Key point: Many countries have tried and many have failed.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the most visible, and possibly the most consequential, manifestation of China’s emergence as a great power. In three decades, China has turned a large, but relatively minor regional force into a fleet of global consequence.
But now that China has its navy, can it keep it? The historical record is mixed. Over the past 130 years several nations have embarked on radical schemes of fleet-building designed to elevate their positions in the international hierarchy. A distressing number of these schemes have failed, with powerful, expensive capital ships left rotting at dock or rusting at the bottom of the sea. Only one “new” naval power managed to maintain its position, and the United States Navy (USN) today represents the PLAN’s greatest obstacle.
Why did so many countries embark on the construction of great fleets, how did they do so, and why did they fail? This article briefly surveys the rise and collapse of the navies of Germany, Japan, and Russia, alongside the success story of the United States. Some of these navies persisted across several generations of capital ship, but only the USN managed to achieve and maintain its world position over the entire course of the last 120 years.
Since at least the late nineteenth century, the largest navies have organized themselves around “capital ships,” individual vessels of great fighting power surrounded by a variety of support ships. The historical analysis of Alfred Thayer Mahan greatly influenced this development, but it nevertheless represented a break with practice of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when ships-of-the-line largely acted without a support network. At the Battle of Trafalgar, for example, the contending fleets included sixty ships of the line and only fourteen smaller vessels. By contrast, at the Battle of Jutland the Germans and British employed fifty-eight capital ships and 192 support vessels. And at the Battle of Philippine Sea, Japanese and American fleets included twenty-four battleships and fleet carriers, supported by 213 smaller ships.