Tag Archives: shipbuilding

China as the New Germany and a 300-Ship Navy

Admiral Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord

Is China today in the same strategic position as pre-First World War Germany? If China’s current economic rise and expanding naval power makes it the modern counterpart to Wilhelmine Germany, does the U.S. face a similar set of strategic choices as turn-of-the-century Great Britain? The British response to Germany’s new fleet was to redouble its efforts to build a more powerful Royal Navy, and critics who believe that the current size of the U.S. Navy is too small contend that the U.S. needs to respond in a similarly aggressive manner. For two recent examples of this line of thinking see here and here, and a counter-argument that contends a naval arms race with China is just not worth it here. Here is another piece arguing that the true historical counterpart to China was the US.  Does this analogy provide useful insights into what should drive current U.S. maritime strategy or acquisition efforts?

A century ago the globally deployed  British fleet ensured security of the seas, but its prominence was increasingly challenged by the expanding naval power of many states worldwide, particularly Germany, as well as fiscal constraints at home. The famous “People’s Budget” of 1909 proposed by the Liberal government attempted to juggle guns and butter, raising taxes in order to balance “an enormous deficit” and the need “to create new revenue for the Army, the Navy, and Old Age Pensions.” [1]

Concerned by the danger posed by Germany’s new naval power, Britain’s leaders implemented an aggressive naval modernization program, ultimately resulting in ships like the Dreadnought-class battleship and its successors, which were bigger, faster, and better-armed than anything else afloat. However, restricted by the amount of money available to construct newer and more capable ships, this procurement of better ships was also accompanied by a withdrawal by the Royal Navy from much of the globe, as well as a significant drawdown in the size of the fleet itself. The new-look Royal Navy would prioritize manning the most modern large ships, which would be stationed in home waters, ready to face the threat posed by the German Navy in the North Sea. Victory against or neutralization of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) became the aim of the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, noted that “if we win the big battle in the decisive theatre we can put everything straight afterward.”

Sir John Fisher (commonly referred to as “Jackie”) removed 154 ships (primarily small cruisers and gunboats) from the “effective list” after becoming First Sea Lord (the senior Royal navy officer) in 1904, as well as eliminating or combining several of the overseas “stations” into a fewer number of fleets. He also changed the orientation of the forces afloat, with the newest and most capable platforms primarily deployed to the new commands in the Channel and Atlantic. This reduction and reorientation in deployed afloat forces was enabled by a significant geopolitical shift. Rather than being the sole guarantor of global maritime security, Britain essentially outsourced those obligations through agreements with states such as Japan (with which a naval alliance allowed British withdrawal from the Far East), France (the Entente shifting responsibility for the Mediterranean largely to the French Navy), and a realization that combating the growing U.S. Navy in the Western Hemisphere was both impossible and undesirable.[2] This approach towards outsourcing maritime security to other allied or aligned powers was could be considered similar to that of a “thousand-ship Navy” in its recognition of the limitations that a single state has in imposing its naval power everywhere at all times.

What lessons can the U.S. today learn from how the Royal Navy was reshaped a century ago? Britain’s strategic calculus was much simpler vis-à-vis Germany than the US and its current relationship with China. The only reason for the German naval program was to fight or deter the Royal Navy, and in such a conflict it “would need a fleet able to overpower the biggest contingent the Royal Navy was likely to station in home waters.”[3] The German fleet Admiral Tirpitz built was designed to engage in a symmetrical conflict with its British counterpart. In contrast, China’s naval expansion is quite different. Instead of building carrier battle groups, The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is emphasizing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to keep other powers out of adjacent waters like the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. Chinese naval strategy seems to revolve around A2/AD as a means to keep the US away, as “their goal is to deter US forces from intervening in regional disputes.” The choice faced by Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill as to how to respond to the Germans was simple, assemble a battle force that could win in the North Sea.

The choices faced by the U.S. due to its current security challenges are not as clear cut.  The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance which implemented the “Pacific Pivot” indicated that the U.S. “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” The focus of the U.S. military cannot just switch entirely to China, however, as the Middle East remains a critical theater. The same document notes that “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in – and support of – partner nations in and around this region.”

Faced with an uncertain world, the 2007 Maritime Strategy similarly (and understandably) hedges when discussing what types of missions that the Navy should be able to accomplish. Its six “Core Capabilities” reflect both high-end war at sea (Forward Presence, Deterrence, Sea Control, Power Projection) as well as more prosaic tasks (Maritime Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response). In a world in which war at sea with a near-peer competitor is not necessarily likely, but in which non-state actors such as terrorists, pirates, and illicit smugglers either exploit or are the main threat to freedom of the seas, the notion of ignoring these missions in order to maintain an overwhelming battle force may not be as wise in a constrained fiscal environment as the presence provided through Influence Squadrons.” Those advocating for a more maritime security-oriented force are calling for the opposite of Fisher’s reforms, instead bringing back the gunboats and coastal security force at the expense of the battle fleet.

One clear lesson from the Anglo-German naval arms race is that the answer is not to just buy more ships. The Royal Navy certainly engaged in a naval modernization program and expansion of the battle force, but complemented that effort with a shift in strategy, focusing the combat mission of the fleet on a single task, and eliminating the Royal Navy’s global responsibilities. U.S. responses to the challenge of a rising China should be echoed by similar adjustments in strategy and force employment that address current (and likely future) maritime security needs rather than having an arbitrary number of surface platforms.  Jackie Fisher slashed the quantity of ships in the Royal Navy because they did nothing towards accomplishing the mission, the priority for the US now should be to set its maritime priorities, and then ensure that the force structure can accomplish those missions.


1. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England: 1910-1914 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1935), 19.

2. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Amherst: Humanity Books, 2006), 214-226.

3. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 48.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Procuring Maritime Leverage

A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, assessing the historical, contemporary, and future relationship between the Royal Navy and the nation. Amongst the discussions that took place was one chaired by the former First Sea Lord concerning the issue of construction and procurement, in particular the ability of Britain’s shipbuilding industry to meet the requirements of the RN and at what cost. The UK still produces some of the most technologically sophisticated warships and weapons systems in the world, as the Type-45 destroyers are testament to. Yet, they increasingly come at a premium at odds with the current weak state of the country’s economy and an austere government that has instigated huge cuts to its armed forces, particularly its navy, following 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The rationalisation of Britain’s defence industry from decades of mergers and takeovers and the rise of monopolistic monoliths like BAE Systems do not help, with a lack of domestic competition for national defence contracts that might otherwise lower prices. Still, a major issue lies in the decreasing numbers and frequency of warship orders, and the higher cost per unit this inevitably produces. We’ve already seen Britain outsourcing certain shipbuilding capabilities, with four new Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers ordered from South Korea in February of this year, and it now seems unlikely that another tanker will be produced in the UK again for the RFA, at least in the short to medium-term future, as those skills are lost from its workforce. The question is where Britain draws the line. Does the UK and RN need to make a firm decision as to what industrial capacity it should safeguard in its national strategic interest, such as nuclear submarine construction, and what could be procured from overseas without loosing too much operational capability? Smaller patrol craft and minesweepers perhaps? To do so could produce a more affordable, sustainable navy, and abate the continuous reduction in numbers.

The UK’s next generation of fleet tankers will be built in South Korean not British shipyards

As a historian who studies the post-Second World War development of colonial naval forces into sovereign Commonwealth navies, this issue to me highlights a fascinating shift in strategic-economic relations that raises questions and concerns in areas of geopolitical uncertainty. For several decades, the vast majority of the world’s arms, particularly more technologically-sophisticated warships, came from the same small group of producers located in the traditional ‘First World’. The underdeveloped industries of post-colonial countries, a hangover from imperial policies to turn colonial economies into primarily suppliers of raw materials for the metropole’s industry, meant that they were often continuingly dependent on the former ‘imperial motherland’ to supply them with equipment for their nascent armed forces, subsidised by development aid packages. This was particularly the case in countries that didn’t wish to align themselves in the bi-polar international system of the Cold War, such as initially India. Countries like Britain derived not only economic benefits from such a relationship, including offloading its outdated and surplus warships, but political and strategic ones too from being able to shape the composition and capabilities of such beneficiaries to complement its own designs for ‘Commonwealth Defence’. India recognised the undesirableness of such a situation, and has made a concerted effort to overhaul its shipbuilding industry over the last fifty years, embarking upon ambitious indigenous construction programmes, including recently Shivalik-class stealth frigates and Vikrant-class aircraft carriers. Other formerly ‘developing’ countries, most notably China, also now have impressive manufacturing capabilities. With that comes opportunities for export, and as the industrial capacity of established producers in the West declines and is surpassed by the more-competitive emerging economies of the East, new defence agreements will be forged between untraditional partners. The link between economic and politico-strategic influence is intrinsic, and as countries such as Britain were once able to use naval procurement as leverage and a way of furthering their own interests, new producers such as China and India can be expected to do the same. This could lead to the creation of new strategic alliances and increased uncertainty in regions of escalating maritime tension and instability, with potentially frightening consequences for all.

Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes research on nineteenth and twentieth century naval history.

3D Printing: I’ll Take a Cruiser in Pink

We’re out of toner again.

Third in our series on 3D printing.

The U.S. may not have much capability to launch humans into space these days, but in many other ways we are moving towards the sort of future envisioned in the likes of such sci-fi mainstays as Star Trek (if you are just joining this blog – I am in fact somewhat of a nerd). In our smartphones we have a close approximation to the series’ tricorders and communicators, able translate, record data, communicate and scan items. Researchers are even developing the device’s medical scanning functions as apps and add-ons. Elsewhere energy weapons and rail guns are taking shape in the labs of the U.S. military. Even the underlying science behind the series’ most fantastic device of all – transporters, able to instantaneously transmit matter and people from one location to another thousands of miles away – may have been discovered with the recent breakthroughs in quantum entanglement. So it should come as no surprise that another of the series’ future tech is already progressing through very real early stages of development, that of the replicator.

In this 3rd installment in our series on 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – I lay out my own thoughts on how this very real technology is impacting and will impact shipbuilding and design, particularly for the U.S. Navy.

“We’re Gonna Need a Lighter Boat”

3D printing will revolutionize the way every piece of equipment for a navy is built, and this starts at the design stage with a focus on decreasing a ship’s weight. First, the way parts can be created using 3D printing, building components as a whole rather than requiring further assembly later, allows designers to mimic the intricate internal structures found in nature to develop extremely strong parts while using lighter materials such as carbon fiber in place of steel. Second, components created a piece at a time in a traditional factory typically require additions like brackets and flanges for handling and for surfaces to bolt or weld the pieces together. Third, designers can create more rounded shapes for system components such as ducting and piping. This not only allows internal ship systems to operate more efficiently, as the rounded shapes are much more conducive to fluid flow than elbow-shaped pipes and ducts stamped out in a traditional factory, but again will decrease weight by eliminating unnecessary system volume. The Economist reports the Navy is already using “a number of printed parts such as air ducts” in F-18s for these very reasons.

As maritime professionals know, lighter does not mean weaker, but does mean faster. It also means cost savings from decreased fuel consumption, and increased operational range – less reliance on oilers and brief stops for fuel.

Heavy Metal Savings

3D printing can bring down costs in other ways. The material savings of additive manufacturing can be enormous. According to The Economist, while traditional manufacturers of parts requiring high-grade metals such as titanium for aircraft can see up to 90% of the costly material cut away and wasted, researchers at EADS show the use of titanium powder to print the parts uses only 10% of the raw material.

3D printers can similarly reduce the costs of creating prototypes in comparison with traditional methods, and because they can make the prototypes much more quickly they allow designers more time to experiment with models of everything from valve handles to hull forms.

After the printer is purchased or built, the cost to customize an item or completely switch production is primarily only the labor cost of the design change and the difference in the material. The potential savings are huge to customers such as shipbuilders and navies, where constant updates, upgrades, and requirement changes would otherwise lead to cost overruns.

I’ll Take a Cruiser in Pink

Where does this lead us? In the short-term there will still be many high-volume, high-use parts that vary little and are cheaper to make using traditional methods. But as 3D printers replace assembly lines, ever more complicated 3D printers that can produce greater portions of a finished vessel or aircraft will make their mark on the fleets of the future. Sooner than you think shipyards’ production halls may be transformed into large 3D printer complexes able to print the hull and major superstructure pieces, leveraging the ability to create highly complex internal structures and designs to bring down weight and cost.

As most of the ship design and production is nowadays done by defense contractors, sailors may be less aware of these impacts of 3D printing on their experience at sea. In the next post in our series, I respond to Matt Hipple’s and take a look at the much more direct impacts of 3D printing on life at sea, including the potential to shift supply and production from ashore to afloat.

Photo: US Navy