Blue-water navy

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USS Abraham Lincoln leads a formation of ships from eight countries during the RIMPAC exercise in 2006.

A blue-water navy is a maritime force capable of operating across the deep waters of open oceans.[1] A term also used in the United Kingdom to describe such a force is a navy possessing maritime expeditionary capabilities.[2] While definitions of what actually constitutes such a force vary, there is a requirement for the ability to exercise sea control at wide ranges.

The Defense Security Service of the United States has defined the blue-water navy as, "a maritime force capable of sustained operation across the deep waters of open oceans. A blue-water navy allows a country to project power far from the home country and usually includes one or more aircraft carriers. Smaller blue-water navies are able to dispatch fewer vessels abroad for shorter periods of time."[3]

Attributes of a blue-water navy[edit]

Blue-water capability refers to an oceangoing fleet able to operate on the high seas far from its nation's homeports. Some operate throughout the world.[4] It implies force protection from sub-surface, surface and airborne threats and a sustainable logistic reach, allowing a persistent presence at range. A hallmark of a true blue-water navy is the ability to conduct replenishment at sea (RAS),[5] and the commissioning of underway replenishment ships is a strong sign of a navy's blue-water ambitions.[6] Despite the above however, there is no agreed definition of the term.

In public discourse, blue-water capability is identified with the operation of iconic capital ships such as battleships and aircraft carriers. For instance, during the debate in the 1970s whether Australia should replace HMAS Melbourne, a former Chief of Navy claimed that if Australia did not replace her last aircraft carrier, she "would no longer have a blue-water navy".[7] In the end Australia did not buy a new carrier, but former Parliamentary defence advisor Gary Brown could still claim in 2004 that her navy remained "an effective blue-water force".[7] The Soviet Navy towards the end of the Cold War is another example of a blue-water navy[8] that had minimal carrier aviation, relying instead on submarines, missile-carrying surface ships, and long-range bombers based on land.

While traditionally a distinction was made between the coastal brown-water navy (operating in the littoral zone to 200 nautical miles/370 kilometres) and a seagoing blue-water navy, the new term green-water navy has been created by the U.S. Navy.[9][10] Green-water navy appears to be equivalent to a brown-water navy in older sources. The term brown-water navy appears to have been altered in U.S. Navy parlance to a riverine force.

The term blue-water navy should not be confused with the capability of an individual ship. For example, vessels of a green-water navy can often operate in blue water for short periods of time. A number of nations have extensive maritime assets but lack the capability to maintain the required sustainable logistic reach. Some of them join coalition task groups in blue-water deployments such as anti-piracy patrols off Somalia.

While a blue-water navy can project sea control power into another nation's littoral, it remains susceptible to threats from less capable forces (asymmetric warfare). Maintenance and logistics at range have high costs, and there might be a saturation advantage over a deployed force through the use of land-based air or surface-to-surface missile assets, diesel-electric submarines, or asymmetric tactics such as Fast Inshore Attack Craft. An example of this vulnerability was the October 2000 USS Cole bombing in Aden.[11][12]


In his 2012 publication, "Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific", Assistant Professor of political science Patrick C. Bratton outlined what he termed as a "concise criteria" with regards to the classification of brown, green and blue-water navies. He writes:

...a brown-water navy standing for a navy capable of defending its coastal zones, a green-water navy for a navy competent to operate in regional sea and finally [a] blue-water navy described as a navy with capability to operate across the deep waters.

Bratton goes on to say that even with such a definition and understanding of naval hierarchy, it is still "ambiguous". For example, while France and the United States may be considered blue-water navies, he states that the "operational capability and geographic reach of both navies are definitely different." [13]

Overseas basing[edit]

Historically, and to present day, blue-water navies have tended to establish overseas bases to extend the reach of supply lines, provide repair facilities and enhance the "effective striking power" of a fleet beyond the capabilities provided by the nations homeports.[14] Generally, these overseas bases are located within areas where potential conflicts or threats to the nations interests may arise. For example, since World War II the Royal Navy and later the United States Navy have continued to base forces in Bahrain for operations in the Persian Gulf.[14]

The military importance and value of overseas basing is primarily dependent on geographical location. A base located at choke points in narrow or enclosed seas can be of high value, especially if positioned near, or within striking distance of an enemy's sea lines of communications.[14] However advanced operating bases (or forward operating bases) can be equally as valuable. Naval Station Pearl Harbor acts as a "gateway" for the US Navy to "operate forward" in the Pacific Ocean.[15]

Countries described as having blue-water navies[edit]

These are navies that have successfully used the capabilities of their blue-water navies to exercise control on the high seas and from there have projected power into other nations' littoral waters.[16][17]


US and French Navy ships in formation during operations in the Arabian Sea. Ships include the aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and Charles de Gaulle (R91).
 French Navy[a]

The French Navy operates a single nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (Charles de Gaulle (R91)) which forms the centrepiece of the Navy's principal expeditionary task group (known as the Aeronaval Group). In addition to this, the navy maintains a secondary Amphibious Group (known as Le Groupe Amphibie) based around the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. Both these formations are part of the Force d'action navale (or Naval Action Force). The 'Forces sous-marines' operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and six nuclear-powered fleet submarines. France retains a network of overseas naval facilities around the world; from Fort de France in the Caribbean, to Le Port, Réunion in the Indian Ocean, Papeete in the Pacific and in several other parts of the world too, including the Gulf, South Atlantic and the Western Pacific.[18]

The Navy's operational duties include the protection of French interests abroad and the security of the nation's many overseas departments and territories, as such the Navy undertakes a number of standing commitments worldwide.[19]

United Kingdom[edit]

USS Enterprise (CVN-65) underway with HMS Daring (D32) during a Composite Training Unit Exercise in the Atlantic Ocean.
Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Navy[a][b][c]

The Royal Navy supports a number of standing commitments worldwide on a continuous basis and maintains an expeditionary task force known as the Response Force Task Group (RFTG).[20] The Royal Navy Submarine Service operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and six nuclear-powered fleet submarines which operate globally.[21] The Royal Fleet Auxiliary maintains a flotilla of 17 ships[d] which support Royal Navy operations at range and augment its amphibious capabilities.[22][23] The United Kingdom maintains four overseas naval facilities,[24] including a refuelling station at Sembawang, Singapore in the Far East.[25]

The U.S. Naval War College identifies the Royal Navy's tasks as fighting wars, conducting distant expeditions, maintaining good order at sea and preventing and deterring conflict.[26] As such, the Navy views the retention of its "world-class" high-end disciplines in anti-air and anti-submarine warfare as strategically important.[26] The Royal Navy has shown many examples of its expeditionary capabilities, such as the 1982 Falklands War, the 1990-91 Gulf War, Sierra Leone, the War in Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq,[26] and during the 2011 military intervention in Libya.

United States[edit]

 United States Navy

The United States Navy maintains nine carrier strike groups (centered on the Nimitz-class carriers), of which six are deployed or ready for deployment within 30 days, and two ready for deployment within 90 days under the Fleet Response Plan (FRP). The USN also maintains a continuous deployment of eleven Expeditionary Strike Groups that embark a Marine Expeditionary Unit with an Aviation Combat Element of Landing Helicopter Docks and Landing Helicopter Assault.[27] The US Military Sealift Command is the largest of its kind in the world and is responsible for delivering military transport and ship replenishment around the globe.[28]

The US Navy has seen several examples of blue-water combat capabilities from the Korean War to Operation Enduring Freedom and has the ability to project force onto the littoral regions of the world, engage in forward areas during peacetime, and rapidly respond to regional crises.

Countries described as having potential blue-water navies[edit]

Few countries today maintain blue-water navies, but many are developing green-water navies into blue-water navies.[29] The following are countries which have stated their intentions towards developing blue-water capabilities.


 People's Liberation Army Navy

A report for the United States Congress in late 2012 outlined China's recent naval modernization efforts and intentions of developing blue-water capabilities. The report suggested that while China is developing a blue-water navy, it will be more regional in nature rather than global. Chinese strategists called this “a regional [blue-water] defensive and offensive navy."[30] Two years later in September 2014, another report for the US Congress highlighted that while China's naval expansion is primarily orientated towards projecting maritime power in the First and Second island chains, the country will also seek to displace US influence in the Western Pacific Ocean and consolidate China's status as the "leading regional power and a major world power".[31] In a 2013 United States Department of Defense report to Congress, defense analysts discuss China's efforts to "realize a blue-water navy". They assert that over the coming decades China will gain the capability, if needed, to project power across the globe and conduct high intensity operations for a number of months - similar to the United Kingdoms 1982 Falklands War.[32]


A flotilla from the Indian Navy's Western Fleet led by aircraft carriers INS Viraat and INS Vikramaditya.
 Indian Navy

The Indian Navy has publicly stated its intentions to develop blue-water capabilities under the 'Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan'.[33][34] High levels of economic growth in the last decade has enabled an increase in defence expenditure, particularly to the navy, which is undergoing rapid expansion and modernisation to fulfill the political goal of "projecting power in India’s area of strategic interest" (the Indian Ocean Region).[35][36] By the year 2020, the navy plans to operate three carrier battle groups, while also acquiring long-range naval aviation and a strategic submarine fleet.[37][38]

In recent years the Indian Navy has increased its presence in the Persian Gulf, and from the Horn of Africa to the Strait of Malacca. It has conducted anti-piracy operations since 2008 and partnership building with other Indian ocean navies.[33][39][40] It also conducts routine two to three month-long deployments in the South and East China seas.[41][42]


The landing ship tank Shimokita, the destroyer Atago and the helicopter destroyer Hyūga of the JMSDF on exercise with the Marine Expeditionary Force of the U.S. 3rd Fleet
 Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force

In 1981, Prime Minister Zenkō Suzuki put forward a new doctrine requiring the JMSDF to expand its operations by 1,000 miles for defense of SLOCs.[43][44] To respond to this requirement, the JMSDF deployed approximately 100 P-3Cs and four flotillas apart from five frigate divisions. These flotillas consist of destroyers and Hyūga-class helicopter destroyers with anti-submarine helicopters.[45][46] In the 2000s, the ocean-going capability of the JMSDF was still insufficient outside of the Pacific Ocean, and further expansion was started.[47] Japanese deployments include participation in the Combined Task Force 150,[48][49] and an additional task force in the Indian Ocean from 2009 to combat piracy in Somalia. The first postwar overseas military base of Japan was established next to Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport.[50]


 Russian Navy

The Cold War era Soviet Navy maintained naval forces able to rival those of the United States Navy, however, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the fleet experienced a severe decline due to lack of funding.[51] In 2012, President Vladimir Putin announced an increase in spending to the Russian Navy as part of a long-term intention to recreate a blue-water navy.[52] Analysts have also mentioned that as opposed to the focus on submarine operations in the North Atlantic during the Cold War era, Russia's strategic emphasis has shifted towards the Pacific regions where a rising China and the United States 'Asia-Pacific Pivot' are potential threats.[53]

Russia maintains a single overseas naval facility in Tartus, which hosts a Soviet-era naval supply and maintenance facility, under a 1971 agreement with Ba'athist Syria.[54] The facility provides technical maintenance and logistical support to Russian warships deployed in the Mediterranean.[54]

Republic of Korea[edit]

Naval Jack of South Korea.svg Republic of Korea Navy[55][56]

In 1995, the then Naval chief, Admiral An Pyongtae, set out initial plans aimed towards the development of blue-water capabilities. This was later followed up by President Kim Dae-jung in 2001, when further plans were announced to build a "Strategic Mobile Fleet".[57] The plan includes the construction of up to three Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships. In 2011, Government authorised the building of a naval base on Jeju Island to support these new ships, the base will also be capable of supporting joint forces with the US Navy.[58] A ski-jump for the operation of V/STOL jet fighters is being considered for the second ship of the Dokdo-class.[59]

See also[edit]


1. ^ Professor of International Politics, Adrian Hyde-Price, highlights that in the post-Cold War era both Britain and France have re-focused their attention "towards expeditionary warfare and power projection. Power projection has always been an element of British and French military thinking given their residual over seas interests, but it has now moved centre stage."[60]
2. ^ Royal United Services Institute (Occasional Paper, September 2013): "As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the independent ability to deploy a credible and powerful conventional force that enables access to most of the globe by sea is compelling. This force offers Britain the opportunity to commit political support in emerging crises to deter, prevent, coerce or – if necessary – destroy an aggressor, as envisaged in the UK’s National Security Strategy (NSS)."[61]
3. ^ The Royal Navy does not typically use the term blue-water navy, but rather the term "expeditionary". "The Navy is always expeditionary and is able to deal with threats to our nation’s interest at range."[62]
4. ^ Including the four Point-class sealift ships available under a PFI to the Ministry of Defence.
  1. ^ "British Maritime Doctrine, BR 1806, Third Edition". 2004. The operating areas of maritime forces range from the deep waters of the open oceans (known colloquially as blue water). 
  2. ^ Dr Ian Speller (2002), UK Maritime Expeditionary Capabilities and the Lessons of the Falklands Conflict.
  3. ^ "Special Focus Area: Marine Sensors". Targeting U.S. Technologies: A Trend Analysis of Reporting from Defense Industry. Defense Security Service (United States Department of Defense). 2010. Retrieved July 15, 2012. 
  4. ^ Dictionary: Blue-water,
  5. ^ Winkler, David Frank (2000), Cold war at sea: high-seas confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, Naval Institute Press, p. 32, ISBN 978-1-55750-955-0 
  6. ^ Cole, Bernard D. (2001). The Great Wall at Sea: China's Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century. Naval Institute Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-55750-239-1. Retrieved 30 April 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Brown, Gary (31 March 2004), "Why buy Abrams Tanks? We need to look at more appropriate options", On Line Opinion (The National Forum) 
  8. ^ Andrew Cockburn (1984). "into+a+blue+water" The threat: inside the Soviet military machine. Vintage Books. p. 408. ISBN 978-0-394-72379-2. Retrieved 30 April 2012.  In the Congressional hearings for the 1980 Defense Appropriations Act, US CNO Thomas B. Hayward described the Soviet Navy as "a blue water navy powerful enough to challenge the US Navy in most major ocean areas of the world"
  9. ^ Q&A with Adm. Michael G. Mullen 2006 CNO's Guidance Release Media Roundtable Pentagon, Washington, DC 13 October 2005
  10. ^ U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Mullen pointed out in an interview with KQV (Pittsburgh): "We are looking at, in addition to the blue-water ships which I would characterize and describe as our aircraft carriers and other ships that support that kind of capability, we're also looking to develop capability in what I call the green-water and the brown-water, and the brown-water is really the rivers . . . These are challenges we all have, and we need to work together to ensure that the sea lanes are secure." KQV RADIO (PITTSBURGH) INTERVIEW WITH JOE FENN MAY 19, 2006
  11. ^ Rob van Heijster (April 6, 2005). "Smart Range of Burst fuzes". TNO. Retrieved 2009-02-23. 
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  13. ^ Bratton, Patrick C (2012). Sea Power and the Asia-Pacific. London, United Kingdom: Routledge. ISBN 1136627243. 
  14. ^ a b c Vego, Milan N. (5 Sep 2013). Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas. Routledge. pp. 61–71. ISBN 1136317945. 
  15. ^ CNO Sees Hawaii as 'Gateway' to Operate Forward,, 1/20/2012
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  17. ^ Bennett, James C (1 January 2007). The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-first Century. United States: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 286. ISBN 0742533336. ...the United States and the United Kingdom have the world's two best world-spanning blue-water navies... with the French being the only other candidate... and China being the most likely competitor in the long term 
  18. ^ The overseas military installations of the Member States of the European Union,, Published 2009, Retrieved 26 June 2014
  19. ^ French Navy official website,
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  25. ^ House of Commons Hansard Written Answers ( 17 June 2013
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  27. ^ Status of the U.S Navy[dead link]
  28. ^ Military Sealift Command,, Retrieved 23 June 2014
  29. ^ Skaridov, Alexander S., Naval activity in the foreign EEZ—the role of terminology in law regime, St. Petersburg Association of the Law of the Sea, 7 Kazanskaya St., St. Petersburg 191186, Russia, Available online 11 November 2004 
  30. ^ Ronald O'Rourke, "China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress", December 10, 2012, page 7
  31. ^ O'Rourke, Ronald O'Rourke (September 2014). "China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress". Congressional Research Service. Retrieved 10 November 2014. 
  32. ^ "Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013". DOD: ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS: 38–39. 2013. 
  33. ^ a b Scott, David (Winter 2007–2008). "India's drive for a 'blue water' navy". Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 10 (2): 42. Archived from the original on 2008-05-28. 
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  35. ^ Preston, Antony; Jordan, John; Dent, Stephen, eds. (2007). Warship. London: Conway Maritime Press. p. 164. ISBN 1844860418. 
  36. ^ India’s Military Modernization: Plans and Strategic Underpinnings, Gurmeet Kanwal, September 24, 2012
  37. ^ Holmes, James R.; Winner, Andrew C.; Yoshihara, Toshi (May 2009). Indian Naval Strategy in the Twenty-First Century. United States: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-58600-9. 
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  39. ^ "Indian Ocean: Reviving IOR-ARC forum". Strategic Affairs. Retrieved 11 December 2013. 
  40. ^ "Indian Navy - Naval Operations". Indian Navy. Retrieved 23 May 2014. 
  41. ^ "The power of the sea". Deccan Chronicle. 23 May 2014. Retrieved 23 May 2014. 
  42. ^ Brewster, David (2012). India as an Asia Pacific power. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. pp. 140–143. ISBN 1136620087. 
  43. ^ Tomohisa Takei (November 2008). "Japan Maritime Self Defense Force in the New Maritime Era" (PDF). Hatou. Retrieved 2012-12-03. 
  44. ^ Katsumata, Hidemichi (February 2009). "Japanese sealane defense today". Ships of the World (Japan: Kaijin-sha) 702: 76–81. 
  45. ^ Koda, Yoji (November 2011). "History of Fleet Escort Force since 1961". Ships of the World (Japan: Kaijin-sha) 750: 76–85. 
  46. ^ Euan Graham (January 2006). Japan's Sea Lane Security, 1940-2004: A Matter Of Life And Death?. Routledge. 
  47. ^ Richard Tanter. "Japan’s Indian Ocean Naval Deployment: Blue water militarization in a "normal country"". Retrieved 2013-05-06. 
  48. ^ Japan Ministry of Defense. "Activities based on Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law (December 2001 - October 2007) - Replenishment Operations". Retrieved 2013-05-06. 
  49. ^ Asahi Shimbun. "Japan’s New Blue Water Navy: A Four-year Indian Ocean mission recasts the Constitution and the US-Japan alliance". Retrieved 2013-05-06. 
  50. ^ Japan Ministry of Defense. "MOD/JSDF ANSWERS - Anti-Piracy Efforts". Retrieved 2012-11-16. 
  51. ^ Russian Navy facing 'irreversible collapse', Jane', 10 July 2009
  52. ^ Putin Pledges Billions to Build a Blue-Water Navy 2 August 2012
  53. ^ Russian navy shifts strategic focus 23 May 2011
  54. ^ a b Russian warships 'ready to sail for Syria' — RT,, 18 June 2012
  55. ^ Roehrig, Terence. "Republic of Korea Navy and China's Rise: Balancing Competing Priorities". Maritime Asia Report. Belfer Centre. Retrieved 2013-04-24. 
  56. ^ Koda, Yoji (Spring 2010). "The Emergence of a Korean Navy". Naval War College Review. p. 23. 
  57. ^ "김대통령, 해군사관학교 졸업 및 임관식 참석말씀". Kim Dae-jung Presidential Library Official Website. Retrieved March 12, 2007.
  58. ^ Sang-Hun, Choe (18 August 2011). "South Korean Navy Base Divides Jeju Island Residents". The New York Times. 
  59. ^ S. Korea Envisions Light Aircraft Carrier,, 26 October 2013
  60. ^ Professor Adrian Hyde-Price - "European Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Challenge of Multipolarity", published 9 Jan 2007 by Taylor & Francis Group. Chapter - Britain, France and the multipolar challenge.
  61. ^ Ellwood, Tobias. "A Study into the Preparation for and Use of the Queen Elizabeth-Class Carriers (September 2013)". Royal United Services Institute. Retrieved 25 May 2014. 
  62. ^ Royal Navy At Sea (Archive), The Royal Navy, 2013, archived from the original on 2014 

External links[edit]