War may not have brought an end to history, but it assuredly brought an end to certainty—here, Russian workers cut apart pieces of Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bombers. Change now may be the biggest threat facing the world’s navies.
Before we can answer the question. What are the threats? we must determine from where these threats are supposed to be coming and exactly what is being threatened. For example, if democracy is safe and free enterprise is assured, what is now believed to be under threat? Consider a few possibilities.
In a world where economic power is touted as the main indicator of national power, perhaps commercial interests and national prosperity are under threat. But in a period of unparalleled economic growth, continuing liberalization of world trade regimes, and steadily increasing integration of the global economy, is there a real prospect of military clashes arising from disputes over commercial interests? A redistribution of economic power undoubtedly is under way, but this has been recognized for years. Even the sometimes acrimonious disputes over trade and industrial policies are fought out in well-appointed offices. Economic issues certainly are a source of friction between nations, but so far they do not seem to be causing wars.
What about threats to territory and population? Some bitter conflicts still are being fought over who owns what and who has the right to live where, but the immediate effects of these conflicts generally do not extend far beyond the scene of the dispute. Most of the world’s nations are unlikely to get into serious fights over ownership of territory. But territorial disputes can sour relations between nations and contribute to regional tension and instability. Internal struggles often engage the attention of and inflame public opinion in areas far removed from the conflict, which can lead to external intervention and adverse consequences of its own. Even so, most peoples of the world have little fear of a direct assault against their own borders.
Is it values that are most at risk? This is unlikely. Only communism—an idea born in the West—has tried seriously to undermine the many forms of democratic government of the Western world. As is demonstrated even in the European Union, competing national and state interests impose practical and psychological limits on nations’ ability to form a single, unified approach to many matters of international policy.
So maybe the main source of insecurity among the victors of the Cold War is simply that victory has ushered in a period of fairly chaotic change. Change threatens the ability to maintain a world power matrix that deviates little from the past, save for the reduction to Third-World status of the former Soviet Union. The success of the measures adopted to encourage the development of prosperous societies around the globe—not least in the Western Pacific—has created what some in the West now see as a runaway train with which it is becoming impossible to compete. Internal ills such as unemployment and declining standards of living are blamed on unfair competition, as are deeper economic problems such as rising trade deficits.
In 1985, American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote:
The Cold War, with all its rivalries, anxieties and unquestionable dangers, has produced the longest period of stability in relations among the great powers that the world has known this century; it now compares favorably as well with some of the longest periods of great power stability in all of modern history.
Gaddis wondered whether future historians would look back on the post-1945 era “not as ‘the Cold War’ at all, but rather ... as a rare and fondly remembered ‘Long Peace.’” It has not taken long for that view to prevail in some quarters. In 1991, William G. Hyland, the long-serving editor of Foreign Affairs, observed that within both the United States and Russia, there were “political forces that are nostalgic for the Cold War, for its seeming simplicity, its pristine clarity and [even] its drama and adventure.” That nostalgia seems even more apparent now, as it becomes clear that the end of the Cold War also marked the end of the whole post-1945 world order. But as Hyland himself concluded, “There should be no nostalgia for the Cold War. It was a bitter, dangerous and costly period in our history.”
Nevertheless, the collapse of the Communist system certainly weakened the bonds that once held together the Western alliance. The cracks in the facade of unity have been widening steadily since the first breach of the Berlin Wall, be it in the battles over trade and economic policies among the three key components of the West—the United States, the European Union, and Japan—or in the often divergent approaches to security problems in many regions of the world. So far, however, nothing has emerged to replace those Western-imposed and -dominated institutions. Even the rapidly industrializing nations are nervous about the changes taking place within their countries and their regions.
But as change is inexorable, it would seem that the problem is reduced to trying to manage it in a more orderly way. This poses another question: What role does the application of armed force play in change management?
The end of the Cold War may not have brought an end to history, but it assuredly brought an end to certainty. This is reflected in the uncertainty about the future purpose of armed forces whose primary mission once was easily defined by the existence of a clearly identifiable potential foe. Whatever troubles arose around the world over the past 40 years, whatever interests were engaged, whatever wars were fought, there was no doubt—at least in the Atlantic and Northern Pacific—what the aim was. The threat could be expressed in terms of the ability to overrun territory and subjugate, or ultimately annihilate, populations. The enemy’s ability to do this could be estimated and, therefore, so could the level of forces needed to deter and, if called upon, defeat the threat. There was a readily available yardstick for force structures and capabilities.
Today, it is far from clear where the next situation may arise that will require the commitment of naval forces; it is even less clear what capabilities such forces may require. But since 1990, armed forces have been called upon regularly and employed in much the same ways as they were when dealing with subsidiary conflagrations during the Cold War:
- To display by their presence an interest in a situation and a readiness to act, if necessary
- To support intervention, by safeguarding and by providing humanitarian and other assistance
- To intervene directly to defeat an aggressor nation
The levels of threat to those forces have varied widely, from large, apparently highly potent, organized armies and air forces to individuals wielding small weapons. The next threat could include the most advanced weapons in the world, and there does not seem to be any feasible way to halt their proliferation.
Indeed, attempting administratively or legislatively to reduce the potential threat to our forces may be incompatible with encouraging continuing progress and prosperity around the world. This progress is dependent on the continuing diffusion of technology and skills, accompanied by a diffusion of capital—and concomitant changes in the distribution of economic leverage. It is almost impossible to separate industrial development and the rise of a modern society from an increase in military potential. The instability that encourages nations to arm themselves is itself a result of the economic and political development processes that the West largely has seen as desirable up to now. And the prosperity of many of our own citizens depends heavily on our ability to sell our wares, of all kinds, abroad.
The spread of modern arms may increase the likelihood of armed clashes; it may help deter them. But when clashes do occur, they will be more intense, and the threat to forces attempting to manage these conflicts will be correspondingly higher.
There is no shortage of armed conflicts around the world today, be they low-level insurrections or full-scale clashes between conventional military forces. There are conflicts within states; there are conflicts and tensions between states. There are substantial intraregional tensions and sources of disquiet, and there are significant political, cultural, and economic tensions between major geographical regions. The sources of these conflicts and tensions are manifold.
Many of the internal conflicts are longstanding insurrections or bitter civil wars based in ancient ethnic animosities or interclan feuds. Some have their origins in politics—often mixed with religion—which either challenge the authority of secular regimes or seek to overthrow hereditary rulers. Some long-established states still seem to be perpetually at war with ethnic or religious minorities within their borders.
Amplifying or overlaying these regional tensions is a growing number of issues of global concern, including environmental and resource-management issues, terrorism, and piracy. Transnational crime flourishes, especially the drug trade. Population movements across borders, often brought on by persecution, famine, or war, can strain relations between states. A further disturbing development is the desire of many nations to regulate more tightly all activity in their territorial waters and into their economic zones. The archipelagic nations especially are vigorous in defense of what they perceive to be their sovereign rights.
So far, there is no sign of intraregional or interregional military conflict between ordered coalitions of states, at least for as long as the Middle East stays relatively calm. In Asia, the major sources of tension are uncertainty over the eventual ambitions of the regional heavyweights and the possibility either of a clash between China and Japan or of the smaller nations coming under pressure to accept the hegemony of a resurgent China. China’s threats to invade Taiwan if it does not come back quietly into the realm are another source of concern. And there is still the great uncertainty over North Korean nuclear capability and the effects of an eventual reunion with the South—especially if the nuclear capability still exists.
On a global scale, the main effect of regional tensions is to engage the attention of the United States, which has important alliance and other security relationships with many regional nations, not the least with Japan and South Korea, and which is publicly committed to maintaining the security of the Taiwan Strait. And almost any dispute has the potential to impede trade. Japan especially could feel the effects quickly—and feel compelled to act to safeguard its vital imports and exports.
Missions for naval forces are developed in relation to the nature of a situation or conflict and the national interest engaged. These influence the desired form and level of involvement, especially whether action is to be:
- Made and maintained unilaterally
- Initiated unilaterally with the hope that it can be pursued multilaterally
- Initiated in concert with, or in later support of, a multilateral effort
Missions tend to evolve as a situation progresses. The commitment of forces is itself the first step in such an evolution. Even the most clear-cut objectives can become blurred or be altered or added to, to meet changing military and political exigencies.
Broad mission categories may include:
- Influence (or presence)
- Enforcement (or intervention)
- Quarantine or the containment of spillover effects on national interests—combining presence and enforcement
- Direct protection (defense of sovereign territory and waters)
If the past is any guide, opportunities for decisive military action will be few and confined mainly to the tactical and operational levels. The broad pattern of modem naval missions is likely to be one of maintenance of credible long-term commitment, interspersed with the need to accomplish quick, visibly effective, tactical action to reinforce the perception of the ability to triumph in the end.
If clashes do occur, an early demonstration of the ability to destroy enemy forces at little or no cost to one’s self is vitally important. It serves notice to the enemy—and to any potential supporters—that his time is limited; and, at least as important, it reassures one’s own public and helps sustain their support for finishing the job at hand.
The value of tactical victories at sea always has been great. There seems to be a certain symbolism attached to ships, such that their triumph or their loss often can take on a strategic significance far in excess of their immediate operational importance. History provides many examples of this: the sinking of the General Belgrano paralyzed the Argentine fleet during the Falklands Conflict, and the apparent invulnerability of U.S. carrier battle groups remains a powerful factor in their strategic effectiveness.
The ability to win the opening rounds is more important in today’s media-driven age than ever before. This is especially true in open societies that seem to be more fickle and less well informed or thoughtful about current events and why governments act as they do. The problem for naval forces is that the ability of an opposition force to inflict early damage, score its own moral victories, and sow doubt among our people is steadily increasing.
What sort of difficulties may navies face in the not too distant future, when they are used to project power and influence abroad? The most important factor is that the threat environment potentially will be much more difficult than any previously experienced—and its key feature will be change. The pace and scale of change, especially in the growth of maritime warfare capabilities, are most marked in East and Southeast Asia.
A growing number of the world’s nations are turning their attention outward, looking to assert their rights and power in the maritime environment. Japan already has a well-developed navy. South Korea and Taiwan both are engaged in significant upgrades of their naval and maritime air capabilities. China has made no secret of its intention eventually to achieve a blue-water power-projection capability, including aircraft carriers and their battle groups.
In Southeast Asia, a widening range of modern maritime warfare capabilities is appearing, reflecting the broadening of interests beyond control of territorial seas. Antiship missiles such as Exocet and Harpoon abound. Regional navies are beginning to take air defense and antiship missile defense seriously. Modem land-based aircraft for maritime surveillance, strike, and air defense also are available to most regional nations.
Submarines rank high on the shopping lists of most regional navies. Seas across the region are mostly shallow and well suited for the defensive and offensive use of mines. As these capabilities become widespread, the cost and difficulty of mounting and sustaining maritime operations in the area will be increased substantially because of the effort-intensive nature of antisubmarine and mine countermeasures operations.
These maritime forces are beginning to achieve a parity with Western naval forces in terms of equipment sophistication and force balance. The rate of catchup is likely to accelerate, as regional buying power continues to climb and competition heats up among the major arms exporters.
Without the essential supporting services and war-fighting skills needed to turn potential into real capability, this may not mean much. But where these services and skills are not already present, we should expect they will come fairly soon. Advanced command-control-and-communications systems are in place or are being acquired. Intelligence collection and electronic warfare capabilities are receiving considerable attention. Logistic and maintenance support is being addressed, as some service and defense chiefs look beyond simple order of battle to unit availability and combat effectiveness. Regional armed forces are devoting increasing attention to improving the quality and skills of their personnel. Most arms deals today incorporate comprehensive training and logistic support packages, as well as technology transfer provisions.
Nationally, populations are becoming increasingly well educated and technically skilled, and the development of national high-tech capabilities—including equipment repair, maintenance and modification, and indigenous research and development—is further aided by burgeoning foreign direct investment in increasingly advanced manufacturing industries. Another significant factor is the repatriation of highly trained scientists from Western nations.
Taken together, the increasing quality of even the smaller regional states’ maritime forces is going to place considerable strain on the ability of even major maritime powers (including Japan and China) to concentrate and sustain forces far forward from their bases at a level sufficient to either completely overawe or quickly and comprehensively defeat their opposition.
Overall, it will be difficult to restrict the spread of advanced conventional military technologies. The desire to sustain national defense industries makes it hard to resist foreign sales opportunities. The increasing convergence of civil and military technologies only makes the problem harder.
Effective control over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction ought to be more promising, given the widespread distaste for these weapons. More than 150 nations have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, but verification is still a major problem, and there remains a lively debate over what restrictions should be placed on trade in chemicals. But for navies, the main threat of chemical warfare will be to their marine forces ashore or to ships in harbor. The same might be said of biological weapons, where the problems of effective control over proliferation are similar.
The prospects for nuclear weapons control also are a bit cloudy. This is a worrisome development for navies, especially when combined with the spread of national space-based surveillance systems and the rapid adoption of leading- edge communications and information- processing technologies. It raises again the specter of nuclear attack at sea, as well as strikes against maritime forces’ base areas. In this environment, U.S. development of a sea-based theater air defense capability could be a timely move.
Last, there are the threats that navies and their governments impose on themselves. One is a belief in unchallengeable superiority in certain fields. The U.S. military has developed a solid body of thought and practice in the field of command-and-control (C2) warfare. It is correctly identified as an area where major advantages can be gained from the outset of a conflict. I expect that other nations not only will do what they can to protect themselves from the sort of catastrophe that befell Iraq’s air defense network during Desert Storm but also will consider conducting a bit of C2 warfare of their own. It is a possibility that should be provided against, especially in modern societies that are highly dependent on the unimpeded movement and processing of information. Most Western nations emphasize C3 as a key force-multiplying factor. It would be disconcerting indeed to find such a key element malfunctioning in time of crisis.
The same applies to intelligence. Many so-called intelligence failures arise, not from lack of information, but from disregard or misinterpretation of what is available. Often there is imprecise direction from commanders about what it is they want to know. Lack of forethought is commonplace. Effective collection and analysis of intelligence are effort intensive, and to yield the best results requires well-defined product goals and well-planned, sustained effort. Reduction in operational forces places a premium on the ability to perform tasks with the greatest economy of effort, and intelligence is a key contributor to that.
Another self-inflicted problem is benign neglect of certain warfare areas, either because of a conviction that they are not very important or because they look too hard to tackle. These two conditions usually are mutually reinforcing.
Last of all, there is the problem of placing jobs before victory. In essence, this means remaining committed to keeping industries afloat, rather than ships, by drawing out production runs and persisting with essentially outdated equipment. Successful modern industries devote large portions of their budgets to research and development—and so must navies. For us, this means getting new systems out to sea and evaluating them in our operating environment. Even minor improvements can make a significant difference in maintaining or yielding the edge in capability.
If the broad picture looks less than optimistic, we must remember that none of the military developments being postulated is likely to occur overnight, and there is no telling what may occur to reduce the likelihood of tensions erupting into violence. Right now, the United States is far ahead of most of its allies, let alone its possible adversaries, in the sophistication of its ships and weapon systems and in defense-related industrial capacity. This edge will not be worn away quickly, even if the areas of clear superiority become fewer.
The potential opposition at sea undoubtedly will get tougher for all our navies, and the problems of intervention more complex and daunting for forces operating from bases outside the region in which they are committed.
Admiral Campbell is Naval Support Commander, Royal Australian Navy.