// You are reading...

Asia Pacific

Asia’s March of Folly


In 1906 the HMS Dreadnought gently rode the Portsmouth yard slipways into the cold waters of the English Channel. Her launching immediately made every other battleship on Earth obsolete. The brainchild and driving passion of Admiral “Jackie” Fisher, First Lord of the Admiralty, the Dreadnought revolutionized naval architecture so thoroughly that she gave her name to a whole new class of warship. Her new steam turbine engines were capable of 21 knots, four knots faster than any other capital ship afloat, despite an unprecedented amount of armor plating; and she also carried ten 12-inch guns, three times as many as her nearest rival. The “all big gun” revolution not only simplified the logistics of storing and supplying munitions to a ship, it also ensured the maximum firepower for any given displacement. Dreadnought could literally blow every other ship afloat out of the water, catching them if they ran, standing in the line if they fought, and barely have her paintwork scratched. For Great Britain, naval supremacy was not a matter of preference, it was a matter of national survival, and Admiral Fisher did not intend to be caught flat-footed as his predecessors of the wooden navy had been by the arrival on the world scene of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, 45 years earlier. This time Britain would lead in the technology race.


The immediate aftermath was a burst of naval construction around the world as nations with Great Power pretensions desperately sought to catch up with the British: visions of their entire fleet sunk by British “dreadnoughts” and their coasts and commerce laid open to blockade and destruction made for many an admiral’s nightmare. International status immediately became dependent on having these ships. The “club” soon expanded from Britain to include France, Italy, Russia, the United States, Austria-Hungary (with only one port and no colonies!) and Japan. Even countries that did not have the domestic capability to build these behemoths bought them from British firms in order to maintain their “Great Power” status: the Ottoman Empire, Brazil, Argentina and Chile all joined the “Dreadnought Race” in the early years of the new century. A nation like China or Persia, with wealth and vast numbers of military age men, no longer entered the calculus of power[1]. They were disregarded because they could not defend themselves[2].

Most important, however, was the unprecedented building program launched by Germany. Both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Tirpitz had great respect and admiration for the Royal Navy: the German Kaiser even held a nominal rank in the British Fleet due to his royal connection to Queen Victoria. This led them to dream of matching the British Navy and – like boys with toys – they quickly became enamored of the sleek steel dreadnoughts for their own sake. They may not have set out to challenge British naval dominance[3] but the Dreadnought Race quickly became all about Great Britain and Germany: they were the only two nations with the industrial might and sufficient reason to keep it up. By 1908, the British had stopped counting the US Navy in their calculations of a “Two Power Standard;” recognition that war with the United States was no longer conceivable. Along with the Entente Cordial reached with France in 1904, these measures allowed the British on building more ships than their only remaining rival: Imperial Germany.

The “Dreadnought Race” is considered a major contributing factor to the First World War. As naval construction increased, consuming vast and ever-increasing amounts of money, the Army became jealous. To compete for limited funds, both Army and Navy departments in European capitals began to issue alarming reports of enemy strengths and intentions: reports that could only be countered by increased funding for the Branch issuing the report, of course. This led to a certain degree of paranoia – some of it justified – as well as changing perspectives about the long-term viability of peace coexistence. In other words, officers, politicians and civilians all became more bellicose and jingoistic across Europe at the same time. Anyone who was against the patriotic efforts to build up the Armed Forces was clearly a communist, a subversive, a traitor: more than one civilian politician was forced to resign for opposing an increase to the military budget[4].


What none of the Great Powers realized, with the exception of a few noted visionaries, was that these great battle fleets inherently had two fatal flaws:

  1. They were so prohibitively expensive that no one was willing to risk them in battle; and,
  2. They were a very long-term investment that was rapidly eclipsed by newer, far cheaper weapons made possible by the rapid pace of technological change in this period;

In the entire four-year course of the War to End All Wars, there was only one naval battle between the rival dreadnought fleets, and the German Hochseeflotte prudently returned to port as soon as the bulk of the Royal Navy appeared on the horizon. Except for some dashing battlecruiser actions, neither the British nor the Germans displayed any desire to seek a Trafalgar-level victory. There were no dreadnought clashes in any other theater either: not the Mediterranean, not the Black Sea, not the Baltic Sea and not the Pacific. Only pre-dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers were ever engaged. Even in the Dardanelles Campaign, the Franco-British force withdrew after losing three pre-dreadnoughts to mines rather than risk the loss of the dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth. The ship was considered more valuable than the possibility of knocking the Ottomans out of the war[5].

Technological progress was also making the dreadnought obsolete before war even broke out. In 1910, the first heavier-than-air craft was launched from the cruiser USS Birmingham. The first landings on a ship were accomplished the next year. The French launched a sea-plane tender ship in 1911, one that could launch a plane and recover it from the sea by crane. In 1914, the Japanese launched the first (unsuccessful) naval air raid, launching an airplane from the IJN Wakamiya against two ships of the Central Powers. The submarine was also transformed from a Civil War-era death trap into an efficient war machine, more dangerous to the enemy than to friends. By 1900, the United States and France had both commissioned operational submarines, followed rapidly by every other Power.


These developments had a tremendous impact on warfare. Submarines came closer to securing German victory in both world wars than any other weapon; while the aircraft carrier rapidly evolved to become the premier capital ship in the world’s navies, especially in the Pacific. The dreadnought proved impotent against both. This was immediately demonstrated at the outbreak of hostilities when Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen of U-9 sank three British cruisers in an hour[6]. A vessel that cost the Kriegsmarine £100,000 had just destroyed £2.25 million worth of warships. Shortly after this loss, the British suffered a more serious blow when the modern dreadnought HMS Audacious struck a mine off the coast of Ireland and sank. The dual threats of submarines and mines restricted the movements of the Royal Navy for the rest of the war.

The Growing Threat

The causes that led to the outbreak of the two greatest conflagrations in history are complex and there is always the debate between determinists and individualists[7]. Theories run the gamut from Marxism’s historical dialectic, the pan-European belief in eugenic divisions and inevitable conflicts, to theories of economic competition and conflict arising from the Long Depression of 1873 to 1896. All of them agreed that increasing militarism was inevitable in the “Great Game” that the European Powers – plus the US and Japan – would always play to divide the world, her resources and the “lesser people” between themselves.

Regression analysis of military spending patterns among Great Powers prior to the world wars, by Jari Eloranta of the University of Warwick, found that demand for “defense goods” was highly correlated to instability in the international system. That instability was being driven a number of forces:

  • Decline, or perceived decline, of a dominant hegemon in both military and economic terms led to increased hegemonic competition, i.e. the decline of the Pax Britannica and prior to the rise of the Pax Americana;
  • A high proportion of non-democratic states among the Great Powers was positively correlated to military expenditures;
  • Military spending was opportunistic and as increased spending leads to more opportunities to exert pressure and extract concessions, it created positive feedback;
  • The “opportunistic” effect was limited by the negative correlation with overall military burden. As the defense percentage of GDP rises, there is pressure to contain or contract it;
  • Aggregate military spending had an impact on individual state spending, but the military expenditure of any single state did not, except as it contributed to the total;
  • Aggregate spending within an alliance structure also seemed to have little influence on the spending decisions of individual powers.

The growth of Imperial Japan demonstrates how these factors interact and become a self-reinforcing cycle of military spending and military adventurism. Through 1880, Great Britain was the predominant naval power in the Pacific with limited incursions by other Europeans in the periphery of the largest ocean: the French in Indochina, the Dutch in the East Indies, the old but stagnant colonies of Spain and Portugal. In the 1880’s, imperial competition began to increase as Russia and the United States expanded their Pacific presence, Germany entered the area for the first time, and the French began thinking of expansion into China. This increased the perceived threat to Meiji Japan and spurred the policy of “Fukoku kyōhei” or “enrich the country, strengthen the military”. As Japanese strength grew, they saw the disparity in power between themselves and a crumbling Ming Dynasty in China; their policy went from friendship (María Luz incident – 1872) to exploitation and hostility (First Sino-Japanese War-1894). The withdrawal of British and French power to Europe because of the rise of Germany created a power vacuum the Japanese eagerly exploited; by 1905, they had even taken on and defeated the moribund Russian Empire.

We see a similar situation developing in the world today. The perceived – relative – decline of the United States vis-à-vis China is destabilizing the entire Eastern Pacific region. Phenomenal growth in the Chinese economy has led to a similarly phenomenal growth in military expenditures, with the result that the People’s Liberation Army is now not only the largest military force in the region, but one of the most modern and capable. As capabilities have expanded, new opportunities to exploit that power nakedly have suggested themselves to the CCP and PLA leaders. Gone are the days of Deng’s admonition: “hide brightness, nourish obscurity.” China is now the recognized bully[8] on the block. The Chinese complain about American designs to contain their rise: but in fact, it is their own high-handed tactics and disdain for their neighbors[9] that are causing these very nations to clamor for the US to “contain China”[10]: a pull, rather than a push, strategy.

The result of a perceived waning of US power, a corresponding growth of Chinese power and an increased perception of the threat of China is what one would expect: increased military spending around the region. East Asia is the region with the second fastest relative growth in defense expenditures, after the perpetually troubled Middle East. And while the spending of “pro-American” (or anti-PRC) nations has increased by 64% since 2003, it has not been able to keep up with the stunning 522% increase in PRC expenditures over the same period.



A great deal of this spending has been dedicated to building up national naval forces. China’s land borders are secure: the country is essentially and island with populous and wealthy coastal regions surrounded by jungles, mountains, deserts and Siberian forests. China’s people, industry, trade and a much of her energy are dependent on or within easy reach of the sea. Her coast is ringed at an average distance of 400 miles (650 kms) by a series of islands, all of which are out of her control and which form a potentially insurmountable defensive barrier or blockade barrage in time of war. This is the main reason China is so keen on expanding her sovereignty over large parts of the “First Island Chain”. In order to do so, China needs a strong navy, because in her way are the Japanese and the Americans, two of the great naval powers of history.


The expansion of the ill-named People’s Liberation Army Navy has been very impressive in terms of numbers: at 482 ships, it is the largest navy in the world. While mere numbers is not truly indicative of capabilities, the Chinese have been assiduously expanding these from the early days of a coastal defense force. They have slowly built an impressive amphibious capability clearly aimed at Taiwan; and much more rapidly, they have built up a substantial area denial threat to prevent the US 7th Fleet from ever intervening again in the Taiwan Strait. Most recently, China has announced its intention of developing a greater power projection force for traditional reasons: protect Chinese commercial and political interests. This capability is necessarily centered around the aircraft carrier.  China purchased an old Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class carrier[11] to act as a training vessel, renaming it the Liaoning. She has now announced the construction of a second, domestically built carrier which would be larger than the Liaoning and feature steam catapult assisted take-off rather than the less capable ski ramp of the Kuznetsovs. Reports of a total of four carriers have also circulated, which would permit the Chinese Navy to always have at least one ship at sea[12].

The second component of modern force projection is the through-deck transport ships that can carry troops, vehicles, helicopters and supplies to a conflict zone. China has gone from building small- and medium-sized “brown water” landing craft, to large ships capable of carrying a battalion of naval infantry and their equipment across the ocean. The PLAN is doubling its fleet of 3 Type 071 LPDs (Amphibious Transport Dock, equivalent to the US San Antonio-class) as well as constructing a new class of Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD), equivalent to the US America-class. These ships will give China the ability to move thousands of troops and tanks thousands of miles, if they so choose, a capability that would only be exceeded by that of the United States. Taiwan would no longer be the limit: the Japanese are uncomfortably aware of how near Okinawa and Amami[13] are to China.


Neither the Japanese nor anyone else is sitting around watching these developments in between reruns of Friends. The Japanese Diet has recently approved legislative changes[14] that give greater scope to the Self-Defense Forces for interventions outside of the Japanese home islands in “mutual defense” operations; a clear shot at the Chinese, who are the only nation the Japanese would be defending others from. The Japanese Navy is prohibited from operating full-size fleet carriers, but it does operate two Hyuga-class “helicopter destroyers” and are building two more even larger Izumo-class DDH, which will be capable of launching V/STOL-capable F-35B’s. They also have three landing ship tanks for the movement of troops from the Home Islands to the outer islands.

Other nations are getting into this new “Carrier Race”:

  • Russia has announced its intention of building a full-sized carrier in the near future, though budgetary limitations and lack of critical ship-building skills and infrastructure may prevent them from doing so;
  • India is building two new, indigenous aircraft carriers of the Vikrant-class, as well as 4 more L41 Amphibious Transport Docks;
  • Australia is committed to building a second Canberra-class LHD, which will also be able to launch F-35B strike fighters;
  • South Korea is considering an upgrade to its Dokdo-class Landing Platform Helicopters (LPH) to provide an enhanced capability, which the South Koreans can’t seem to decide is more aimed at deterring North Korea, China or Japan;
  • Thailand operates a small, old aircraft carrier, the Chakri Naruebet;
  • Singapore is considering building a Joint Multi-Mission Ship with the characteristics and size of an LPH.


The United States Navy operates by far the largest concentration of capital ships and is building more, but budgetary constraints limit the number of new ships that can be built while still operating 10 Nimitz-class supercarriers and 12 Marine amphibious platforms. This preponderance of force may seem overwhelming, but no other navy has the global responsibilities of the USN.


East Asia bears all the hallmarks of a classic arms race: a dynamic, unstable balance of power; intensifying economic and military rivalries; lingering territorial disputes and historical animosities. American naval dominance kept the lid on many of these potential disputes for decades, but the perceived waning of US power has created an opportunity for some and a need for others to expand into the vacuum. President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was supposed to calm the waters by reasserting American power in the region, but the dynamic has gone beyond a stage where such a strategy might be effective. Even as Britain’s concentration of the Royal Navy in  home waters failed to deter Germany from continuing its dreadnought program, so the US pivot is not going to stop China from expanding the PLAN.

But even as Pacific military budgets are expanding a billions are being poured into large and expensive new capital ships, the relentless development of new technologies threatens to make the aircraft carriers as vulnerable as the old dreadnoughts were to the airplane, submarine and mine.

  • China has focused on developing a range of anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) weapons with the sole purpose of keeping the US Navy carriers as far from the Chinese coast as possible, or destroying them if they dare venture too close. Hypersonic ballistic missiles[15] could reach out as far as Guam and deliver multiple warheads large enough to kill a carrier, while long-range air- and submarine launched supersonic cruise missiles[16] could also overwhelm fleet defenses ;
  • The United States has meanwhile leveraged its considerable expertise in unmanned vehicles to develop a range of unmanned aircraft[17] and submersibles[18] which have the potential to greatly expand the range and capabilities of the Navy. Tiny unmanned subs, stealthy and incredibly difficult to detect due to their small size, could penetrate enemy harbor defenses to scout, lay mines or detonate under a target; while long-range aircraft could identify targets and enter hostile airspace where commanders would not want to risk the life of a pilot.


Of course, the Chinese are also developing unmanned vehicles and the US is upgrading its own anti-ship offensive capabilities[19]. The Japanese are interested in placing theater missile defenses to protect the Home Islands from potential attack from North Korea and – sotto voce – China; while also mulling the possibility of building a hydrophone sensor line[20] from Kyushu down to the Miyako Strait to monitor, interdict and help destroy Chinese submarines.

Any hypothetical future conflict in the Eastern Pacific might very well see large concentrations of enemy ships staying in port or far out to sea; too valuable and vulnerable to risk against the new weapons that could render them very expensive artificial reefs. The greater damage may come from asymmetric warfare and new technologies rather than the fleets of big ships: anti-satellite attacks, cyber war, UAV’s, global strike, or a yet untested concept.  There is no reason to suspect that these weapons will not be as effective as their designers have planned for them to be; in which case every nation is wasting a great deal of money and driving a useless and counterproductive arms race.

The lessons of history are clearly before us, yet we are making the same march of folly that led to the calamities of the twentieth century. We know the drivers towards war; it is in our power to break the pattern or to reinforce it.

Sources and Notes

[1] This had been true for some time, but before the “Dreadnought Age” these powers were accorded a slightly greater degree of consideration. The disasters of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 to 1895 only confirmed that Japan was a second tier power and that China had ceased to be any sort of power at all: predation on her accelerated. Similarly, the debacle of the Spanish fleet in the almost contemporaneous Spanish-American War (1898) ushered in the era of considering the United States a first tier power while Spain slipped from second to third tier. These considerations were critical for ther.e were still many disputes over colonies, protectorates and coaling rights which often threatened to escalate into war. Negotiations between first tier powers were normally cordial, or at least less than bellicose, such as the tripartite pact between Britain, Germany and the US that divided up Samoa; but no first tier power would dream of speaking as an equal to a third tier power: they were merely informed of decisions made on their behalf, such as the disregard paid Spain in the Franco-German dispute over Morocco.

[2] There were curious exceptions to the above rule: the Netherlands and Portugal managed to maintain their colonial empires outside of the Western Hemisphere, while tiny Belgium was given the largest single territory in Africa, the Belgian Congo, to administer as a personal fief of King Leopold. None of these European states had any dreadnoughts, though the Dutch maintained a first class fleet of smaller ships. All of them benefited from the Great Power rivalry: no one wanted anyone else to gather the fruits of their existing colonies and Great Britain found them convenient buffers for her own colonies.

[3] Kaiser Wilhelm II is on record for stating many times his confusion at British alarm over the German naval program. He thought it inconceivable that the two great “white” powers would ever fight; instead, he dreamt of teaming up with the British to extend Anglo-Teutonic dominance around the world to the detriment of the lesser races, like the Latinate French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italians.

[4] Georges Clemenceau, although a famous hawk in French politics, was nevertheless skewered and forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1909 by his rival Théophile Delcassé, who headed a commission that revealed widespread graft, corruption and unpreparedness in the French Navy. German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was also dismissed when he failed to pass a tax increase for naval funding through the Reichstag, though this may have just been the excuse Kaiser Wilhelm II exploited after relations with his Chancellor had deteriorated after a series of political gaffes.

[5] To be fair, that was the joint decision of the Franco-British council of war on the evening of the 18th of March, 1915; and they were the commanders on the scene. They obviously felt that the unknown dangers were great enough, and the powers of Turkish resistance sufficient, to make any further hazard of the straits too dangerous. On the other hand, and in support of First Lord Winston Churchill’s frustrated exclamations, it is hard to imagine a Nelson or a Howe being similarly daunted by an early setback.

[6] In fairness, the three Cressy-class cruisers were widely recognized as outdated to the point that the three ships were designated the “Live Bait Squadron” by sailors. Nevertheless, the success of the U-boat came as a major shock to the British, who immediately ceased to consider them useless toys.

[7] Determinists believe that human history is largely the work of deep, impersonal forces like demographics, geography, technology and disease, with individuals having little or no influence on the outcomes. Individualists believe the opposite: that an Alexander, a Caesar, a Washington or a Napoleon makes history while impersonal forces tend to cancel out. This is, of course, a simplification of nuanced arguments.

[8] Wyatt Olsen, “Study: China is the most aggressive nation in South China Sea disputes,” Stars and Stripes, 02 July 2015

[9] Jim Gomez, “China to snub arbitration hearing on feud with Philippines,” Stars and Stripes, 6 July 2015

[10] Seth Robsor, “US viewed favorably in most countries, Pew survey finds,” Stars and Stripes, 24 June 2015

[11] Technically a heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser, so designated to allow the Soviets to send it through the Bosporus and Dardanelles without violating the Montreux Convention. It is essentially a three-quarters carrier with some ship-to-ship missiles thrown on.

[12] Zachary Keck, “Confirmed: China Is Building 2nd Aircraft Carrier,” The National Interest, 09 March 2015

[13] Ningbo to Okinawa is 445 miles (715 kms); Ningbo to Amami is 460 miles (745 kms). Ningbo is the headquarters for the Chinese East Sea fleet.

[14] Anna Fifield, “Japan’s cabinet approves bills to loosen post-war military restrictions,” The Washington Post, 14 May 2015

[15] Robert Farley, “Should America Fear China’s “Carrier-Killer” Missile?,” The National Interest, 22 September 2014

[16] Lyle J. Goldstein, “China’s YJ-18 Supersonic Anti-Ship Cruise Missile: America’s Nightmare?,” The National Interest, 01 June 2015

[17] Richard R. Burgess, “Forbes: Deep Strike Capability Needed in Navy’s UCLASS,” Seapower, 11 June 2015

[18] James Holmes, “The U.S. Navy’s Next Super Weapon? Here Come Unmanned Underwater Vehicles,” The National Interest, 05 January 2015

[19] Robert Crumplar, “Essay: Changing the Anti-Ship Cruise Missile Paradigm,” USNI News, 26 May 2015

[20] Craig Hill, “Japan’s master plan to defeat China in a war,” China Daily Mail, 01 March 2015

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.“

John Adams


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 791 other subscribers