Any Asian takers for a 1000-Ship Navy?

Vijay Sakhuja | 17 Mar 2020

In June 2006, while addressing an international audience at the Naval War College in Newport, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) called for a new maritime strategy for the US Navy and noted it was time the Navy, "redefine sea power for this new era, and explain how we will operate differently, train differently, educate differently and balance our forces differently." He propounded a "1000 Ship Navy" concept based on an integrated, global partnership of fleets with shared interests of guaranteeing freedom on the seas.

The "1000 Ship Navy" concept is being discussed at various levels in seminars and conferences the world over. In fact, senior officers of the US Department of the Navy took the opportunity to expound on the CNO's concept during the Western Conference Exposition (West 2007) in January 2007. Vice Admiral John G. Morgan, Jr., Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information, Plans and Strategy and Rear Admiral Michael C. Bachman, Commander, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command gave further details on the "1000 Ship Navy" concept that aims to build a network of navies built on "partnership" who will work together to create a force capable of "standing watch over all the seas."

What prompted the CNO to propound the concept of "1000 Ship Navy"? There are several reasons that merit attention. But before that it will be useful to argue that the concept per se is not new. For instance, in the fifth century BC, the Athenian League, built around resources and sea power provided by Greece and other independent sea states, voluntarily contributed both fiscal and human resources to defeat the Persian armies that set sail to conquer Greece.

More recently, during the Cold War, the concept of the "All-Oceans Alliance" was propounded in the US, based on the notion of "an association of seagoing trading states that could join together to provide mutual security against impingements." The alliance was modeled on the Greek-Roman alliance and was targeted against the Soviet Union and its allies. It was built on the premise that open societies and governments could work together against "potential totalitarian adversaries" and represent a collective defence arrangement against any inimical forces that could challenge the common national interest.

There are at least two reasons that have prompted the US naval leadership to propose the "1000 Ship Navy." First, is the fast declining force levels of the US Navy, currently based around a fleet of 276 vessels. This is perhaps the lowest number in several decades and represents a third of the number of ships built annually during the Reagan-era. There are also cost overruns in new shipbuilding programs such as the much-touted Littoral Combat Ship. Besides trimming down orders, since 2003, the US Navy has also cut thousands of sailor billets from its rolls.

Secondly, the US Navy's presence on the oceans is quite thin due to extensive deployments in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Mediterranean, and East Asia to support its growing commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Latin America, South Korea, and Japan. In 1997, Admiral Jay Johnson, then CNO drew a "red line" at 300 ships for the fleet, noting that any shortfall in force structure would seriously "imperil the country's safety." For comparative purposes, in 1988, Jim Webb, the then Secretary of the Navy, resigned over the Reagan administration's wavering commitment to a 600-ship Navy.

Admiral Mike Mullins, the current CNO has set a new red line of 313 ships by 2020, entailing strong budgetary support in the order of US $14 billion to $20 billion annually. Separately, according to US analysts, the CNO has "prodded the Navy to quit emphasising ship numbers" an old concept that was developed during the Cold War, aimed at maintaining parity of forces against the Soviet Union. He has also redefined the threats to the US that now arise from failed states or terrorist groups with global networks and reach. The US is also looking for partners to keep order at sea, safe sea lanes and prevent proliferation on WMDs - demonstrated by the Task Force 150 that operates in the Arabian Sea and the Proliferation Security Initiative.

The "1000 Ship Navy" concept has witnessed some debate and response in Asia. Japan and Korea are naturally supportive of the concept, as it provides a safety mechanism for their long and often vulnerable sea-lanes. Their close relations with the US also drive them to support the concept.

The Philippines, a staunch US ally in the 'war on terror' is supportive of the concept and acutely sensitive of its limited maritime capability. General Hermogenes Esperon, the Philippines Armed Forces Chief noted that "if all the warships of the Philippine Navy were placed together end-to-end, they would not even cover a kilometer."

For Indonesia and Malaysia, the "1000 Ship Navy" concept is an expansion of the 2004 Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI). The new "1000-ship navy" idea is viewed as an attempt to militarise the regional waters particularly the Straits of Malacca, running against the effort of encouraging regional navies to providing security and safety in the straits.

China is unlikely to support the "1000 Ship Navy" concept. It considers the initiative as another US containment strategy, hindering its naval expansion, premised on sea-lane protection. Although the Indian political leadership has endorsed its commitment to cooperate with global navies to protect maritime commerce against disorders at sea, New Delhi will be reluctant to join the US camp, as has been the case with the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Like China, the "1000 Ship Navy" concept prevents it from establishing itelf as a strong regional naval power that is primed for blue-water operations.

On paper, perhaps the biggest challenge for the "1000 Ship Navy" concept is interoperability. Less technologically sophisticated allies may have the political will to support the concept, but not the hardware. However the cynics would argue, and not without some justification, that the "1000-ship Navy" concept seeks to maintain a coalition of allies who jointly underwrite the costs of US naval superiority, unchallenged since the demise of Pax Britannica and more recently, the Soviet Union. In the circumstances, the concept is likely to find only the same few supporters in Asia.

Vijay Sakhuja is Visiting Senior Reseach Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. A former Indian Navy officer, he received his doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

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