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
The most powerful Navy of the 17th century once wrote history in the wars of the Dutch Republic. Today it maintains a “peacekeeping” role within NATO and boasts only 23 ships in its arsenal, but the sheer beastliness of anti-air frigates like the De Zeven Provinciën-class at $800 million apiece, and Karel Doorman-class logistic support ships at $400 million, ranks the peaceful Dutch Navy among the most formidable.
14. Indonesian Navy: 142,094 tonnes
In stark contrast to the Netherlands, Indonesia’s navy consists of more than 150 active ships as of 2009; here, quantity makes for one of the most powerful forces in maritime Southeast Asia. The country maintains modern submarines like the torpedo- and mine-savvy Chang Bogo class, but small gunboats and light attack crafts (corvettes) form the bulk of its numbers, and like the Dutch, a robust arsenal of defence frigates adds serious tonnage.
13. Turkish Navy: 148,448 tonnes
Turkey’s naval history boasts glorious roots in the Ottoman Empire; the Turkish Navy proper only dates to its War of Independence in 1920. In its young days it operated a spread of classic battlecruisers and destroyers which have all since been decommissioned. Frigates, patrol boats and anti-mine vessels dominate the picture now, along with fourteen active attack subs which make Turkey a subsea leader.
12. Spanish Navy: 148,607 tonnes
The Navy that brought you Christopher Columbus’ voyages and the globe’s first circumnavigation now owns a modest 42 ships emphasizing transport, assault and anti-aircraft defence. Modern Spanish assault ships, like the massive Juan Carlos I named after the former King of Spain, command massive price tags of $600 billion US and rank among the heaviest, most powerful vessels in the world.
11. Republic of China Navy (Taiwan): 168,662 tonnes
The ROC Navy, est. 1924, exists almost exclusively to fend off invasion from the People’s Republic of China. To this end it consists mostly of massive defence frigates like the modern Tian Dan-class with supersonic anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-sub missiles. Throw in some heavyset destroyers and Taiwan’s navy, with only 50 ships total, has a lion’s roar.
10. Brazilian Navy: 172,190 tonnes
Pictured: The Brazilian Navy’s Bosisio (F 48) frigate opens fire on an unmanned aerial vehicle during a drone exercise with the US military. But Bosisio would look miniature next to the flagship NAe São Paulo aircraft carrier, singularly weighing 32,800 tonnes. The most powerful Navy in South America knows action: the Paraguayan War of the 19th century, heavy submarine patrol in both World Wars, and the great Lobster Operation of 1962, to name a few.
9. Marina Militare (Italy): 184,744 tonnes
Reformed after defeat in World War II, Italy’s Marina Militare now commands 63 active combat vessels as of last August including: New flagship aircraft carrier Cavour (550) at 27,000 tonnes, the Bergamini- and Maestrale-class guided missile frigates, and modern anti-air Horizon-class destroyers, also popular with the French. Among its accomplishments: sinking the Austro-Hungarian battleship SMS Szent Istvan in World War I.
8. Republic of Korea Navy: 195,910 tonnes
Along with its northern neighbour, the ROK forms one third of the East China Sea Islands dispute. It currently operates about 80 active ships with plenty more scheduled for commission, including a set of Son Wonil-class submarines and about twenty new Incheon-class defence frigates, the latter manufactured by Hyundai at $230 million apiece.
7. French Navy: 321,855 tonnes
Pictured: The French Navy’s Rubis Amethyste-class submarines migrating the seas. With an illustrious battle history from the wars of the French monarchy to key battles against the Axis in World War II, its current arsenal includes the 14,335-tonne Triomphant-class ballistic missile submarine; the flagship R91 Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier weighing a baffling 37,000 tonnes; a range of modern frigates, destroyers, amphibious landing ships; and some old schooners for good measure.
6. Royal Navy (Britain): 345,400 tonnes
No world power owes its status to naval force as much as the United Kingdom. The Royal Navy remained the most powerful in history until the course of the Second World War; during the Cold War it reinvented itself for anti-submarine efforts against the Soviet Union; today, its arsenal boasts versatility. Weapons like the Albion-class amphibious transporter, the Vanguard-class ballistic submarines, and the latest Type 45 guided missile destroyers — $1.7 billion apiece — stake thorough claims on the waters.
5. Indian Navy: 381,375 tonnes
The Indian Navy has a peculiar feature only shared by Indonesia on this list: a low weight-ship ratio. Though it barely surpasses the Royal Navy in tonnage it has nearly triple as many active ships; mostly light surface vessels, but a modified Russian Kiev-class Aircraft carrier weighing 45,400 tonnes among them. Nevertheless the Indian Navy faces difficulties under water. According to analysts, updating its submarines could take the country decades.
4. Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force: 405,800 tonnes
At nearly 100 active vessels, the second biggest destroyer fleet in the world belongs to the Japanese Navy. Standouts: two 10,000-tonne Atago-class guided missile destroyers—massive for destroyer standards—and one 27,000 tonne Izumo-class helicopter carrier. Currently relegated to an international “peacekeeping” capacity, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force specializes in antisubmarine and minesweeping, though lacks in antiaircraft defence.
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.
Every commissioned ship boasts Made in China barring one aircraft carrier and a single class of destroyer and submarine, and all 15 active corvette vessels (small, fast attack-crafts) were christened no earlier than last year. By some measures the second largest navy in the world, the Red Giant’s military potential remains enigmatic to the West.
2. Russian Navy: 927,120 tonnes
The proper “Russian Navy” has a weird existence, being officially birthed in 1991 though its status, equipment and validity depend on the fatalistic remnants of the USSR. Russia’s very newest destroyer, Sovremennyy-class, is almost twenty years old. Its oldest is nearly fifty. Submarines are more promising; old fogeys like the Delta III share space with the very latest in sophistication — the nuclear-powered Borei-class ballistic missile launchers. While the material lags, the Russian Navy’s commitment to overhaul is, perhaps, its most noteworthy feature.
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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