Fact file: Classifying armed forces

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Classifying armed forces is inherently dangerous and controversial. Retired Rear Admiral (and now consultant) Rolf Hauter says he is “rather sceptical of ranking systems. The easy part would be to define the ranking system… The difficult part would be to classify the navies of the world according to such a system. A major factor in classification will be government policy which at the best of times is open to interpretation,” he says. This equally true of land forces, air forces and armed forces seen as a whole. 

Hauter notes that although policy changes may not have a major impact on the higher and lower ranked navies, the slightest shift in policy could lead to the promotion or demotion in the middle ranks. “Even if a classification is done purely on capability and the ranking system is defined accordingly, there are the nebulous factors e.g. operational readiness which in turn is affected by training, maintenance and upkeep standards, etcetera. Despite this analysts may find a ranking system handy provided that they can determine and decide on their own classification within the rankings.”

Rear Admiral (Retd) Steve Stead, now with the Brenthurst Foundation, adds “naval rankings are of academic interest. Producing a list of navies according to a ranking criteria opens a theoretical debate and provides ‘fuel for the discussion’.” Such discussion, and some classification is necessary. In 1940 both Germany and its neighbour, Denmark, had long-established armed forces. Yet, when the Nazis invaded on April 9, the Danes only resisted for two hours before surrendering. A pacifist government policy on behalf of the Danes and underfunding leading to a military equipped with obsolescent arms played a role, as did the small size of the Danish economy, tax base and population, when compared with the Germans. The outlook was also different. The Danes thought no further then defending their territorial integrity, the Nazi war machine, by contrast, was built to conquer. The Danish and German military was clearly not in the same class.

Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman agrees that rankings “probably have some value as a comparative tool of sorts, much like defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP, but not much beyond that. Any serious analyst will take a close look at the capabilities and potential relative to his particular interest.

Author Rear Admiral (Retd) Chris Bennett noted that if one was “writing a book or a paper on specific navies then it is wise to define how and why you rank them. Thus rankings do work but in my opinion tend to be established and set up to suit the mindset, or the point that the author who has set them up wishes to make. In other words I do not believe that there is a ‘generally accepted’ definition of the rankings of navies. Within this caveat thus they do serve a purpose and are helpful.”

Commander Thean Potgieter of the SA Military Academy also cautions that while ranking are good for “at a glance” impression of relative capabilities, … capabilities ascribed to naval forces does not necessary imply operational readiness or deployability.”

Free State University political science professor Theo Neethling agrees,saying rankings “are certainly of academic interest to scholars like myself who study international relations as the subject that studies global order: how order emerges, and how it is maintained and transformed in the global system through the use of authority and or power to structure relations among states.
“In this context, we study the roles of states/powers in the international community (super powers, major powers, middle powers and lesser powers, also developed states and developing states), and it is always interesting to see to what extent maritime power and capabilities, or navies, relate to such powers and their roles or (emerging) power projection in a regional or international context. Take India, Brazil and China for example: all three are regional powers and leaders among the developing nations, and their navies are certainly of interest or significance when we study the profile and emerging roles of these three states. The rankings are also of significance when we deal with such states in a comparative political context.”

Leadmark

The Canadian Navy developed a ranking system to benchmark itself in early 2001. This was included in the Leadmark Strategy for 2020 published in August of 2002. The table, developed by then-Lieutenant Commander, now Dr Richard Gimblett PhD, is reproduced below1. As the comments above caution, such criteria are inherently subjective, both in the definition and the interpretation, hence the Canadian Navy used it to measure itself, rather than others. In correspondence with defenceWeb in 2010 Gimblett said he was not aware of anyone developing the Leadmark ranking further or applying it to the other Services. However, in a 2002 paper2, after leaving the Canadian Navy for academia, he did apply the concept broader, ranking the Canadian Forces as well as its air and land components. He does not develop a general classification table, however. Noteworthy though, is that he does not rank the various services equally.

In the 2002 paper he writes that strategic considerations lead to the conclusion that Canadian Forces exist, “fundamentally, for two reasons. The first is to keep the United States ‘out’, that is, in the sense that we must safeguard the northern approaches to the continent so that the Americans do not feel they have to do it for us. The second is to give Canada leverage on the world scene. As such, after providing adequate forces for homeland defence, any excess capacity is directed to expeditionary forces mandated for forward security.”

The Canadian government of the day then saw itself having armed forces in the “Medium Global Force Projection” or “Rank 3” category – that is, “a military that may not possess the full range of capabilities, but has a credible capacity in certain of them and consistently demonstrates a determination to exercise them at some distance from the homeland, in cooperation with other Force Projection Militaries.”

But this Gimblett said was a fiction. “The present crisis [in 2002] has highlighted the inability of either the Canadian Air Force or the Army to deploy and sustain forces of any meaningful size to a distant theatre, and even the Navy is stretched to its sustainable limit. … various studies of the past year … exposes the harsh reality that the military foundation of these medium power pretensions is a sham.”

Following the Leadmark typology, on a descending scale of 1 to 9, he positioned the 2002 Navy at Rank 3, the Air Force at Rank 5 and the Army at Rank 7. A realistic appraisal of Canada’s forces a as whole, at the time, he said, might have seen its “confirmation of the ‘peacekeeper’ role at the Rank 6 or 7 level, something he then thought useful, “so we could all stop pretending otherwise.”

Gimblett, in correspondence with the author on March 22, 2010 notes that subsequent governments “have invested very heavily in the Canadian Forces – especially the Army and the Air Force – to pursue the expanded and on-going expeditionary operations in Afghanistan. That does not undermine the premise of the paper, but rather reinforces the points it made (the paper was delivered as a call for better funding of the CF),” he says.3

This is important. US author James F Dunnigan has argued the primary purpose of armed forces is “to appear too strong to be successfully attacked. Therefore armed forces pay a lot of attention to appearing strong. If substance is sacrificed to enhance apparent strength, why not? An apparently stronger armed force is more valuable than a less capable appearing one.” The problem is that appearance becomes confused with substance. “This appraisal reaches a low point just before arms budgets are voted on and rises swiftly during international crises and re-election campaigns.” One can add that in Constitutional democracies opposition parties will talk capability down while government leaders will talk it up.

In determining the classification of a military, it must be remembered that a Rank 1 force meets the requirements of all lower ranking organisations. But the reverse is not true. A high ranking military can perform constabulary and territorial defence functions, but, as in the example of the Danes versus the Germans, a territorial defence military can only give a brief account of itself against a higher-ranking adversary. Depending on the circumstances, this may be enough, or may amount to just token resistance, as in the case of Denmark, who lost 16 soldiers in combat during the two hours they resisted the Nazis. Here also is the seed of assymetric warfare, a way lower ranking militaries can even the odds against apparently more powerful foes.

To use the tables below, the user is advised to start at Rank 9 and measure the force under evaluation against each rank upwards towards Rank 1. In the case of the 2002 Canadian example,one may tick off Ranks 9, 8 and 7. Then, using one’s own criteria and interpretation one must decide if it met the requirements of Rank 6 or even 5. Gimblett believes because of investment since 2003, for example, the 2010 Canadian should be measured “at least at Rank 4, on the basis of our sustained commitment to Afghanistan and recent concurrent deployment (although there are sustainability issues that make a Rank 3 assessment problematic.” At present the US military is the most powerful n the world. Its navy and air forces are clearly in the first rank. But what about the US Army? This writer senses it is in the second rank – its present ability to wage more than one major “out of area” operation is in doubt. Upon mobilisation it may very well regain the top rank.

Armed Forces

  • Rank 1: Major Global Force Projection Military (Complete) – This is a military capable of carrying out all roles on a global scale. It possesses the full range of capabilities on land, sea and in the air; conventional, unconventional (special forces) and non-conventional (nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and defences) in sufficient numbers to undertake major operations independently.

  • Rank 2: Major Global Force Projection Military (Partial) – These are militaries that possess most if not all of the force projection capabilities of a “complete” global military, but only in sufficient numbers to undertake one major “out of area” operation.

  • Rank 3: Medium Global Force Projection Military – These are militaries that may not possess the full range of capabilities, but have a credible capacity in certain of them and consistently demonstrate a determination to exercise them at some distance from home territory, in cooperation with other Force Projection Militaries.

  • Rank 4: Medium Regional Force Projection Military – These are militaries possessing the ability to project force into an adjoining region. While they may have the capacity to exercise these further afield, for whatever reason, they do not do so on a regular basis.

  • Rank 5: Adjacent Force Projection Military – These are militaries that have some ability to project force well into their own region but are not capable of carrying out high-level operations over continental or trans-regional distances.

  • Rank 6: Extra-territorial Defence Force – These are militaries that have relatively high levels of capability in defensive operations and some offensive capacity to an operational depth beyond their national borders, having the sustainability offered by at least a small air, sea and land force.

  • Rank 7: Territorial Defence Force – These are armies that have primarily territorial defence capabilities, making them capable of defensive combat within their national territory rather than constabulary duties alone.

  • Rank 8: Constabulary – These are significant armed forces that are not intended to fight, but to act purely in a constabulary role.

  • Rank 9: Token Military – These are armed forces that have some minimal capability, but this often consists of little more than a formal organisational structure and some equipment. These states, the world’s smallest and weakest, cannot aspire to anything but the most limited constabulary functions.

Navies

  • Rank 1: Major Global Force Projection Navy (Complete) – This is a navy capable of carrying out all the military roles of naval forces on a global scale. It possesses the full range of carrier and amphibious capabilities, sea control forces, and nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines, and all in sufficient numbers to undertake major operations independently. E.g., United States.

  • Rank 2: Major Global Force Projection Navy (Partial) – These are navies that possess most if not all of the force projection capabilities of a “complete” global navy, but only in sufficient numbers to undertake one major “out of area” operation. E.g., Britain, France.

  • Rank 3: Medium Global Force Projection Navy – These are navies that may not possess the full range of capabilities, but have a credible capacity in certain of them and consistently demonstrate a determination to exercise them at some distance from home waters, in cooperation with other Force Projection Navies. E.g., Canada, Netherlands, Australia.

  • Rank 4: Medium Regional Force Projection Navy – These are navies possessing the ability to project force into the adjoining ocean basin. While they may have the capacity to exercise these further afield, for whatever reason, they do not do so on a regular basis.

  • Rank 5: Adjacent Force Projection Navies – These are navies that have some ability to project force well offshore, but are not capable of carrying out high-level naval operations over oceanic distances.

  • Rank 6: Offshore Territorial Defence Navies – These are navies that have relatively high levels of capability in defensive (and constabulary) operations up to about 200 miles from their shores, having the sustainability offered by frigate or large corvette vessels and (or) a capable submarine force.

  • Rank 7: Inshore Territorial Defence Navies – These are navies that have primarily inshore territorial defence capabilities, making them capable of coastal combat rather than constabulary duties alone. This implies a force comprising missile-armed fast-attack craft, short-range aviation and a limited submarine force.

  • Rank 8: Constabulary Navies – These are significant fleets that are not intended to fight, but to act purely in a constabulary role.

  • Rank 9: Token Navies – These are navies that have some minimal capability, but this often consists of little more than a formal organisational structure and a few coastal craft. These states, the world’s smallest and weakest, cannot aspire to anything but the most limited constabulary functions.

Armies

  • Rank 1: Major Global Force Projection Army (Complete) – This is an army capable of carrying out all the military roles of landward forces on a global scale. It possesses the full range of capabilities, conventional (light and heavy forces), unconventional (special forces) and non-conventional (nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and defences) and all in sufficient numbers to undertake major operations independently.

  • Rank 2: Major Global Force Projection Army (Partial) – These are armies that possess most if not all of the force projection capabilities of a “complete” global army, but only in sufficient numbers to undertake one major “out of area” operation.

  • Rank 3: Medium Global Force Projection Army – These are armies that may not possess the full range of capabilities, but have a credible capacity in certain of them and consistently demonstrate a determination to exercise them at some distance from home territory, in cooperation with other Force Projection Armies.

  • Rank 4: Medium Regional Force Projection Army – These are armies possessing the ability to project force into an adjoining region. While they may have the capacity to exercise these further afield, for whatever reason, they do not do so on a regular basis.

  • Rank 5: Adjacent Force Projection Army – These are armies that have some ability to project force well into their own region but are not capable of carrying out high-level landward operations over continental or trans-regional distances.

  • Rank 6: Extra-territorial Defence Force – These are armies that have relatively high levels of capability in defensive operations and some offensive capacity to an operational depth beyond their national borders, having the sustainability offered by at least a small heavy conventional force and a matching logistics capability.

  • Rank 7: Territorial Defence Force – These are armies that have primarily territorial defence capabilities, making them capable of defensive combat within their national territory rather than constabulary duties alone. This implies a force including some heavy weapons.

  • Rank 8: Constabulary – These are significant landward forces that are not intended to fight, but to act purely in a constabulary role.

  • Rank 9: Token Army – These are armies that have some minimal capability, but this often consists of little more than a formal organisational structure and some equipment. These states, the world’s smallest and weakest, cannot aspire to anything but the most limited constabulary functions.

Air Forces

  • Rank 1: Major Global Force Projection Air Force (Complete) – This is an air force capable of carrying out all roles on a global scale. It possesses the full range of capabilities, nuclear and conventional, all in sufficient numbers to undertake major operations independently.

  • Rank 2: Major Global Force Projection Air Force (Partial) – These are air forces that possess most if not all of the force projection capabilities of a “complete” global air force, but only in sufficient numbers to undertake one major “out of area” operation.

  • Rank 3: Medium Global Force Projection Air Force – These are air forces that may not possess the full range of capabilities, but have a credible capacity in certain of them and consistently demonstrate a determination to exercise them at some distance from home territory, in cooperation with other Force Projection Air Forces.

  • Rank 4: Medium Regional Force Projection Air Forces – These are air forces possessing the ability to project force into an adjoining region. While they may have the capacity to exercise these further afield, for whatever reason, they do not do so on a regular basis.

  • Rank 5: Adjacent Force Projection Air Force These are air forces that have some ability to project force well into their own region but are not capable of carrying out high-level operations over continental or trans-regional distances.

  • Rank 6: Extra-territorial Defence Force – These are air forces that have relatively high levels of capability in defensive operations and some offensive capacity to an operational depth beyond their national borders, having the sustainability offered by at least a small fighter/bomber force.

  • Rank 7: Territorial Defence Force – These are air forces that have primarily territorial defence capabilities, making them capable of defensive combat within their national territory rather than constabulary duties alone. This implies a force including some light fighter, bomber or counterinsurgency aircraft.

  • Rank 8: Constabulary – These are significant air forces that are not intended to fight, but to act purely in a constabulary and air transport role.

  • Rank 9: Token Air Force – These are air forces that have some minimal capability, but this often consists of little more than a formal organisational structure and some equipment. These states, the world’s smallest and weakest, cannot aspire to anything but the most limited constabulary functions.

Pic: A Namibian major (centre) surrounded by Tanzanian soldier at Exercise Golfinho, a SADC brigade training event, September 2009.

1This was derived from a framework developed by Eric Grove in his The Future of Sea Power, US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1990.

2Richard H. Gimblett, CD, PhD, Combat Capability and the Canadian Forces: Where Are We Now? (And in the Foreseeable Future), A paper to be presented to the Annual Seminar of the Conference of Defence Associations, February 21, 2002, http://www.cda-cdai.ca/cdai/uploads/cdai/2009/04/2002gimblett.pdf, accessed March 22, 2010.



3 Gimblett continues: “I would not change the overall assessment of the Canadian perception of its military (the CF) as a Rank 3 power. That is much less of a fiction today, but the present situation demonstrates the difficulty of developing forces-wide and other-forces typologies. The Navy remains a Rank 3 globally deployable force (although even the Chief of the Maritime Staff admits that will become problematic in the next few years, unless major fleet replacement programmes begins immediately for destroyers and replenishment vessels). But along with that, the fighting capacity of the Army and the global reach of the Air Force have each increased significantly. I would have to put the Army at least at Rank 4, on the basis of our sustained commitment to Afghanistan and recent concurrent deployment (although there are sustainability issues that make a Rank 3 assessment problematic). The Air Force also remains difficult to classify, and probably should be assessed at Rank 5, because while its deployability has improved somewhat (C-17 airlift and new air-to-air refuelling capability), the actual “air force [power] projection” capability of the CF-18 fighter-bombers has not been despatched abroad since the late-1990s operations against the Former Yugoslavia.”