Before the Second World War, a nation’s pride and status was reflected in the power of the force demonstrated by its navy, with battleships being the epitome of military strength at sea. Battleships were expensive as well as impressive, immense steel floating fortresses built to fight each other in the ultimate argument over control of the seas. World War II proved them obsolete; monuments of another era. Two new weapons emerged as the means by which to dominate the oceans: the aircraft carrier and the submarine. Today the United States Navy’s surface warfare capability is built around the aircraft carrier, and the United States operates more fixed wing aircraft carriers at sea than the rest of the world combined. But there are other types of aircraft carrier, and 13 of the world’s navies operate carriers at sea.
Many of them were developed to fight the other great sea weapon which emerged from the Second World War, and which acquired far greater capabilities in the 1950s and 1960s: the submarine. The range of weapons carried by modern submarines, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles and mines, and cruise missiles capable of striking targets at sea or ashore, render the submarine a platform capable of tactical operations on sea and land. Submarines also carry their traditional weapon, the torpedo, though they have capabilities which would have stunned the submariner of the Second World War into the silence for which they are famous. Submarines and anti-submarine warfare capability render the world’s smaller navies potent threats, even to the American’s vaunted carrier fleets. Here are the world’s most powerful navies.
10. The Republic of China (Taiwan) Navy
Abbreviated as the ROCN in English, the Taiwanese Navy is small in comparison to the main players in the Pacific, but what it lacks in number of ships it makes up in offensive punch. Its primary mission is to defend the Republic of China, and its perceived main threat to that mission is the People’s Republic of China and its growing maritime capabilities. Its fleet is almost entirely foreign built, with ships provided by the United States, France, and the Netherlands, and its main focus is on anti-ship and anti-submarines warfare. It operates submarines decommissioned from NATO navies, and a fleet air arm based on land. It has also begun construction on submarines designed on its own, armed with weapons systems of its own and from the United States and other allies.
No fewer than 22 frigates fly the Taiwanese flag at sea, supported by four destroyers, fast-attack missiles ships, and patrol boats. The Taiwanese Navy supports anti-submarine warfare operations by the United States and allies in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and is a vital cog in the defense machinery in waters which have recently become areas of dispute between East and West. The Taiwanese Navy began a program to completely modernize its navy in the 21st century, including the replacement of its entire surface fleet and the building of new submarines, in 2014. As the fleet is modernized, less reliance on foreign built ships will support an internal shipbuilding program which will provide jobs across Taiwan, no doubt closely scrutinized by the People’s Republic of China.
9. Marina Militare Italiana, aka the Italian Navy
For most of the first half of the 20th century, England and France maintained an agreement that the British Royal Navy would be responsible for the defense of the North Sea and the North Atlantic, and their French counterpart would shoulder primary responsibility for the Mediterranean (the British retained their massive fleet base at Gibraltar, though, as well as advanced bases in Malta and North Africa). Before World War II, the French Navy was largely designed to counter the Regina Marina, the Italian Navy, which was large, powerful, and professional. By the end of World War II it was largely non-existent, but then, so was the French. In the 21st century it has been reborn, and is a major factor in the control of the seas in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
The Italian Navy began a downgrade in terms of the number of personnel and ships it will maintain in the early 21st century, with the goal of achieving the cuts without degradation of capability. It operates over 180 ships, among them two light aircraft carriers flying Harrier vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, as well as three amphibious warfare ships which operate rotary wing aircraft (helicopters). As before World War II, the Italian Navy is capable of and sometimes operates in the Atlantic, but its primary mission is in the Mediterranean. An aggressive modernization program currently underway will provide the Italian fleet with some of the most technologically advanced surface warships in the world by 2025, including more than 30 ships capable of anti-surface, anti-air, and anti-submarine warfare operations simultaneously, making the Marina Miltare Italiana a formidable fighting force in the 21st century.
8. The Republic of Korea Navy, aka the South Korean Navy
For most of its existence, which dates from the defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945, the South Korean Navy has focused its mission on combating the North Korean Navy and patrolling the waters of the Korean Peninsula. During the Korean War in the 1950s, the overwhelming majority of Naval support for UN forces engaged in the conflict came from the United States. In the 21st century, the South Korean Navy has begun to branch into operations in the deep waters of the Pacific, becoming what is known as a blue water navy, with capabilities which allow it to operate effectively far from its home shores. The South Korean Navy has been steadily building its own blue-water fleet (South Korea has one of the largest shipbuilding capabilities in the world), and replacing most of its once US and European built ships with vessels locally produced.
The result has been the development of a powerful and professional ocean-going fleet, including a submarine flotilla capable of operating both coastal patrols near Korea and longer distance cruises along international sea lanes. About 70,000 uniformed personnel serve in the South Korean Navy, which includes about 29,000 South Korean Marines. Lest one think that South Korean naval activities have been limited to the far Pacific, South Korean units operated against pirates near Somalia beginning in 2009 and with NATO units along the coast of North Africa. Their 16 operational submarines operate independently, and several have the capability of launching cruise missiles against both naval and land based targets, making them stealth weapons of considerable power.
7. The Indian Navy
Today’s Indian Navy can trace its ancestry to the British East Indian Company, when in 1612 said company’s Marine branch was established to protect the trading vessels carrying the wealth of the subcontinent to England. For most of its history, the Indian Navy was inexorably attached to the British Raj. Since 1950 it has been independent of the British, and in the 70 years of its existence it has grown into a thoroughly modern and powerful maritime force. India, which is nuclear capable, operates nuclear powered submarines, as well as a ballistic missile submarine capable of delivering nuclear warheads against it enemies. To protect it, as well as the rest of its nearly 140 vessel fleet, the Indians also operate several conventionally powered submarines.
Although its focus is within the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy is capable of projecting force anywhere in the world, and has operated in all of the world’s oceans. It operates aircraft built by Russian, American, and French manufacturers, or under license within Indian facilities. The same multi-national approach is evident in its submarine fleet; conventional submarines operated by the Indians are of Russian, German, and French origination, at least in design, and the Indians also operate former Soviet nuclear powered attack submarines of the Akula class. The Indians have an active submerged ballistic missile program, with plans to deploy submarine launched ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads on no less than six submarines in the first half of the 21st century.
6. The Marine Nationale, aka the French Navy
It was the French Navy that held off the British Royal Navy and the fleets in North American waters long enough for George Washington and a Franco-American force to effect the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, the coup de grace to Britain’s imperial ambitions in America. It was probably the high point of the French Navy’s long existence. During the age of fighting sail of the Napoleonic era it was frequently frustrated by the British fleet, and by the end of World War II most of its large fleet was either damaged, destroyed, or in the hands of its allies. Since World War II it has been rebuilt as a modernized force, and in the 21st century it remains a powerful weapon in the hands of the French government. It is the only fleet in the world other than that of the United States to operate a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.
The French operate about 180 ships and over 200 aircraft, using over 36,000 personnel and an extensive civilian support force. In addition to its nuclear powered carrier it operates ballistic missile and attack submarines, underway under nuclear power, and has been a major supporter of the Global War in Terror. An interesting aspect of the French Navy is that, unlike in television and motion picture dramas, one does not address a worthy of that rank as mon capitaine, as one would an officer of the army or air force. Simply capitaine suffices. In recent years the French Navy has worked closely with its British counterpart (and long-time historical nemesis) in the acquisition of new ships and weapons systems as a cost saving measure, though it continues to operate the largest and most powerful fleet of the western nations of Europe.
5. The Royal Navy, aka the British Navy
Britannia no longer rules the waves, and hasn’t for many years (nor all that much else, either), but the Royal Navy continues to operate as one of the world’s most powerful, and certainly the world’s most tradition laden navies. By the mid-2030s, if all goes according to plans, the Royal Navy will operate two large aircraft carriers, which together would project about the same capability as a single United States Gerald Ford class aircraft carrier, though British plans are for only one of the two ships, the Queen Elizabeth class, to be operational at the same time. They are currently projected to carry air wings of predominantly American designed aircraft, including F-35 Lightnings as their primary strike fighters.
In other words the Royal Navy, once clearly the world’s dominant seagoing fighting force, occupies that role no longer, and in numbers of ships alone would not be included in this list. But it maintains a significant fleet, and the capabilities of its ships rank with those of navies much larger. The Royal Navy only occasionally deploys ships to the Far East, once waters which it dominated, though it continues to support NATO operations and its powerful ballistic missile forces continue to operate as a deterrent through four Trident armed submarines, the Vanguard class. The Royal Navy also operates four nuclear powered attack submarines, with an additional three planned, as its submarine forces (by comparison, at this writing the United States operates 58 attack submarines, all nuclear powered).
4. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, aka the Japanese Navy
Officially Japan does not operate an army or a navy, its constitution limiting it as a nation to the maintenance of Self-Defense Forces. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force was formed in the aftermath of World War II, during which the Imperial Japanese Navy had overrun much of the Pacific and Indian Oceans before finally being defeated by the United States Navy and its allies. The Japan Self-Defense Force maintains, as of 2019, 154 ships and 346 aircraft of varying types. By comparison the Royal Navy, which has no such constitutional limitations, operates 75 ships in commission, and about half the number of aircraft. In the 1990s aftermath of the Gulf War, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweepers deployed to the Persian Gulf to clear mines.
Minesweeping is an area of naval expertise for which the Japanese are particularly well-known in the 21st century, as they are for capabilities in anti-submarine warfare. Limited by the lack of aircraft carriers in some aspects of anti-submarine warfare, the Japanese in late 2018 announced the refitting of certain existing ships to accommodate American F-35 aircraft, giving the Japanese Navy – excuse me, its Self-Defense Force, its first at sea fixed wing aircraft launching capability since the end of the Second World War. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operates in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, including in support of international operations against piracy and drug smuggling, as well as in defense exercises with the United States and other allies.
3. The People’s Liberation Army Navy, aka the Chinese Navy
Rather than drop the somewhat discomfiting name of People’s Liberation Army when naming its navy, communist China simply added the nautical force, coming up with the People’s Liberation Army Navy. To the rest of the world it is generally known as the Chinese Navy. It is far from a joke. There are more than a quarter of a million personnel in its service, in addition to a force of 10,000 marines. It also boasts an air force of over 26,000 men and women in uniform, responsible for the operation of over 700 aircraft of all types. Without counting its numerous auxiliary vessels (such as harbor tugs) it operates over 700 ships, including 75 submarines, and more major combatant vessels than any other navy in the world.
The Chinese Navy has also gained considerable experience operating in blue water scenarios around the globe, including while taking part in US led exercises in the Pacific. It has gained experience in anti-drug operations and in patrolling international waters for piracy. Besides operating with the American fleet in exercises, it has conducted drills with ships and other units of the Russian Navy, including with the Russian Pacific Fleet in operations in the Sea of Japan. Despite its enormous size, it continues to get larger, acquiring new ships and recruiting crews to sail them. It also continues to add to its capability to project Chinese power, including the acquisition of hovercraft from Ukraine, high speed vessels which can be used to land troops ashore in large numbers rapidly, supporting them with heavy armored vehicles, while the landing ships are protected by surface warfare ships and submarines.
2. The Military-Maritime Fleet of the Russian Federation, aka the Russian Navy
The Russian Navy has a long and confused history, not unlike that of Russia itself, and it shares in common with the United States Navy that John Paul Jones once served in one of its earlier iterations. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1980s the majority of its naval units, as well as most of its bases and support facilities, were absorbed into the Russian Federation. The Navy had been, throughout Russian history (and Soviet) the weak sister when compared to the Russian Army, never as well funded nor as well regarded by the governing hierarchies. In 2007 that changed, the Navy took on the same level of importance as the nuclear “deterrent” forces, and the Russian Navy was, once again, reborn, as it were. In terms of numbers of ships it is very large, in terms of its true capabilities it is a mystery to western analysts.
Much of the Cold War was focused on the United States and Soviet submarine war, as some call it, at sea, after which the Russian Navy fell into disrepute and disrepair. The change of attitude toward the fleet in 2007 has led to increased spending and operations conducted, but measurement of capability has been elusive. At the end of the Cold War the newest Soviet submarines were highly capable, as quiet as those of any nation, and in some cases better armed. In Russian hands those abilities remain an x-factor. Nonetheless the current Russian Navy contains a large and powerful surface force, a potent naval air force, and at least 64 submarines of various classes and age, most with the capability of deploying nuclear weapons, in addition to the ballistic missile submarines. Ships of the Russian Navy deploy in all of the world’s oceans, including wherever ships of the United States Navy can be found.
1. The United States Navy
The most powerful navy force in the world, based on the abilities of its aircraft carriers and the large and powerful nuclear submarines it deploys, the United States Navy nonetheless faces challenges across the globe. The role of the aircraft carrier has changed since World War II, when it replaced the battleship as the most important capital ship. Then its role was to first sink enemy carriers, then sink other enemy ships, and eventually wrest control of the seas from its nautical enemies. Today, the role of the aircraft carrier is not so much to sink enemy carriers (there aren’t that many), but rather to project airpower over areas in contention among enemies. Before World War II the obsolete battleship was used to project power, in the 21st century that role belongs to the aircraft carrier, and the US Navy leads the world in carrier operations and deployment.
The United States Navy is so strategically dependent on the deployment of aircraft that it is, in terms of sheer numbers of aircraft, the third largest air force in the world. More than 3,700 aircraft display NAVY somewhere on their structure. Despite this focus on the air, the US Navy also deploys the world’s most powerful submarine force. The United States Navy is so large that it out-displaces, in terms of combat ship tonnage, the next 13 of the world’s navies combined, including all of the other navies of which this list is comprised. Over 300,000 men and women serve within it on active duty, which makes it the third largest of America’s armed forces (after the Army and Air Force), despite it being the largest and most powerful navy in the world.