Can a navy built in thirty years be effective?
The rise of China has caused a great deal of concern, with Taiwan as a major flashpoint the growth of its naval capacity acquires great importance. Those who see the concern that China might overtake the US in the near future as overblown say that 'China is not going to develop a naval capacity that can challenge the United States within a decade. It takes a long time to build a navy.' On the other hand it has been suggested that anyone concerned with the build up would 'find modern history disquieting rather than comforting.' with the examples of the rapid growth of the German Navy at the beginning of the 20th Century and the US Navy used to demonstrate the rapidity with which naval power can be accrued. [[http://the-diplomat.com/flashpoints-blog/2011/01/24/building-navies-fast/]]
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Grand Siècle France
France was not exactly a parvenu when it came to developing sea power, it had possessed a strong fleet in the 1630’s and 40’s which had later fallen into decline but not disappeared .[[Alan James, Navy and Government in Early Modern France (Woodbridge, 2004) Chap.6]] Nevertheless by the time Louis XIV begun to rule in his own right there was only one seaworthy ship of line left. His Intendant of Marine from 1663, Colbert begun a major building program, initially buying from the Netherlands and Denmark but soon building in its own yards. In the course of half a decade, roughly 1666-1671 she leapt from being a naval backwater into a major naval power. This included six first rates built 1668-9 and a further 20 ships with over 60 guns with another dozen of 50 plus. [[Frank Fox, Great Ships (Greenwich, 1980) pp.121-3]] In the process of this expansion french shipyards actually acquired a technical edge over their English and Dutch competitors. The fleets numbers continued to rise slowly but steadily, its relative strength aided by political crisis over in England and the age of the Dutch force, so that it could by 1690 contemplate fighting both its competitors at once, and beat their joint fleet off Beachy Head that summer. [[Geoffrey Symcox, The Crisis of French Sea Power 1688-1697 (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1974) pp.39-41]]
Although it had been in existence for nearly a quarter of a century by the outbreak of the War of the League of Augsburg 1688-97 and it was now the largest Naval force in the world the French Navy immediately ran into trouble. Although the administration had not been neglectful of the logistical needs of the service, it rapidly ran into problems of material deficiencies and administrative breakdown with much needed stores and munitions in short supply. [[Donald Pilgrim, ‘The Colbert-Seignelay Naval Reforms and the Beginning of the War of the League of Augsburg’ French Historical Studies vol.9, no.2, (Autumn, 1975) pp235-262, pp.242-3]] Worse, the system of naval recruitment collapsed, France simply did not have the trained manpower to put its full force out to sea. [[ibid p.257.]] Initial success was followed by disaster at the Battle of Barfleur (1692). The loss of ships was not a decisive blow, they were replaced, the men could not be. Against this backdrop finance became an increasing issue, between 1693 and 1695 the navy suffered a 40% budget cut. The Battle fleet did not put to sea after 1693 and new construction to replace losses halted. [[Geoffrey Symcox, The Crisis of French Sea Power 1688-1697 (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1974) pp.41, 159-61]] This was in large part due to the Navy losing the clash of interests with the army, which forced a change of strategy away from fleet warfare toward commerce raiding.[[ibid. pp.177-87]] By the end of the Sun King’s reign the Navy was in a position little better than it had been in 1660.
Like the Sun King’s France Germany under Wilhelm II underwent a rapid naval transformation in search of its own place in the Sun. This expansion was secured through the first and second navy laws in 1898 and 1900, in less than two decades the force that was constructed fought the worlds premier naval power, Britain, to a standstill at the battle of Jutland (1916). At the unification of Germany in 1871 the fleet had possessed only 3 frigates, and construction into the 1890’s was firmly focused upon a minor force for local defence. [[Lawrence Sondhaus, Navies in modern world history (London, 2004) p.172]] The naval laws authorised a force of 38 battleships and 14 large cruisers, which was all but achieved as early as 1906. The Dreadnought revolution raised the stakes forcing Germany into an ever escalating race with Britain, but it also improved its relative position as France failed to keep up, in addition another enemy Tsarist Russia had seen its fleet destroyed by the Japanese. Germany reached a tantalizing position in 1910 where parity with Britain seemed to be in sight [[ibid p.176-8]] Supplementary naval laws in 1906 and 1908 allowed for the conversion of the large cruiser allocation into Battlecruisers and for quicker replacement of older ships with dreadnoughts. This was followed in 1912 by another law which expanded the allocation to 41 dreadnoughts and 20 battlecruisers, if all had gone to plan this would have been completed by the mid 1920’s. [[Holger H. Herwig, ‘Imperial Germany: Continental Titan, Global Aspirant in A. S. Erickson, L. J. Goldstein and Carnes Lord (eds) China goes to sea (Annapolis, 2009) p.182]] To all intents and purposes Germany had reached the second position in 1906, its continued efforts to reach parity with or overhall Britain failed, and the strategy to use its navy as a threat to keep Britain from war backfired. But that should not detract from the fact that it reached a very strong Naval position in a remarkably short time.
The German navy, as a new armed service was created without long traditions of its own, it therefore followed the armies lead in organisation and attitudes. [[Sondhaus, Navies in modern world history p.183]] Nevertheless there was a fundamental disjunction between the Grand strategies of the two services, which were inspired, planed out and to a certain extent enacted separately. The Army squared off against France and Russia while the Navy eyed Britain, and the USA. This is most apparent in 1918, with the Navy rejecting the Army’s demands that it man captured Russian warships to fight for control of the Black Sea completely outwith the Navies sphere of interest. [[Holger H. Herwig, ‘Admirals versus Generals: The War Aims of the Imperial German Navy 1914-18’ Central European History Vol.5 No.3 (Sep., 1972) pp.208-233]] Despite having overtaken Britain in industrial output at the turn of the century, the United Kingdom decisively outpaced its rival in the great naval race. In part this was a financial battle, but also german shipyards and their attendant industries were unable to keep up. Tirpitz confessed “We cannot even build the ships that have been approved.” [[Holger H. Herwig, ‘Imperial Germany: Continental Titan, Global Aspirant in A. S. Erickson, L. J. Goldstein and Carnes Lord (eds) China goes to sea (Annapolis, 2009) p.185]] The needs of the army were already forcing limits on Naval expenditure before the war [[ Herwig ‘Imperial Germany’ p.186]] and new construction ground to a halt after 1916.
The Chinese Navy has expanded rapidly over the last two decades. From 15 destroyers and 31 frigates in 1985 its force major surface units has expanded to 26 destroyers and 47 frigates. With important future developments including the projected deployment of up to two aircraft carriers in the next decade. [[http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/navy.htm]] The PRC has also moved rapidly over the last decade to modernise its naval forces. lulls in the upward trend in fleet numbers, as with submarine construction from 2007, tend not to necessarily imply a halt. Indeed are indicative of moves to replace older equipment with the result being a qualitatively much improved force. [[http://the-diplomat.com/2010/09/29/china’s-naval-build-up-not-over/]] There has also been a trend towards larger vessels. With successively heavier and more sophisticated ships from the same basic hull design rapidly expanding its ‘blue water’ capacity.
China has been building a foundation for a comprehensive Maritime growth. While Wilhelmine Germany and Meiji Japan built a strong navy and then built up a Maritime infrastructure on the back of it, China is growing in the way Britain, the Dutch or the USA did. Chinese seaborne trade is expected to hit an annual value of one trillion dollars by 2020. The vast majority of this will be carried in chinese built, owned and operated ships. The Chinese shipbuilding industry has expanded from producing only 220,000 dwt of shipping in 1980 to 13 million dwt in 2006 and is set to continue rising. [[Gabriel Collins and Michael Grubb, ‘Strong Foundation: Contemporary Chinese Shipbuilding Prowess’ in A. S. Erickson, L. J. Goldstein and Carnes Lord (eds) China goes to sea (Annapolis, 2009) pp.344-5.]] On the other hand quantity rarely trumps quality in war, Chinese shipbuilding is yet to demonstrate that they are innovative world beaters in the way the Dutch did with the Flyt or the British with copper sheathing, the clipper or steam power. [[ibid. p.365]]
The PLAN still needs a better educated and more diversely experienced officer corps, it remains an open question whether they are aiming to bring forward a politically correct or intellectually lively cadre. [[Eric A. McVadon, ‘China’s Navy Today: Looking toward Blue Water’ in A. S. Erickson, L. J. Goldstein and Carnes Lord (eds) China goes to sea (Annapolis, 2009) p.378]] In the past the PLAN has been seen as very much the adjunct of the Army, its primary mission being defensive support for the army. [[Bernard D. Cole, ‘More Red than Expert: Chinese Sea Power during the Cold War’ in in A. S. Erickson, L. J. Goldstein and Carnes Lord (eds) China goes to sea (Annapolis, 2009) p.334]] If the PLAN itself is breaking out of this mentality the PLA itself still seems set in it. And the Navy itself continues to exercise mainly in the coastal littoral, rather than ‘Blue water’. [[McVadon ‘China’s Navy Today’ p.379]]
It is difficult to escape the comparison that Louis XIV’s France and Wilhelm II’s Germany were continental powers engaged not only in a Maritime arms race but also in continental conflict. China too is a continental power in an unstable neighborhood. The USA its rival, though not an island is effectively made one by its oceans and stable neighbors. The precedents of Germany and France do not all point to failure. Free of land warfare France was able to defeat Britain at sea in the War of American Independence.
What do you think?