There is a new naval race underway, and it’s not all that different than naval arms races we have seen in the past. Some of the players are new, while some of the old hands at the table have upped the ante. It has been decades since the number of carriers and cruisers under construction have been over a handful. Several such ships have been launched, are fitting out, or are on the slipways as this article is being written. Other designs are on the drawing board, and are just a few years away from having their keels laid.
For those who follow military science, technology, and arms, it is a fascinating time reminiscent of the cold war build up between the great powers from the 1950s- early 1990s. And it’s not just the Global powers that are partaking, smaller nations like Israel and Iran are also greatly increasing their fleets. The age of the missile boat is ending, and a new age of the Corvette and Frigate has dawned. AIP Diesel submarines are rivaling Nuke attack boats in stealth and firepower at a fraction of the cost. To the East, a carrier race between China, South Korea, and Japan is on with India struggling to play catch up.
The Chinese Carrier Liaoning
This new naval race was triggered by a few events, but one of the most decisive was the commissioning of China’s first carrier, Liaoning. The ship was bought in 1998 from Ukraine as a rusting hulk, an incomplete remnant of the Soviet Navy’s sixth carrier by a Chinese businessman. It took over two years to tow the hulk to China and over a decade to rebuild the ship. But in 2012, China finally had their carrier. They haven’t slowed down their carrier program in the least. A sister ship to Liaoning slipped into the water in 2017 and may already be commissioned into active service. A third and fourth carrier are under construction in Chinese yards.
While the fitting out and launching of their first carrier may not have necessarily caused other nations to build more carriers, it may have influenced the decisions as to size and number of carriers being commissioned. Great Britain has built two 70,000 ton Queen Elizabeth carriers, the largest ever to enter Royal Naval service. The South Koreans have built two Dokdo class amphibious assault ships, both capable of handling VTOL jets such as the Harrier or F-35B. Japan is quickly following suit by retrofitting their two Izumo class ships to be able to likewise carry F-35Bs.
India has struggled to maintain a two carrier fleet. They currently operate the INS Vikramaditya, a rebuilt Soviet Kiev class carrier and are currently fitting out a second carrier, the domestically built INS Vikrant, their first domestically built carrier. The commissioning of both ships has proven to be a headache fraught with cost overruns and technical problems. But by 2020, India will be a two-carrier nation. India plans on building a third carrier and has approached the United Kingdom for help with aiding in design.
The Gerald Ford class carriers of the US Navy were designed well before the Chinese carrier program reached maturity and as some of the most advanced and the largest warships ever built, they will easily outclass any other flattop built the world over for several decades to come.
A growing trend in several foreign navies is the smaller, cheaper carrier. I suspect that for the next several decades we will see many nations building small carrier fleets with vessels around or under 30,000 tons with around a dozen fighters or so. Turkey, Australia, and even Egypt are entering the small carrier club. Australia and Turkey are considering embarking fighters on their ships.
Poor Russia struggles with their rust bucket of a carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Their refit last year did not go according to plan when the drydock the Kuznetsov was being refitted in, sank, nearly taking ‘Ol Smokey to the bottom with it. Undaunted Russia swears their carrier will be refit and returned to service. At the same time, 2 amphibious ships are under construction with rumors both will be built to handle VTOL fighters. We shall see. Russia tends to talk much and act little.
Return of the Cruiser
For years politically correct nations in Europe have been launching guided missile destroyers and classifying them as Frigates so as not to scare anyone. The truth of the matter is that these ships are most certainly destroyers. The same has been the case with two classes of cruisers launched in Asia. The Type 055, a behemoth built by China to by the Air Defense center of their carrier battle groups and the Sejong the Great class built by South Korea. Both ships are classified by their respective navies as destroyers, but to every other nation, it is clear that they are cruisers. Their weight and firepower are far greater than most destroyers in existence and their combat systems feature some of the most advanced naval technology in the world.
Russia is busy returning a second Kirov class Battlecruiser to service in an effort to maintain at least 2 battlecruisers. The Kirov class was designed to be a fleet killer and the ships are formidable carrying over 140 missiles. Russia has announced that another cruiser class is also planned. The Lider-class cruisers are planned to displace nearly 15,000-18,000 tons. Russia’s recent financial uptick may bring these new vessels into commission. For now, they remain on the drawing board.
The US Navy has been slow to replace their long in the tooth, but effective Ticonderoga class AEGIS cruisers. However, the Future Surface Combatant is slated to enter production around 2023-2024. The size of the hull required certainly places these vessels into the category of a cruiser. For now, details are sketchy, but within the next few years, we should have a good idea where the US Navy is heading.
Not every navy can afford carriers and cruisers. For some fleets, larger warships are impractical to their needs. Israel is a good example of this. Israel’s small but advanced fleet of missile corvettes, patrol boats and submarines is about to receive a major upgrade in the way of four new corvettes. The Sa’ar 6 class. These four new ships complimented by 6 Dolphin class subs and 13 other corvettes makes Israel a small but powerful naval force fully capable or defending Israeli interests offshore.
Iran has been cranking out frigates, corvettes, and submarines at a feverish pace as a means to confront their regional adversaries and confront US interests in the gulf. Nowhere near advanced as Israel, Iran has always pushed a quantity over quality approach and it shows in their recent naval build up.
The focus on smaller ships has not been altogether successful, especially for larger navies like the US. The decommissioning of the Perry-class frigates has left a capability gap in the US Navy, and scrambling to build a new class of frigate. The Littoral combat ship, the successor to the Perry class has proven to be nothing more than an under-armed target in the face of Chinese, Iranian and other nations’ build up. While this class is useful for work in coastal waters, it is inadequate for anti-submarine or escort duty.
Over the next decade, I believe the Naval Build-up will greatly increase as a new cold war atmosphere between east and west continues to set it. We may see entirely new classes of ship launched, and new technologies such as rail guns, lasers, and advanced missiles completely change the way war at sea is fought.
Only time will tell.
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