01 Feb 21

The unipolar moment has come and gone. Once more we appear to inhabit an age of multipolarity, with states rising, falling, challenging and, potentially, changing the global order. But what does that mean for the navies of today? There is an argument that navies are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of multipolarity because of their need to invest so heavily in peacetime to position against a wider and more diverse range of threats. Navies can’t be conjured up overnight, or raised from the populace in times of crisis, but is that really relevant in the 21st century anyway? Multipolarity isn’t just a factor in the maritime domain, it exists all around us and impacts every lever of power, yet we navalists are susceptible to a more than a little hubris, ever convinced as we are that ‘now’ is the maritime age, the maritime century, the time that the maritime case has not only been heard, but has been won. We do this with great conviction if scant evidence.  The facts staring us in the face show an alternative reality; there may well be a steady-state or even modest growth in naval investment, but amongst peers and competitors alike there are massive increases in space and cyber.  Perhaps it is these new(ish) ‘commons’ where the future of conflict and competition lies, not in holding ground or poising at sea however much the traditionalists would wish it were so.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps that is extrapolating too far. Perhaps the evidence really does exist that for most of the world some degree of preponderance at sea is both needed and wanted. After all, not every actor on the world stage has the means or the desire to blast off across the new frontiers when there is work to be done closer to home. Multipolarity is not just a descriptor for a world with more actors, it is an admission of the rebalancing of power from the few (one or two) to the many – but how many, and to what extent?  In the zero-sum game of international relations any rebalancing must inevitably mean a relative decline for those who had previously enjoyed and benefitted from dominion. If some are rising, then it follows that others must be falling, or at least that is what the realists would have us believe. We used to marvel at how the United States Navy was larger and more capable than the next thirteen greatest navies combined. However, this comparative advantage was then and is now inaccurate in scale and unsustainable in meaning. Most of those thirteen navies were American allies and those that weren’t, such as China, have been rapidly expanding in tonnage, hull numbers, and most importantly capability for over a decade. The older, established great power projection navies have long been overstretched and under-resourced, and are steadily pricing themselves out of the market with their early-adopter mindsets and increasingly expensive workforce. When the Royal Navy held pole position, its decline relative to its competitors could only be delayed, not prevented. The same is certainly true of the United States Navy today. Nothing lasts forever, especially hegemonic power.

However, multipolarity is not just about the rebalancing of power, it does also mean that there are numerically more navies. The barriers to entry are enormous though, and so those new navies, often from new, small states, are small themselves. And the navies that were once large are smaller too. And if navies are getting smaller, can they realistically field a balanced fleet to cover all the roles and responsibilities they once had, or do they need to cut their cloth accordingly?  Small navies suffer the indignities and all the disadvantages of the flip side of economies of scale. They lack redundancy, they lack logistic support, and their unit cost is higher. This is why in a multipolar world with a myriad of state and non-state maritime actors there are a number of clearly identifiable themes developing.  Collective defence with ever greater emphasis on cooperation, coalitions, alliances and partnerships is the most obvious one.  When one simply can no longer go-it-alone, one has little choice to become either international by design or irrelevant by default.

The so-what of all this musing may be to ask a simple question – whither navies today? The two books under review go some way to tackling the question, albeit from different perspectives.  Both are collections of chapters by leading scholars and practitioners and both include a range of historical and geographical case studies. Navies in Multipolar Worlds takes the reader from the Peace of Utrecht to the modern day rise of China, visiting on the way the War of 1812, the Jeune Ecole, the Washington Conference, the 20th century wars of survival, Britain’s ‘managed decline’, and America’s Cold War rise and then its post-Cold War pursuit of co-operation and partnership through numerous iterations of its maritime strategy. Europe, Small Navies, and Maritime Security looks at the role of navies in one highly contested part of the world, focusing at various times on the decline of former super seapowers, high-end threats, and grey zone challenges. It is fascinating to consider the ‘Lilliputian navies’ of Europe: nine have fewer than 1,000 sailors, and six of those fewer than 500. Is there any point in them even existing?  Well, yes, there is if they collaborate and attempt to do a few things very well instead of lots of things badly.

These two books together provide a number of jigsaw pieces which the reader can put together. The resultant picture won’t be complete, but there are enough chapters to form an overall image of naval power today. Few people will go so far as to buy such outrageously priced volumes, but the cost will come down when in paperback or e-reader form, and they can be ordered through libraries. Both books help to make sense of the maritime world as it is, not as we wish it was, and both neatly describe the place of navies within it. The editors and contributors of each should be congratulated for jobs well done.