Ships now more vulnerable to attack

Navies of the West declining in numbers, says Jane’s Fighting Ships.

COMMERCIAL ships are becoming more vulnerable to hostile action because the navies of the West are declining in numbers.

These navies are designed to protect international seaborne trade. But they are shrinking with the end of the Cold War.

The latest edition of the authoritative Jane’s Fighting Ships 1994-95 revealed that the decline was most marked in the United States and British navies.

The US Navy, for example, was decommissioning 65 major surface vessels, together with 13 nuclear submarines and 23 front-line air squadrons – more than any one country’s naval array, except Russia.

Naval personnel were also scheduled to drop below half a million by the year’s end, for the first time since 1951. The present medium-term aim was for a naval strength of 394,000 by the end of the decade.

On the other hand, Britain spent the last five years paying off ships and auxiliary vessels in the ratio of 12 to every new one ordered.

The Royal Navy was now being forced to project its future mainly as a contributor to European collaborative operations.

Such dwindling numbers among Western navies are taking place as seaborne merchant trade is running at more than four billion tons a year – some 12 times greater than 1950 – and still rising, according to Captain Richard Sharpe, the editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships.

He warned Western political leaders: “Before reducing your naval services too far, you had better be sure that an inability to control or influence what happens at sea is not going to threaten your military or economic survival for the forseeable future.”

He said merchant vessels and navies were vulnerable to modern weapons from supersonic missiles to intelligent mines freely available to Third World countries.

In recent years, a whole range of coastal batteries had been deployed in Scandinavia, the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, most of the Persian Gulf, the southern coastline of Iran and the coastlines of the China seas.

Many of the missiles were of Chinese and North Korean origin.

Navies had to be equipped with hard- and soft-kill defensive weapons and decoys against the growing sophistication of thehoming missile.

It was “suicidal”, Cpt Sharpe wrote, for navies to to save money by equipping with second-best things. He quoted a BritishParliament Defence Committee report as saying that in the event of a full-scale war, the “Royal Navy would be incapable of defending our sea routes … and the movement of our armed forces”.

Yet the British government was indifferent to the problem which posed a fatal threat to Britain’s long-term security. “Far from galvanising the nation, the self-evident truth was treated with a yawn of indifference by the government.”



* As European Union expands, political pressure grows for common European defence force. France, Italy and Spain already using Western European Union (WEU) to co-ordinate naval deployments and plans for dealing with emergencies in the Mediterranean.

* Unilateral naval disarmament. Orders for new shops inadequate to maintain existing naval capabilities. Shipbuilding programme in Germany is bare.

* Sweden Leading the way among European navies in development of sea control in its archipelago. Existing programmes include modern submarines and controllable sea mines.

* Baltic states Slowly building up Coast Guards, with help from Sweden, inland and Germany.


* Adriatic Sea Focus of most attention. US, British, French and Italian navies maintain national task groups in contingency deployments off coasts of Croatia and Montenegro.

* US Navy handing over Knox class frigates to navies of Spain, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco.

* Aegean Sea Balance of naval power has moved steadily in favour of Greece, which has marginally more frigates and submarines than Turkey.


* Australia has acquired two ex-US LSTs to solve problems of training and military support ships.

* Brazil’s navy launching first locally-built submarine. Also launched first of new class of patrol craft.

* Argentina’s shipbuilding programme virtually halted, but navy operationally active with deck landings on Brazilian carrier and submarine excursions to vicinity of Falkland Islands.


* Most Gulf countries still buying naval equipment, although fewer now because of low price of oil. Fear of Iran is driving force, in particular the threat to seaborne trade from coastal missile batteries, flotillas of small craft and Kilo class submarines.

* Pakistan Lease on eight US frigates ends this year, but has acquired all six of the UK Amazon class.

* India Halted seven-year decline in military spending to prevent possible crisis caused by dependency on Russian suppliers.


* Build-up of maritime forces in South-east Asia accelerating with economic growth.

* Thailand acquiring Knox class frigates to go with latest Chinese-built ships. Thai Navy aiming to get VSTOL experience with some Spanish Matador aircraft before the new aircraft carrier is ready in three years’ time.

* Malaysia buying large number of offshore patrol vessels.

* Indonesia getting 39 warships and auxiliaries from Germany.

* China continues to strengthen the South Seas Fleet and makes no secret of her intention to dominate the East and South China Seas. Latest indicator is its demand on Hongkong Government to build far larger naval base than required for existing types of patrol craft.

Source: Janes’s Fighting Ships 1994-95

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