Maritime warfare is evolving at a similar pace to that of other domains, and the rise of unmanned technologies, advanced sensors and increasingly cost effective submarines and small surface warships is shifting the balance of power away from fleets of destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers. The importance of maritime choke points is enhancing the lethality of these platforms, giving rise to a new era of asymmetric naval warfare.
Asymmetric warfare serves as a powerful balancing force between two actors defined by significantly different levels of power and whose strategy and tactics differ significantly. Asymmetric warfare is typically defined as a form of guerrilla warfare, insurgency driven and as is increasingly common in the modern era, a form of terrorism.
The increasing proliferation of advanced force multiplying technologies, including unmanned and autonomous systems, advanced, cost-effective anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles and advanced submarines and high-speed, heavily armed surface combatants, are providing both state and non-state actors, ranging from extremist organisations to people smugglers and organised criminal organisations, with methods to hinder the way traditional maritime powers establish and maintain sea control.
Like its land-based counterpart, asymmetric naval warfare has evolved throughout history and has been defined by the powers engaged and their unique environments. In the modern era, asymmetric naval warfare finds its foundation in the Atlantic and Pacific theatres of the Second World War, where increasingly capable submarines became powerful weapons in slowing the advance of the Allied forces.
Fast forward to the Cold War, the tactical and strategic games of cat and mouse between Soviet and US nuclear hunter-killer and ballistic missile submarines beneath the icy depths of the Atlantic changed the nature of asymmetric warfare yet again.
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of near-peer competitors, namely hostile middle powers and extremist organisations that controlled strategically vital sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC) like the Suez Canal, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the hotly contested Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, have served to rewrite the global strategic and tactical calculus.
Further complicating this rapidly changing environment is the continued tension between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, which serve as archetypal examples of asymmetric warfare in the modern era, as China continues to invest in a range of advanced conventional and asymmetric capabilities in their pursuit of reunification, while the Taiwanese focus on developing a suite of advanced surface and undersea capabilities to maintain their sovereignty in the face of continued mainland aggression.
Prowling wolf packs
The increasing proliferation of highly capable conventional submarines, like the Russian Kilo Class and the various variants operated by nations throughout the Indo-Pacific, Singapore's existing Archer and Challenger Class submarines, French Scorpene Class and Australia's Collins Class, all serve as key asymmetric force multipliers capable of directly influencing the tactical and strategic calculations of nations dependent on the critical maritime choke points in the region.
Further adding to naval asymmetric capabilities is the rising proliferation of mini-submarines, vessels designed to serve a similar role to the Japanese midget submarine that attacked Sydney Harbour during the Second World War. Mini-submarines serve as both an important capability introduction for nations beginning to develop submarine forces, while also providing them with increasingly capable asymmetric deterrence capabilities.
Iran, North Korea and Thailand are all nations that boast robust mini-submarine forces designed to patrol relatively shallow, narrow and highly congested strategic waterways, as well as serving as infiltration platforms for clandestine special forces units, mining operations and maritime interdiction in SLOCs in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and the Sea of Japan – these units serve as powerful and increasingly difficult forces to counter even with modern anti-submarine warships and helicopters.
As a result of the geo-political environment and tension between China and Taiwan, the island nation has had to adapt to counter the rising power of the emerging global superpower. While the US and other global allies provide military aid – Taiwan has long struggled to maintain a degree of maritime security, particularly as China's armed forces further modernise and develop.
In response, while Taiwan maintains a relatively modest fleet of ageing submarines, and has been hindered from accessing advanced American or European designs by threats of Chinese sanctions – the nation has embraced an asymmetric approach to countering the growing threat of the Chinese armed forces: advanced, low observable, high-speed, heavily armed corvettes.
Taiwan's Tuo Chiang Class corvettes have a top speed of 40 knots when fully armed with a suite of advanced domestically manufactured anti-ship and anti-air cruise missile systems designed to counter the growing threat posed by the Chinese armed forces, namely the Chinese Navy and its growing submarine and surface warfare capabilities.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard also use a series of small, manoeuvrable missile boats, fast torpedo boats and rigid-hulled inflatable boats armed with medium calibre machine guns, advanced anti-ship missiles and unguided rocket systems to counter the conventional naval capabilities of nations like the US, UK, Australia, Saudi Arabia and other nations committed to maintaining the flow of liquid energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, out through the Strait of Hormuz.
Designed to hunt in packs, these highly capable vessels serve to mimic the wolf pack tactics of the German U-Boats, maximising the offensive capabilities of a force limited by domestic and broader international political realities. These platforms leverage their cost effective nature, combined with swarming tactics and the increasing capability and interoperability afforded by relatively cheap missile systems, to overwhelm the defences of multibillion-dollar warships and unarmed tankers.
The combination of these multi-domain capabilities affords nations and non-state actors to level the tactical and strategic battlefield when competing with middle and superpowers capable of fielding a range of costly, yet advanced, integrated and multi-domain power projection capabilities – doing so often forces these larger nations to consider their options, bringing them to the negotiating table and effectively nullifying their traditional strengths.