Surface Forces: Indian Ocean Visited by Japanese Navy


January 14, 2024: In mid-2023 a Japanese destroyer visited the Indian ocean and visited a shipyard in Sri Lanka, the tiny nation off the southern tip of India. The Port Blair drydock, and shipyard is a major economic enterprise for Sri Lanka, which is ideally located in the center of the Indian Ocean and available for ships from all nations in need of maintenance, upgrades, or repairs. Japan is spending $28 million to upgrade the Port Blair power generation facilities. More foreign warships are visiting the Indian Ocean, most of them on good terms with India and other Indian Ocean nations.

For the United States, this is a natural progression of the increased US Navy presence in the West Pacific. Since the 1990s the United States has moved most of its fleet to the Pacific. This was to deal with the growing Chinese naval threat, as well as continuing problems with North Korea and Iran. From 1945 to 2016 the U.S. Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, controlled American naval operations in the West Pacific. In 2016 the Third Fleet took charge of western portions of the Central and South Pacific while Seventh Fleet dealt with North Korea, northern China, and Russia. One thing that brought the Third Fleet back was the need to conduct more FONOPS (freedom of navigation operations) in the South China Sea.

The expansion of Third Fleet operating areas was no surprise. In 2012 the U.S. announced that it would have 60 percent of its 270 warships in the Pacific by the end of the decade. Actually, this was just a continuation of a process that began when the Cold War ended in 1991. There have been other major changes. In 2006 the U.S. Navy eliminated the Atlantic Fleet, after a century of existence. First established in 1906, the Atlantic Fleet was the first, world class, high seas, naval force from the Americas. At the time there was fear that Germany's ambitious warship building program might someday endanger the United States. The Atlantic Fleet did go to war with the Germans in 1917, and again in 1941. After 1945, the Atlantic Fleet remained a mighty force, in preparation for a potential battle with the growing naval power of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, their fleet wasted away within a decade. At that point, the American Atlantic Fleet no longer had a major opponent. China, North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran provided plenty of work for the Pacific Fleet, which normally supplied ships for Middle East and South Asian emergencies. The Pacific Fleet now has most of the warships and responsibilities for whatever problems emerge from East Asia and the Middle East. The Third Fleet will still stand ready to deal with potential problems in Asia.

While Russia is again preparing for war with NATO and especially the United States, their Cold War fleet is not only gone but they find themselves unable to replace many of the larger warships they built during the Cold War. For that matter, neither can the United States. For both America and Russia, it takes longer, costs more and quality is a major problem.

Even before the Cold War ended the U.S. Navy was losing its ability to design and build new and affordable ships of any type. This was not seen as a major problem during the Cold War because the Americans still had an enormous edge over Russia. To the surprise of many, the Soviet fleet lost most of its capabilities in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That meant the U.S. went from naval superiority to supremacy. It did not last. By the late 1990s the creation of a modern Chinese fleet was underway.

China knew what they were doing. They had already invested heavily in commercial ship building, where they soon became the primary supplier of adequate, low-cost tankers and freighters. Japan, South Korea, and European firms provided the more complex vessels. China is slowly invading that market. China understood that if you were a major producer of commercial shipping, you had an edge in producing warships.

The United States lost sight of this and tolerated the loss of the American ship building business to Europe in the 1960s and Pacific nations Japan, South Korea, and China in the late 20th century. The U.S. no longer had a lot of civilian shipyards that could also provide maintenance facilities for warships or, with some additional investment, build warships. The navy procurement bureaucracy lost its ability to impose cost and construction standards on the small number of shipyards capable of building large warships.

For China it was just the opposite and that’s why China has more warships than the United States. China also has problems with personnel, but these are different from what the U.S. Navy suffers from. China has no tradition of a fleet that sends many ships long distances on a regular basis in peacetime. As a result, few Chinese want to join, or stay in, the navy so its ability to grow much beyond its present number of ships built and building is questionable.

The other potential problems, like ship design and crew quality, China had already noted. Rather than try to develop new ship designs, the Chinese copied what had worked in the West, especially the United States. However, China was surprised by the difficulty finding enough qualified Chinese to operate all these new ships. China understood that the way you obtain competent crews and commanders is to send your new ships to sea frequently. That was known to work but many Chinese were not willing to spend all that time at sea when there were similar jobs in the air force and army that paid the same and did not require so much that time at sea.

China has demonstrated their ability to keep improving their manufacturing skills and, just as their commercial shipping designs became more capable and complex, so are their warships. Navies with experienced crews encounter Chinese warships more frequently and the consensus is that the Chinese are getting better and more quickly than expected. Western navies faced a comparable situation with Japan before World War II. The Japanese built Western type ships, after buying some from European builders. Japan trained its crews hard, more so than Western observers realized or would admit.

Japanese naval victories early in the war were a surprise to everyone but the Japanese. The situation with China today is different in several respects. Before World War II the United States was the largest commercial ship builder in the world and had a GDP ten times larger than Japan. Japanese senior admirals understood that this meant Japan had to win the naval war decisively within a year, because after that the greater shipbuilding capability of the United States would, as it actually did, produce a fleet many times what Japan had. Japan could not replace major warship losses. Within two years it was obvious to Japanese naval leaders that they had lost their war.

China is now building warships matching U.S. warship tech in terms of weapons and sensors (assuming their navy does not have crippling corruption defect problems like its ICBM forces). China does this in part because they can do it faster and cheaper. That is a side effect of China becoming the largest shipbuilder in the world. This is a status the United States held during World War II and surrendered as European nations and Japan revived their ship building industries. In the last few decades South Korea and China have become the major ship builders. It is no mystery that nations capable of building the most commercial ships can also produce lots of warships and do it quickly and inexpensively.

That is why it costs so much more and takes longer for American shipyards to build warships. Worse, the decline in American commercial shipbuilding means there is a chronic shortage of skilled shipyard workers and managers for military ship construction. The U.S. is currently a minor factor in world ship building and most of that is smaller, coastal shipping plus specialty items like oil rigs. The U.S. has far fewer facilities for repairing its many large warships and a growing backlog in warship maintenance because of that. Three nations, China, South Korea, and Japan build 90 percent of all ships.

China, South Korea, and Japan all have more robust warship construction and repair capabilities than the United States. It works both ways. America had maintained its primacy as a builder of commercial aircraft since World War II and made it possible to maintain primacy in warplane design and construction. Same with the automotive industry, which creates many essential innovative technologies needed for military vehicles.

Now the Americans are on the wrong end of those World War II and Cold War trends. So were the Russians during the Cold War, where the United States always had a GDP at least twice that of the USSR and was more experienced in designing and building superior warships. China noted all that and strove to avoid the errors and enhance what worked. China is on its way to maintaining its status as the second largest GDP in the world for a long time. China already has the largest fleet of warships, although the U.S. Navy still leads in tonnage and experience.




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