Some say future warfare will employ autonomous machines that know no boundaries of land, air and water. Others say it will shed earthly constraints entirely for some territory of virtual space. Why talk navies in the age of the Predator drone? Are we ever likely to see a meaningful conflict on the seas again?
Warships - or at least, their ancestors sleeping in the ocean floor - are powerful symbols of past, present and future conflict. A few weeks ago China positioned three ship patrols 12 nautical miles from a contested Japanese-controlled island. The cause? A metaphoric insult — Japanese politicians honoured a controversial war shrine in Tokyo. Again last April, the Red Giant abruptly seized a Japanese cargo ship as payback for an unpaid lease — from 1936. Navies today, perhaps more than brute force, project symbolic violence.
That isn’t to say Type 45 destroyers couldn’t lay a good “siege” if they were so inclined. But in today’s hyperconnected hyperparanoid world, perhaps it’s the threat of a huge navy rather than their actual brute force which gives a country its power. China and Japan, whose ancient hostilities routinely swell around the simple motions of a few coastal vessels, certainly know this all too well.
Ranked by approximate tonnage of commissioned and active ships, read on to discover which countries stake the greatest claims on the waters today.
15 Royal Netherlands Navy: 116,308 tonnes
14 Indonesian Navy: 142,094 tonnes
13 Turkish Navy: 148,448 tonnes
12 Spanish Navy: 148,607 tonnes
11 Republic of China Navy (Taiwan): 168,662 tonnes
10 Brazilian Navy: 172,190 tonnes
9 Marina Militare (Italy): 184,744 tonnes
8 Republic of Korea Navy: 195,910 tonnes
7 French Navy: 321,855 tonnes
6 Royal Navy (Britain): 345,400 tonnes
5 Indian Navy: 381,375 tonnes
4 Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force: 405,800 tonnes
3 People’s Liberation Army Navy (China): 896,445 tonnes
The greatest consensus in military academia — to say nothing of certainty — over China’s war capacity approaches quantity over quality. At 377 commissioned ships, the most in the world, the quantity is certainly accounted for. You might imagine China’s fleet, then, to be a rusting second-hand lot out of the Soviet Union era. But a glance at the figures suggests otherwise.
2 Russian Navy: 927,120 tonnes
1 United States Navy: 3,378,758 tonnes
Taking a look at the US Navy’s catalogue, you might be struck by how completely its active warships run the gamut of commission dates. With about 270 total, there’s a handful born every single year from at least as far back as 1970. This reveals, if not a certain pathology of defence spending, the consistency with which the US has and will continue to bloat its abominably large military.
What is the military-industrial complex? The sheer absence of an historical milieu in the country’s arming economics. In peace or war, good times or bad, America keeps its guns a-loading land, air and sea, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
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