Way back in 1979 flamboyant pop superstars the Village People informed us that “in the navy, yes you can sail the seven seas”. Sadly, the boys dressed as builders and cowboys may have been exaggerating, as not every navy in the world has blue-water capability. A blue-water navy is one that can commit its vessels to locations around the world, thousands of miles from home bases. As the seven seas are scattered all around the globe, the luckiest would-be sailors can join a navy that’s large enough to visit every corner of the Earth.
The naval power of a country was historically one of the most important aspects of a nation’s strength, back in the day when exploring and conquering were still on the to-do list of the world’s leading powers. While this romantic role isn’t really at the forefront of a naval force’s concern these days, naval power is still hugely important for coastal nations. The navy fortifies and defends a country’s shores and adds weight – both figuratively and literally! – to a country’s armed strength.
So which countries stake the greatest claim over the waters? We’ve had a look at the countries with the largest naval forces – organized in terms of total tonnage of their warships, for a couple of reasons. For example, the Mexican Navy employs 56,000 people but only has two destroyers. If this list was ordered by numbers of personnel, the Mexican Navy would be the seventh biggest in the world despite its diminutive equipment. The number of vessels is also discounted; the Korean People’s Navy has over 700 vessels and 98 are in service. However, many of these are light craft such as patrol boats, which wouldn’t be likely to stand up for long against a 100,000-ton Nimitz-class supercarrier. North Korea would be the sixth largest navy in the world by number of vessels, but 20th by tonnage. So we’re looking at the serious heavy-weights, the heftiest navies in the world today. You really don’t want to creep up on the shores of these 10 nations…
10. Republic of China Navy (Taiwan): 151,662 tons
The Taiwanese Navy is still considered a green-water navy, meaning it has plenty of power in coastal and territorial areas but not sufficient power to project itself worldwide, yet. The Taiwanese don’t seem too bothered about aircraft carrier programs at the moment (aircraft carriers are central to blue-water navies). It is important for the island nation to defend its own waters due to the constant threat of the saber-rattling People’s Republic of China. Taiwan has four small destroyers and a handful of frigates to help keep potential invaders at bay.
9. Marina Militare (Italy): 173,549 tons
The Italians possess a couple of aircraft carriers, but they are quite small (with one of them, Guiseppe Garibaldi, being over 30 years old). The Marina Militare has a mixed fleet consisting of destroyers, frigates, corvettes, submarines and amphibious warfare ships. Considering Italian bases are dotted around the sunny Mediterranean coastline, who can blame them for not being concerned about blue-water capability?
8. Republic of Korea Navy (South Korea): 178,710 tons
For such a small country, South Korea finds it has to maintain a large and modern navy due to the uncomfortable situation with its neighbor, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. But with a healthy GDP of over $1 trillion, South Korea can afford to fulfill its goal of becoming a blue-water navy by 2020. Thanks to joint agreements with the USA, the Asian nation is on a fast-track toward this goal, with its navy already boasting a dozen hefty destroyers and a small fleet of attack submarines.
7. Indian Navy: 317,725 tons
With over 300,000 tons of sea-faring vessels, the Indian Navy is a force to be reckoned with. Two aircraft carriers, INS Viraat (28,700 tons) and INS Vikramaditya (45,400 tons), lead the way for this sub-continental powerhouse. Like the ROK Navy, the Indian Navy also wants to have blue-water capability by 2020. The Indians frequently join in with international maneuvers and have been observers at Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercises, which in 2012 involved 42 naval vessels from all around the world. The Indian Navy has bases scattered around the region, stretching from Madagascar to Nha Trang in Vietnam.
6. French Navy: 319,195 tons
Not quite breaking into the top five is one of the oldest navies in the world. The French navy has an illustrious history dating back to 1624 and was of vital importance during the period of the French colonial empire, when the interests of France ranged from North America to South-East Asia. Nowadays, the French Navy is more concerned with peacekeeping missions and maintaining a global presence. This blue-water force is headed by the massive aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which has a full load displacement of 42,000 tons.
5. Royal Navy (UK): 367,850 tons
The Royal Navy has a history dating back to the 16th century and its strength was one of the main reasons this small island nation managed to build up such a huge empire during the Victorian era. Having the largest and most powerful navy meant that Britain could sail around the globe almost with impunity. The modern Royal Navy may not be as crucial as it once was, but it proves its blue-water capability frequently by cropping up at hotspots around the globe. The British are building two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. These ships will be around 70,000 tons and will help keep the UK at the vanguard of naval operations throughout the first half of the 21st century. The British also maintain a strong submarine presence which also includes the Vanguard-class submarines, which can launch nuclear missiles.
4. Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force: 413,800 tons
The JMSDF is getting close to being a blue-water navy, especially thanks to its involvement in operations against the threat of piracy in the waters around Somalia. The country’s proximity to the rather belligerent state of North Korea has created the need to keep a modern and powerful navy, ostensibly for defense purposes. The Japanese have a couple of helicopter carriers and a lot of destroyers for tactical power projection. The JMSDF has been expanding its submarine force and its vessels are considered to be some of the most modern of their kind in the world.
3. People’s Liberation Army Navy (China): 708,086 tons
Dwarfing the previous seven navies on this list is the massive Chinese navy. Still content on maintaining a green-water capability, it seems only a matter of time before the Chinese start to stray further afield. A great deal of focus is put on submarine strength; the PLA Navy operates over 50 conventional submarines and 13 nuclear-powered submarines. The Chinese might not seem to possess a blue-water navy above the waves, but below sea level there is only the occupant of the No.1 spot on this list that could truly challenge the PLA Navy. The Chinese navy has 290,000 personnel taking care of over 500 ships.
2. Russian Navy: 845,730 tons
The former Soviet Navy was huge and powerful, the Northern Fleet alone operated over 200 submarines. The Russian Navy, then, which dates back to just 1992, inherited a large amount of these vessels – though the Soviet Black Sea Fleet morphed into the Ukrainian Navy when the USSR collapsed. It seems surprising that both the French Navy and Royal Navy are classed as blue-water navies, yet a huge navy like the Russian Navy is still limited to green-water capabilities. This is mostly due to the lack of investment during the dissolution of the Soviet Union which left Russia with a large, but rusty fleet of ships. However, Russian defense expenditure has increased along with the improvement in the vast country’s economy and there are plans to create new carrier groups so the Russian Navy can be “promoted” to blue-water status.
1. United States Navy: 3,415,893 tons
With 10 aircraft carrier groups, dozens of destroyers, 22 cruisers (nearest rival Russia has five) and a large modern submarine force, the US Navy rules the seas. This blue-water branch of the US military is run by more than 320,000 people and is also the owner of the largest warships in the world. The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers weigh around 100,000 tons each and along with their escorts can operate as “mini-navies”, giving the USA a practically unlimited strategic ability to project power in any of the world’s oceans and seas. Just one of these aircraft carriers could go at No.16 of the list of largest navies by tonnage, just ahead of the Royal Australian Navy at 98,426 tons.