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Expertise and naval power

April 20, 2024 - 14:53 -- Admin

Robert Farley has replied to my recent post on the obsolescence of naval power. Unlike our previous exchange, a pile-on where I was (as he points out) in a minority of one, Robert’s tone is mostly civil this time, and I intend to reciprocate. Our disagreements have narrowed a fair way. On many points, it’s a matter of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.

For example, Farley observes that despite Houthi attacks, 2 million tonnes of shipping per day is passing through the Suez canal. I’d turn that around and point out that 4 million tonnes of shipping per day has been diverted to more roundabout routes. However, since we agree that naval authorities overstate the macro importance of threats to shipping lanes, we can put that point to one side.

A more relevant case is that of China’s capacity (or lack thereof) to mount a seaborne invasion of Taiwan. I said that China has only a handful of modern landing craft and that their announced plan relies on civilian ferries. Farley points out that China has constructed 16 large, modern amphibious assault vessels in the past 18 years, with more on the way. That’s more than might normally be implied by the word “handful”, but not in a way that meaningfully challenges my argument.

According to Robert’s link, the ships in question can carry 800 troops, or about 10 000 if all of them were used. That’s enough to do a re-enactment of the Dieppe raid, but not to play a major role in an invasion of a country with a standing army at least ten times as large. And the implied rate of construction (one per year) suggests this isn’t going to change any time soon. This leisurely approach is consistent with the CCPs need to maintain a public position that it is willing and able to reunite with Taiwan by force, along with a private recognition that this isn’t possible and wouldn’t be wise if it were.

Now I come to the question of expertise. Robert is miffed that as an economist, I declaim on subjects on which I have no expertise, and also by my use of the term “naval fans”. The latter was a snarky response to our previous interaction and I withdraw it.

But as Robert himself admits, naval authorities routinely make claims about the economic role of naval power on which they have no expertise (some of which have been proved thoroughly wrong by the current partial closure of the Suez Canal, as well as by lengthy closures in the 20th century). The same authorities routinely point to the vast amount of of shipping passing through the South China Sea as evidence of the need to protect this waterway against China, where most of this shipping originates or ends. This clip from Australian satirical show Utopia makes the point.

The bigger problem with claims about expertise arises when it’s applied to events that are too rare, and too unlike each other, to provide a real evidence base. That’s true of global economic crises, for example. Economists mostly failed to predict the Global Financial crisis, and disagreed about both its likely course and the appropriate policy response.

It’s true in spades about naval warfare. As Robert says “all naval wars are incredibly rare and we have to analyze the hell out of the empirical evidence we can get our hands on.” Until 2022, the only significant instance in my, or Farley’s lifetime, was the Falklands War, which can be read either as a demonstration of the continuing relevance of navies or as an illustration of their vulnerability even to weak opponents like the Argentine Air Force. But that was forty years ago, when anti-ship missiles were much less well-developed.

In the absence of significant empirical evidence, naval experts have had to rely on the outcomes of exercises and simulations to make predictions. Unsurprisingly, these have tended to reaffirm the importance and power of navies (compare the many economists who extolled the financial sector before the GFC).

In particular, most naval experts saw Russia’s Black Sea Fleet as a powerful force that would play a decisive role in a war with Ukraine. Farley points out some partial successes in obstructing Ukrainian exports, but this is nothing like the total dominance most experts predicted.

As regards Taiwan, it’s interesting to contrast the steady drumbeat of warnings from US generals and admires that an invasion is imminent with this assessment by (non-military) experts that an invasion is not likely and (on the majority view) not feasible.

I’m not sure where naval experts fall on this spectrum. But, as with economic crises, this is an issue on which you can pick your expert.