A new global naval arms race is underway

Something big is brewing at sea. In recent months there has been increased naval activity and tensions between countries jostling for control off their coastlines. This includes Iran buzzing a U.S. ship with a helicopter, leading defense companies in Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreeing to work on unmanned surface vessels, tensions in the Black Sea off the coast of Ukraine, and tensions between the U.S., China, the Philippines and other countries.  

Competition in the naval arena, including simmering conflicts that could become clashes between navies, represents some of the largest naval competitions since the Cold War and World War I. This is because conflicts in the 20th century tended to revolve around masses of armored vehicles, such as in World War II, or insurgencies and proxy wars during the Cold War. Over the past two decades, most global conflicts have occurred on land, such as the global war on terror that the U.S. fought against extremists in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. 

Now the focus appears to be shifting back to the oceans. On Nov. 27, the Philippines said it would not remove a warship, the BRP Sierra Madre, that was purposely run aground on a disputed shoal in the South China Sea. This is no small matter. China has systematically built structures in the South China Sea, including airstrips, to gain control of strategic tiny atolls and shoals. China’s navy is operating further from home, near Australia and in joint drills with Russia and Iran. The U.S. is concerned about a potential challenge from China as predictions see China possessing 460 ships in the next decade. This is a huge challenge for America after a century of being a dominant global naval power. 

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The concern in the Pacific is that China’s rapidly growing navy might clash with the U.S. over Taiwan or with U.S. partners and allies such as Australia, Japan or the Philippines. So-called “carrier-killer” missiles could be involved. Recent reports say China has built a carrier-shaped target in the desert to mimic a U.S. aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia have signed an agreement — called AUKUS — that will see Australia acquire new submarines, but it led Australia to cancel a submarine deal with France.   

Naval tensions also have been increasing between Russia and the West in the Black Sea. A U.S. naval ship reportedly was tracked by Russia in early November when it was on NATO maneuvers in the Black Sea. The Ukrainian navy has received upgraded helicopters and signed a deal with the U.K. It also received two former U.S. Coast Guard patrol ships. The tensions in the Black Sea are linked to larger problems between Ukraine and Russia that have caused the U.S. to warn Russia against any aggression

Beyond the great power competition at sea, which links potential conflicts off the coast of China with potential for conflict off the coast of Russia, regional powers increasingly are focusing on naval dominance and technology for the future. Companies in Israel and the UAE are working on unmanned surface vessels, and Israel has acquired naval corvettes to defend its economic zone offshore. These represent major advances in technology, whether it means putting larger radar and missile defenses on the corvettes, or using unmanned ships to protect coastal waters. Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and the U.S. also have completed a naval exercise in the Red Sea that brought Israel, the UAE and Bahrain together at sea for the first time.  

The exercise with the Israelis and Gulf countries is linked to threats in the region, particularly from Iran. Tehran continues to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. In July, an Iranian drone attacked a commercial tanker in the Gulf of Oman, killing two crew members. This all appears to point to a new global focus on the sea and competition for naval supremacy.  

Competition at sea could have major ramifications. A naval arms race between Britain and Germany helped lead to World War I. The shadows of war are now growing over a swath of water from Europe to Asia. Major trade routes and supply chain woes could be affected by naval rivalries. This has  happened in the Gulf of Oman, where commercial ships have been attacked. The next clash could happen in the Black Sea or off the coast of Taiwan. 

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever” and “Drone Wars.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.