Expertise and naval power

by John Q on April 20, 2024

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.



Ken Lovell 04.20.24 at 5:52 am

Rather than launch an invasion, China is more likely to impose a blockade on Taiwan when it believes political conditions there may allow a pro-union government to take power. A navy would be essential to enforce such a blockade given the current state of weaponry, as it would be to any other nation seeking to break the blockade unless it was willing to start sinking Chinese ships at random with air-launched missiles.

The US naval strength also allows it to post massive offensive air capabilities anywhere around the world at short notice by means of its carrier strike groups. We saw this recently in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel. It’s the equivalent of 19th century “gunboat diplomacy” that can quickly alter the local balance of military force in a way that cannot be matched by any other means. In a war against Iran, for example, America’s carrier strike capabilities would give it an enormous advantage.

I imagine the development of unmanned drones will render warships increasingly obsolete in the foreseeable future, but I don’t think we’re there yet.


hix 04.20.24 at 1:55 pm

The core problem with any kind of military experts is that they chose such a career, managed to stick to it and found someone who pays them for that job on the long term. Those are rather bad preconditions for doing objective, or frankly any kind of good work. One does not expect people in any department of a tobacco company to do good assessments of what one should do about smoking, either. Or to pick a less radical example: I would not expect change management experts as a group to be all that objective, even when they got a great academic record on top of their consultancy one.


mpowell 04.21.24 at 2:29 pm

Part of the problem here is that it’s not even clear what is being argued. If China wants to invade Taiwan, it will need a hell of a navy to do it. Is the fact that drone’s will make this even more difficult an argument for or against the importance of naval power?

In WWII we saw two very important examples of naval power. In the Atlantic there was a fierce battle to defend allied shipping from submarines. The distances involved were generally too great to rely on land-based air power, probably even today. In the Pacific naval power played a critical role first in the initial phase of Japanese aggression and then in the secondary phase of the US re-establishing control of the entire ocean. But it’s hard to imagine a similar scenario today in either ocean that isn’t a nuclear war already.

My perspective is that, in general, there is a huge cost advantage to land based resources over naval resources in contesting space near land. Certain objectives require achieving a monumental resource advantage, including in naval assets, such as an amphibious landing. For the US, we use this resource advantage to project power in places that we could not otherwise, but not against peer adversaries. While it is true that the US navy can help interdict an invasion of Taiwan, a more efficient use of resources would just be to pile more planes, artillery and air defense material into Taiwan itself.

Overall, I think you have the better of this argument, but the terms of the debate are impossible to manage. Of course there are scenarios where naval power still enables the US to obtain certain policy objectives. But there are very few such objectives for non-US actors and the minimal investment in naval assets around the world supports this proposition.


John Q 04.21.24 at 10:43 pm

mpowell @3 “the minimal investment in naval assets around the world supports this proposition” If only. Australia devotes something like a third of its defence budget to the navy and this share will increase with the AUKUS deal

Ken @1 The blockade option sounds good to military experts, but a look at the economics says it will do more damage to China than to Taiwan

In particular,
(1) most of Taiwan’s exports go by air freight
(2) China is the biggest trading partner
(3) Oil imports biggest source of vulnerability, but Taiwan has a big strategic reserve which could be stretched a long way (I’d guess a year or more) with rationing.

“We saw this recently in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel.” And it did no good, as I pointed out in the OP


TM 04.22.24 at 10:29 am

“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.”

Farley’s point seems valid. If some experts predicted “total dominance”, they were wrong (but some experts were wrong about many aspects of this war) but did the Black Sea Fleet play an important role? Of course it did. “the Russian Black Sea Fleet has, notwithstanding its dramatic setbacks, accomplished several of its most critical goals during this conflict. It has interdicted Ukrainian maritime commerce, forced Ukraine to redistribute resources and effort away from other sectors, and maintained significant pressure on the Ukrainian littoral.”


steven t johnson 04.22.24 at 2:31 pm

“The blockade option sounds good to military experts, but a look at the economics says it will do more damage to China than to Taiwan.” But isn’t this is why a buildup of Taiwan naval forces is so desirable, to ensure any blockade and the damage to the PRC would be massively prolonged? Lots of bang for the buck, as they say re Ukraine, wouldn’t it be?

It seems to me that punishment and generally causing disruption (as in building up US and subsidiaries’ naval forces in the South China Sea) is the main strategic goal, not self defense. All arguments extensive naval establishments are not very effective for self-defense against a peer are sort of beside the point: Projecting power in offensive operations, especially spoiler ops I suppose you could call them, and especially against weaker targets.


John Q 04.22.24 at 6:50 pm

TM @5 Glass half-full, I guess. All these “successes” are rightly phrased in past tense, and most date to the first six months of the war. Recapture of Snake Island in mid-2022 marked turning point.


Nominal 04.22.24 at 9:03 pm

I think the OP hasn’t really answered Farley’s main point, which is that even supporters of naval (i.e. Farley) think the Red Sea and the Black Sea weren’t places where naval power would have much chance of success. A moderate land power would always have good odds in restricted waters. The Houthis would always have some success blockading the Red Sea. Farley’ point is that even in this is the worst case for naval power, these cases show decent evidence that naval power is effective. It’s not a glass half fill argument, but an argument over whether this is a small glass as full as it should be or a big glass that’s largely empty.

Also, this:

“ 1) most of Taiwan’s exports go by air freight…”

I don’t understand why this is a point against naval power. Wouldn’t China’s navy have as easy a time downing large civilian freight planes as large civilian freight ships?


John Q 04.23.24 at 3:53 am

@Nominal As I pointed out in the OP, few/none of the experts were saying this before 2022, and many continue to talk about protecitng “vital” sea lanes.

Also worth pointing out that the area of the Taiwan Strait is less than that of the Black Sea. So, that’s another environment where naval power is unlikely to work well.

As regards blockades, I was assuming this referred to a “stop and turn back” blockade rather than unrestricted attacks on shipping. The latter raises a whole bunch of implications, few of them favorable for China


Tm 04.23.24 at 7:38 am

John: It seems you linked the wrong article under “my recent post”.

I guess the wording “navies are obsolete” is a bit stronger than the evidence supports. But it’s also catchier than “navies are not invincible”.


Richard Melvin 04.23.24 at 8:29 am

The blockade option sounds good to military experts, but a look at the economics says it will do more damage to China than to Taiwan

Then I suppose we should hope the decision on whether to do that is made by economic, rather than military, experts.

A blockade that the US was unable to break would radically change Taiwan’s strategic position. And in ways that China would presumably consider to be to its advantage.


John Q 04.23.24 at 8:13 pm

TM @10 Link fixed thanks.

The correct headline would be something like “Navies are much less useful than is commonly supposed, and don’t justify the money that is spent on them”. But as you say, not very catchy. This is a blog after all.

RM But, as already pointed out, such a blockade would also be a self-blockade of China. So, the advantages would come with some pretty big costs. Paying attention to this kind of thing is what distinguishes economists from (lots of) military experts.


Seekonk 04.24.24 at 12:22 am

While we await universal mandatory arbitration of international disputes, we persist in resolving our conflicts by force (hopefully short of nuclear). Thus, naval power, however obsolescent, will remain somewhat relevant.

Meanwhile, here’s a proposal for “de-confliction”: After all these years, the powers-that-be continue to find merit in the Monroe Doctrine. So how about extending that concept to the Black Sea and the South China Sea, and recognize them as being within the spheres of interest of Russia and China respectively?


Fergus 04.24.24 at 5:30 am

Like others, I’m very confused about what John’s argument is supposed to be. The observation that China doesn’t have enough ships to mount an invasion of Taiwan certainly doesn’t seem to prove the point that ships are obsolete! Or even “not worth the money”, if there’s no alternative approach. Is it just that you don’t need a navy to defend against a navy?

Also, the article that JQ links @4 does not make any of the points he summarises. I’m not sure if it’s the wrong link. In fact the article is arguing that a blockade of Taiwan would cripple the Chinese economy if other naval powers contested the blockade and the strait became a warzone. Which again, does not really seem to support John’s point, unless we are all misunderstanding it very badly!


MFB 04.24.24 at 7:04 am

I’m not a naval expert either, but I have read a couple of books on naval warfare.

Regarding the Chinese Navy amphibious capability (from Wikipedia).
4×40 000 tonne assault helicopter carriers, in themselves transporting 1 200 troops each but also carrying 30 helicopters able to ferry troops from other vessels;
8×25 000 tonne amphibious transport docks, carrying 500-800 troops and associated armoured vehicles together with 6 landing-craft able to land the troops and also ferry troops and armoured vehicles from other vessels;
26x 7 000 tonne landing craft capable of transporting 250 troops or 10 large armoured vehicles or ferring troops and armoured vehicles from other vessels;
Various other lesser landing craft all of which could make the crossing of the Taiwan Straits.
Anyone actually familiar with the Dieppe Raid would know that the landing-craft support for that raid was insignificant compared with this sort of thing. This is much more an Inchon-scale amphibious force. Although that’s only 20 000 troops in the landing-craft, most of these landing craft are fully capable of accepting troops and other material from civilian vessels such as container-ships and ro-ro vessels, of which China has enormous numbers. That is, as in the Normandy invasion, the troops in the landing-craft constituted only a fraction of the troops deployed, since landing-craft could go in, drop troops off and then go back for more.
Obviously one does not know what would happen in practice. Perhaps the Taiwanese coast would be better-defended than Normandy was in 1944. Perhaps the Chinese navy is incompetent or it is incapable of liaising with its own air arm or with the Chinese air force which is enormous and very well-equipped (at least on paper). However, simply assuming that a force of this kind can be discounted is absurd.

China, by the way, supposedly has about 40 000 marines trained in amphibious warfare.


John Q 04.25.24 at 6:27 am

MFB, maybe you need to do some rereading. The Allied put 150 000 troops ashore at Normandy which had only 50 000 German defenders.

Fergus, I’ve fixed the link now. Following it should answer your questions.


Zamfir 04.25.24 at 11:37 am

I had the same confusion as Fergus abotu that article. It argues that major warfare around Taiwan would be crippling for China, which might well be true.

But. as far as I can tell, such warfare would be likely because the US has a powerful navy, and China’s navy is not strong enough to exclude it from an area near its own shores. In that light, the article is an argument that the current balance of naval forces is severely restricting China’s options.


David W. 04.25.24 at 12:36 pm

That link says “If a real Chinese blockade were challenged by the United States and the Taiwan Strait were designated a war zone, trade finance and insurance would evaporate for all shipping in the area.”

It’s not the blockade that would cripple the Chinese economy, it’s the reaction by the US Navy. That doesn’t really support the argument that the US Navy isn’t needed because the Chinese would be crippling their own economy if they blockaded Taiwan.


John Q 04.25.24 at 10:40 pm

Taiwan has both an airforce and a large stock of easily concealable antiship missiles. They don’t need the US Navy to make the Taiwan Strait too dangerous for shipping. The Houthis have demonstrated that you don’t need a navy for this.

And the US and Europe can cut off most of China’s remaining trade by simply boycotting China’s exports.


John Q 04.26.24 at 8:18 am

Calling a halt to this thread. It’s done a great job in demonstrating the main contention of my previous post – no matter how glaring the failure of actually existing navies, naval fans (well represented in this thread) will go on believing.

Cue Tinkerbell.


AnotherKevin 04.28.24 at 9:35 am

““We saw this recently in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel.” And it did no good, as I pointed out in the OP”
You seriously wrote this a week after what the US Mediterranean fleet did to the Iranian missile/drone attack on Israel? Seriously?

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