Fact file: Ranking African Navies

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The ranking of navies is highly 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 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’.

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 2002. This was included in the Leadmark Strategy for 2020 published in August of that year. The table is reproduced below:

Naval rankings

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.

Source: The Canadian Navy’s Leadmark Strategy for 2020 published in August 2002; Globalsecurity.org

Bennett considers this over-complicated, “there are far too many different levels. You might as well select out each navy you wish to discuss and describe it. In my opinion there are only four levels: super power navies; major power navies; minor power navies; and finally ‘wannabes’ i.e. those who wish to have a navy but have no idea of the implications of running a navy and possibly at best have some sort of Coast Guard or at worst only have a few token vessels slowly rusting away alongside a broken down jetty.”

In 1998 Colonel Louis du Plessis, then director of the Centre for Military Studies at the University of Stellenbosch devised a ranking system similar to that used in the Leadmark study to benchmark African navies.

In his Challenge of Effective sub-Saharan Maritime Defence in The Military Challenge: Protecting sub-Saharan Africa which he co-edited with Professor Marius Hough of the University of Pretoria (Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria,1998) he evaluates the maritime capability of 44 sub-Saharan countries. Using his rankings identifies one littoral navy (South Africa), two “possible” coastal navy contenders (Nigeria and Kenya), seven constabulary navies and 18 “token navies.” Sixteen states, most land locked, had “virtually no maritime capability” at the time.

Du Plessis writes the “African naval hierarchy is unique among the Third World regions in its preponderance of ineffective navies. This holds true even when the northern Arab-African navies are included. The number of minor vessels grew between independence in the 1960s and he mid-1980s. Since then, there has been a gradual decline in all sizes of vessels in sub-Sahara;and even the initial increase during the first decades after independence added little to the combat potential of the many weak navies.
“In addition to their limited mobility and firepower, there is a lack of clarity in their overall orientation: in particular, their definition of missions, patterns of acquisition, logistic adequacy, maintenance capability and the quality of their training and operational experience.
“The maintenance of a navy, by its very nature, is capital-intensive and technology-intensive undertaking. Consequently, the few sub-Saharan societies experiencing economic growth in conditions of relative political stability are those identified above with some kind of maritime capability.
“The majority of the population south of the Sahara live below he subsistence level, many in extreme poverty. The fact that the population growth rate by far exceeds the economic growth rate, results in an inexorable decline in income per capita. Given these realities, the priorities are not maritime. The socio-economic obstacles oblige the states to choose rice rather than rockets, shelters rather than ships.
“The internal civil strife in African societies that threatens state security is rooted in economic causes. … Armies and air forces are often needed to maintain domestic order,whereas the irrelevance of navies in his context has made them appear a somewhat less pressing national priority to many national policy-makers. …even by Third World standards, Africa south of the Sahara lags behind all other regions in naval development – both in qualitative and quantitative terms … not only in mobility and firepower but also in training experience and maintenance capability. In fact, most are regarded as coast Guard.”
Naval rankings 2010

Adapting the Leadmark rankings and updating the Du Plessis table with expert input produces the following table (note the caveats above): (Not all the experts agreed with the rankings, at least one suggested most incumbents should be downgraded by at least one rank “possibly excluding the ‘nines’.”)

Rank

Definition

Total

West Africa

Southern Africa

East Africa & Horn of Africa

Sahel & North Africa

Central Africa

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.

5

South Africa

Algeria

Egypt

Libya

Morocco

Rank 5

Adjacent force protection navy

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.

2

Nigeria

Tunisia

Rank 6

Littoral navy

(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.

1

Kenya

Rank 7

Coastal navy

(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 navy

These are significant fleets that are not intended to fight, but to act purely in a constabulary role.

8

Ghana

Senegal

Namibia

Mauritius

Tanzania

Eritrea

Cameroon

Gabon

Rank 9

Token navy

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.

25

Benin

Cote d’Ivoire

Gambia

Guinea

Guinea-Bissau

Mali

Sierra Leone

Togo

Malawi

Angola

Comoros

Madagascar

Malawi

Mozambique

Seychelles

Djibouti

Uganda

Mauritania

Sudan

Cape Verde

DR Congo

Equato Guinea

Rep Congo

Burundi

Rwanda

 

Rank 10

No navy

13

Burkina Faso

Liberia

Niger

Botswana

Lesotho

Zambia

Zimbabwe

Ethiopia

Somalia

Mali

Saharawi

C Afr Rep

Chad



Key:

  • Black: Navy (Countries that have some form of organised Navy according to the 2009 edition of the IISS Military Balance) 
  • Cyan: Marines
  • Green: Coast Guard
  • Blue: Marine police
  • Purple: Paramilitary