"It follows than as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious."
Ever since men have "gone down to the sea in their ships", they have also devised new and interesting ways of killing each other from these ships. The history of Naval Warfare can be split up into a number of distinct eras, based on the style of combat that the technology available at the time could support.
Galley Combat (Antiquity-1500s)
In this earliest period, ships were small, fragile, and mainly man-powered. Sail was a useful backup and a means of going longer distances but not very reliable or good for close in maneuvering. Because of this, the two main ways to win a fight at sea during this time were to ram the enemy to break his fragile ship
, or to board his ship with soldiers and hack the rowers to pieces
. Since the ships were made of wood, fire also made an effective weapon
, but employing it without also setting your own ships on fire
was tricky at best. Archers extended your range a little but didn't do enough damage to be decisive;
you could always take cover behind the sides of the ship, and on larger ships the rowers were usually on a separate internal deck.
With the battles conducted close to shore and with lots of generally small, slow ships that were only useful at close range, tactics at sea in this period mimicked tactics on land. Your ships formed up into ranks, tried to maneuver and flank the enemy from the side, and then charged into them, with the battle devolving into a general melee after this point. If you want a good picture of this, the first act of Ben Hur
is a pretty decent reenactment.
Given the reliance on boarding, the front lines of ramming galleys were often backed by a fleet of whatever else happened to be available, because any ship that could carry additional men to the battle was potentially a warship. At this point in history the distinction been warships and merchant ships could be decidedly murky. This would remain true until the mid-1800s, when the ship design required to mount effective naval weapons began to differ significantly from that required to economically carry cargo.note
The ability for a merchant ship to function as (or disguise itself as) a light warship, and vice-versa, was an important part of the tactics of deception and ruse de guerre
during this period and the subsequent Age of Sail. This was also one of the major reasons becoming a pirate was so easy until the mid-late 1800s; all you had to do was gather up a bunch of disreputable sailors, acquire a ship (which might have even come with weapons, as ironically, merchants would arm themselves in case of pirates), and prowl the usual merchant lanes.note
Naval battles of this period were generally epic in scope, because the small ships were relatively cheap to produce and most of the crew didn't need any skills other than the ability to pull an oar. The Battle of Salamis
between the Athenian-led Greeks and the Persian empire is said by ancient sources to have involved tens of thousands
of vessels (modern scholarship estimates about 1000), with correspondingly horrific casualty rates.
This was made worse by the fact that most of the sailors didn't know how to swim
, something which, strangely enough persisted well into the early 20th century: one theory held that teaching sailors how to swim merely encouraged them to abandon ship prematurely. Another was that sailors believed that during a shipwreck at sea, you were doomed anyway, and it was better to go with a quick death from drowning than a drawn out one from dehydration/starvation.
This period lasted until the mid-Renaissance period, when improvements in ship design and the invention of firearms led to a shift in strategy. The last great galley battle was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, an Austrian-Italian-Spanish victory over superior Turkish forces that gives its name to a common strategy in Diplomacy
The Age of Sail (1600s-1870s)
I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way.
John Paul Jones
...no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.
Home to Wooden Ships and Iron Men
, battles in this era were fought by large, tall-masted sailing ships packed to the brim with cannons firing iron shot. With stronger hulls and more efficient sails, ships now utilized sail power alone for propulsion, and could travel quite long distances, though not without risk. A good date to place the starting point of this phase in naval history would be the Battle of the Spanish Armada in 1588, resulting in an English victory over said Armada: while recognizable cannon-armed sailing ships had existed for almost a century by that point, unreliable gunnery and resistance to change meant that all previous battles had still turned on boarding actions and uncoordinated melees.
Cannons and maneuver were now the decisive weapons in battle — a ship or fleet with longer-range cannons and better maneuverability could dance around their enemy, just out of range of return fire, and pound them into a splintery, bloody mess. This is exactly what the English did to the Spanish in 1588. Tactics began to depart from the terminology of land battles and become unique to the ocean environment. Battles took place at longer range, with fewer but more powerful ships. Standard practice for fleet battles was to line up one-on-one with the enemy to avoid interfering with your allies, and may the best man win. Battles between single frigates could be more interesting. And since all ships were powered by sails, simply having "the Weather Gauge" (the upwind position) could make all the difference
Despite their power, however, cannons were still relatively short ranged and were unlikely to sink or destroy a ship outright. A ship that lacked in the firepower department but had good maneuverability and lots of men could also manage to get in close and carry the ship by boarding. For this purpose, Marines were developed as soldiers specifically trained to fight at sea, as opposed to the crew just trying to kill the other crew. Ship designs gradually became more specialized as fleets gradually evolved from hastily organized mobs of armed merchant and trading vessels to professional standing navies.
It was this set of circumstances which caused the trope of The Captain
to come about. When ships gained the ability to venture far from land and human contact, the Master or Captain of the ship had authority second only to God. With the warships of different nations essentially similar in capability, and all at the mercy of the winds, it was the Captain's skill, leadership, and daring which most often won the day.
During this period, the British Empire
rose to rule the waves, and from this we get most of our naval terminology in English. For example, the term Battleship comes from "ship of the line" or "line of battle ship", meaning a ship whose job is to form up with the fleet and battle the enemy in the "line of battle." They pretty much set The Laws and Customs of War
on the sea during this period. This is also considered the "Golden Age" of international piracy.
The Age of Sail lasted roughly into the early 1800s, until sometime between the end of the Napoleonic Wars
and the beginning of The American Civil War
. By this point, most naval powers had consolidated their strength into two basic types of ship, the powerful "ship of the line" which sailed directly from home port to a massivenote
fleet battle, and the less powerful frigate, which could spend months or years at sea and generally fought other frigates in small squadrons (or even one-on-one battles) in sea lanes far from home.
Big Gun Battleships (1820s-1950s)
There appears to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.
Admiral Sir David Beattie, Jutland
The mid nineteenth century brought with it a number of key advances in naval technology:
- Explosive shells were developed for naval guns, greatly increasing their destructive power.
- Improvements in gun design increased range, weight of projectiles, accuracy, and rate of fire. Fewer but bigger guns became the norm.
- New mechanical recoil, reloading, aiming, and fire-control systems allowed guns to be placed in turrets able to point in any direction. Naval gunners could now hit targets at range even on pitching seas, and ship designers were freed from having to place all the guns on the sides of the ship.
- The steam engine freed ships from dependence upon the wind, and screw propellers soon replaced inefficient and vulnerable paddle wheels.
- As a reaction to the above technologies armor plating was fitted to warships (first seen in the Crimean War and widely employed in the American Civil War).
- And later, ships began to be built entirely of iron and later steel.
The Koreans were actually the first to armor ships with ironnote
, using them to defeat a Japanese invasion in the late 16th century, but news of this success never reached the wider world, and the amount of armor that could be carried on any ship powered by sails or oars was limited; a truly successful seagoing armored ship requires steam power.
Steam and Sail (1810s-1870s)
Steam-powered paddleboats began appearing in the first decades of the 19th Century, and proved useful for riverboats and other watercraft traveling short distances over calm waters. While a few oceangoing steam pattleboats were developed starting in the 1810s, they were not exactly gamebreakers
as the paddlewheel interfered with the placement of guns, and presented a large target to enemy fire. The development of the screw propeller in 1840s - which solved the earlier problems along with greatly increasing efficiency - quickly made steam-and-sail ships practical and led to a number of screw frigates.
To some degree, development of the ironclad came from the French Navy attempting to use technology to offset the numerical superiority of the English Navy
. The French built the (unarmored) 90-gun steam-powered line-of-battle ship Napoleon
in 1850, and several French-designed ironclad floating batteries were fielded in the Crimean War. Putting the two together, the French commissioned Gloire
in 1859, an oceangoing 36-gun ironclad that would easily lay waste to the unarmored British navy. The British countered with the HMS Warrior
in 1860, the first iron-hulled warship.
Numerous armored gunboats appeared during the US Civil War, mostly designed with broadside batteries. The USS Monitor
introduced the rotating armored gun turret, allowing the gunboat to engage targets from any angle. In 1862, the first battle between ironclads took place, with the Monitor
engaging the CSS Virginia
after the Virginia
had engaged a Union blockade and damaged or destroyed several ships. The two ships fought to a draw, neither significantly damaging the other. With this proof that a single ironclad could wipe out an entire unarmored fleet and that nothing could stop it but another ironclad, Great Britain and France decided that ironclads were no longer simply a supplement to their mostly unarmored fleet - ironclads were now the only type of warship worth building. Construction of unarmored line-of-battleships ended almost immediately.
The 1866 Battle of Lissa, a fleet battle between Austria and Italy including both unarmored and ironclad frigates, took place at a time when it was possible to armor a ship such that no common naval gun could defeat it. Many naval experts took from this the belief ramming
was a critical tactic against ironclads, because of course any armored ship would naturally be invincible to guns.note
As the weight of the steam engine, heavy guns, and armor only allowed for ships of a single gun deck, ironclads were almost all single-gun-deck ships and appropriately referred to as "armored frigates" from around the 1860s-1870s. As First- and second-rate multi-gun-deck ships-of-the-line were no match for these fifth- and sixth-rate warships, the Royal Navy's rating system became irrelevant. By the 1870s, the rating system was tossed out and these new warships were classified as "cruisers."
Armored warships continued to be constructed of a combination of iron and wood until the development of steel shipbuilding in the 1870s. Armor technology improved and guns because increasingly powerful. Marine steam power was sufficiently reliable, and (more importantly) coal fueling stations became sufficiently numerous, that sails largely disappeared, although masts were retained because they were useful for signalling, fire control, and so forth.
Warship development became rapid and confusing; many nations repeatedly designed and laid down ships that would become obsolete before they were even completed
. In the last decades of the 19th Century, cruisers began being classified based on their thickness and arrangement of armor - unprotected cruisers (no armor), protected cruisers (limited armor), and armored cruisers (lots of armor). In 1892 the Royal Navy formally classified its most powerful steel warships as "battleships."
Pre-Dreadnought Battleships and Cruisers (1890s-1910s)
The line between ironclad and battleship is not clear, but arguably the first battleships were the turreted, sail-less ironclads of the 1870s - the HMS Devasation
commissioned in 1871, the all-steel French Redoubtable
of 1878, and the Italian Caio Duilio
of 1880. By the 1890s most capital ships were of a similar type - coal-powered triple-expansion steel ships, heavily armored, with a main armament of around 4x 12 inch guns (usually two each in turrets before and after the superstructure) an intermediate armament of around 10x 5-to-8 inch guns (in turrets or broadside casemates) and a secondary armament of 10-30 3-to-5 inch guns (turrets or casemates). The main armament was powerful but slow-firing, meant to destroy other battleships at long range; the secondary armament was quick-firing but weak, meant to damage lightly-armored ships at closer range; the intermediate guns split the difference. Likewise, the line between cruisers and battleships was blurry, as initially the battleship was just an extremely powerful cruiser. As technology slowed enough for standard ship roles to start developing, it became typical for the cruiser to become a fast, long-range ship with around 8 to 12 guns in the 5-to-10 inch range. The idea is that a major navy would do most of its commerce raiding and Gunboat Diplomacy
with a fleet of cruisers, and keep the battleships for fleet actions against the battleship fleets of other navies - similar to the prior roles of frigates and ships-of-the-line.
This was around the time the United States - having been a frigate navy for its entire history - began to build itself into a significant naval power. In response to Brazil's launching of the battleship Riachuelo
in 1883 (which by itself made Brazil the most powerful Navy in the Americas by a wide margin), the US Navy launched the battleship Texas
and armored cruiser Maine
. In the Spanish-American War (1898), the new all-steel ships of the U.S. Navy sank two Spanish fleets and seized their Caribbean and Pacific colonies without losing any ships of their own.
In the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) (opened with a surprise torpedo attack)
managed to destroy Russia's Pacific and Atlantic
fleets, the latter in less than an hour
The torpedo, originally meant as a short-range weapon for battleships and cruisers, was quickly realized as a very mobile weapon that could be carried by vehicles that couldn't possibly carry a heavy gun. Nations that couldn't afford battleships quickly adapted the torpedo to smaller craft such as torpedo boats and (eventually) submarines - very inexpensive vessels that could easily sneak up on an unsuspecting battleship and sink it. This in turn lead the big navies to develop "Torpedo Boat Destroyers" (later shortened to the familiar "destroyer"); fast, maneuverable ships able to keep up with torpedo boats and carrying enough guns to readily overpower them before they could do any damage. Thus, shortly before World War One
, the Types of Naval Ships
had been well-developed - the battleship, the cruiser, the destroyer, the submarine, and the torpedo boat.
Dreadnoughts, Super-Dreadnoughts, Battlecruisers, and Fast Battleships (1900s-1950s)
By the turn of the 20th Century, the Royal Navy had made two key observations: A faster ship can often force combat on its own terms, and the mixed-caliber gun batteries then in vogue impaired accuracy by making it difficult to spot the "fall of shot"—that is, figure out which splashes belonged to which guns and therefore which set of gunners needed to adjust their aim. And since a battleship's primary role is fighting other battleships, it made little sense to carry any but the heaviest guns and armor.
Word that the U.S. was working on an all-big gun battleship inspired the British, in a brilliant case of "Adaptation Distillation
" to leapfrog everyone by combining all
of the latest technological advances into one battleship with steam turbine engines, an all-steel hull, a 12" armor belt and ten 12" guns
in 5 independent turrets. They named her HMS Dreadnought
and she reduced the worldwide number of first-class capital ships to 1, as no one else had anything that could compete. But The British technological lead was only temporary as Germany, the U.S., and Japan all had Dreadnought-style battleships on the drawing board before she was even launched (and in some cases before her keel was laid.)note
Clearly the all big gun battleships' time had arrived and dreadnought construction became the first 20th century arms race.
During this time the idea of a hybrid warship that combined the speed of a cruiser with the fire power of a battleship was appealing to some admirals, particularly Britain's Jackie Fishernote
, and resulted in the development of the battlecruiser
. By sacrificing armor protection
, it was believed these ships were able to outrun anything that could sink them and out-gun anything that could catch them, much like the frigates of the age of sail. Their greater speed was considered sufficient to protect them from battleships, No one stopped to consider that a speed advantage could be easily negated by battle damage (or even one solid hit) as no one expected them to slug it out with battleships since they were intended to be used primarily for scouting and running down enemy commerce raiders. Unfortunately, no admiral has ever resisted the temptation to use the battlecruisers' big guns to pad his line of battle salvo weight, and this was the death toll for the fragile battlecruisers that were never intended to face full-on battleships in line-on-line fight.
The dreadnought increased the range at which battles could be fought to approximately eleven miles or all the way out to the visible horizon.note
Dreadnought battleships and the counters developed against them created the Types of Naval Ships
that we use today. Tactics no longer resembled land warfare in the slightest, focusing instead on good scouting so you could discover the enemy first and place your own battleships in the most advantageous position. Boarding no longer makes sense in this environment, as you'd be destroyed well before you could get close enough, so Marines turned to storming beaches instead
. The major war of the Battleship era was WW1
and the most notable battle was the Battle of Jutland. The Germans in that war did a fair bit of the "sink the enemy's merchant ships and starve them into submission using submarines" tactic that they would try again in World War II
— the British did the same with their surface navy with considerably more success.
Much of the pre-WWI thinking involved a big battle between the British and German fleets. Jutland was it, occurring on 31 May 1916 off the coast of Denmark. The battle itself was inconclusive: the British lost more ships and men but more of the surviving German ships were severely damaged. However, the British Grand Fleet was larger and could afford to take losses whereas the German High Seas Fleet could not. Here the battlecruiser concept died rather spectacularly with the loss of HMS Queen Mary
, HMS Indefatigable
, and HMS Invincible
in catastrophic explosions; Admiral Beattie's own flagship HMS Lion
only avoided sharing their fate by the narrowest of margins due to a Heroic Sacrifice
by a turret officer, prompting Beattie's acerbic quote above. On the German side SMS Lutzow
was scuttled after the battle, too severely damaged to make port and SMS Seydlitz
only barely managed to limp home with less than one foot of freeboard minus all of her turrets. All but Lutzow were sunk by other battle cruisers and no battle cruiser on either side returned undamaged. None of the more heavily armored Dreadnoughts were sunk. Though some battlecruisers survived until WW2
few were built during the interwar period. During WW2 battlecruisers fought battleships on 3 occasions:note
each time the battlecruiser was sunk. Jutland also saw the introduction of a new kind of fast battleship or super-dreadnought in the Queen Elizabeth
class, which attempted to address the battlecruisers' shortcomings by combining relatively high speed with even bigger guns and commensurate protection.
After Jutland the British fleet remained in control of the North Sea and maintained their Naval Blockade
of Germany. The Germans never challenged the British navy again and switched to unrestricted submarine warfare instead, a strategy which ultimately backfired when it helped draw the United States into the war against them. Frustration with their inactivity led the men of the High Seas fleet to mutiny in 1918, hastening the collapse of the German war effort. The German fleet eventually scuttled itself at the British fleet anchorage in Scapa Flow on June 21, 1919: 52 ships were scuttled in all, including 10 battleships and 5 battlecruisers.
Despite the ambiguous and much debated results of Jutland WWI triggered a new round of battleship construction as each nation sought to acquire "super-dreadnoughts" featuring near-battlecruiser speed with even heavier armor and bigger guns. The high costs of this naval arms race grew to be such a concern that the world's first major international arms reduction treaties (The 1922 Washington and 1930 London Naval Conferences) were aimed at limiting battleship size and reducing their numbers. (Ironically, Japanese anger at the way they were treated at these conferences actually helped set the stage for WW2
). As these treaties were eventually abandoned during the run-up to WWII, battleships became ridiculously large and powerful — the largest battleship ever created, the Japanese Yamato
had nine 18" guns
, and the fastest, the U.S. Iowa
class, could sail at 33 knots.note
Development of naval aviation initially strengthened the role of the battleship by allowing small floatplanes to act as scouts and artillery spotters, but as aircraft technology advanced their attack capabilities eventually made the battleship irrelevant. WWII was the last hurrah for the battleship; development of aircraft carriers quickly pushed battleships into a supporting role during the conflict, and by the end of the 1940s the battleship was pretty well irrelevant.
Carrier Aviation (1920s-present)
[T]he torpedoplane, under favorable conditions, would make the $20,000 airplane a worthy match for a $20,000,000 battle cruiser.
Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske, 1917
The airplane was invented just before WW1
and almost immediately afterward someone thought "Wouldn't it be cool if we could use these things to spot enemy ships?" which quickly morphed into "Wouldn't it be really cool if we could use these things to blow up those ships?" and "wouldn't it also be be cool if we could get these things across oceans without having to fly them the whole way!"
Thus Naval Aviation was born. At first they were just little seaplanes used as long-range scouts for Battleships, but as airplanes developed
they gradually became capable of carrying enough explosives to do some major damage. Meanwhile, the desire for scouting aircraft to accompany the battle fleet beyond the range of land based aircraft resulted in an entirely new type of warship when the Royal Navy converted HMS Furious
into the world's first aircraft carrier. This was followed by a two-decade period of naval experimentation similar to the one proceeding the Big-gun battleship that also produced some rather odd-looking vessels before arriving at the basic carrier design of a large fast ship with a flat deck and minimal superstructure that is still familiar today. And to pile irony upon irony, several of these carriers were built using the hulls of battleships and battlecruisers nations were forced to discard under the Washington Naval Treaty.
In the inter-war period there was a huge debate in the world's navies between proponents of building more battleships and supporters of building more aircraft and carriers. The battleship side argued that aircraft were fragile, unreliable, too dependent upon good weather, couldn't carry enough stuff to damage a battleship and thus were a waste of money. The carrier side argued that superior range and speed would enable their airplanes to locate, attack and sink any enemy battleship before it even came into gun range and since carriers could better defend themselves against enemy aircraft and the airplanes themselves were relatively cheap and could be built in vast numbers that meant battleships
were a waste of money.
Meanwhile advocates of land-based air power such as Colonel Billy Mitchell of the United States Army "agreed" with both sides by arguing that aircraft made the entire idea of a Navy
obsolete and thus all
warships were a waste of money that (incidentally) should be given to the Army to buy more bombers. (If sailors on both sides of the battleship/carrier debate agreed on one thing it was a common hatred for "army pukes" like Mitchell.) However, while Naval Aviation in the 1920s and 30s clearly showed some future promise, it did not yet demonstrate the sort of clear superiority that would make Admirals willing to give up their battleships. Air forces on the other hand spent much of the 1930s developing fast, long-range twin-engine torpedo bombers for coastal defense.note
Parallels could be drawn to the torpedo and naval mine - cheap weapons capable of damaging or destroying a battleship, deliverable by inexpensive vehicles (torpedo boats, destroyers, submarines, or minelayers) which introduced new dynamics to naval warfare in the first decade of the 20th century, but failed to knock the battleship off its pedestal. Surely airpower would likewise be inconsequential so long as battleships mounted a couple anti-arcraft guns and utilized appropriate defensive tactics.
A series of naval airstrikes over 1940-41 quickly made clear the battleship was on its way out, and control of the sea rested on who could throw the most aircraft at whom:
- On 11-12 November 1940 a daring British nighttime carrier strike at Taranto severely damaged three of the newest battleships in the Italian fleet.
- On 26 May 1941 another British carrier strike (flown by inexperienced pilots in appalling weather conditions) managed to achieve a lucky torpedo hit that disabled the steering on the German battleship Bismarck, preventing her from fleeing the pursuit of a British battleship force and leading directly to her sinking/scuttling.
- On 7 December 1941 Japan combined all six of its fleet carriers into a unified strike force and attacked the USN's Pacific headquarters at Pearl Harbor, completely overwhelming and destroying the protective American airbases with a swarm of over 400 aircraft, temporarily achieving total air superiority, and disabling or destroying seven of eight battleships in the fleet.note
- On 10 December 1941, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse (a brand-new battleship and an old battle cruiser, respectively) were engaged by aircraft off Malaya. Despite being out at sea, fully alert and defending themselves (but without friendly fighter cover) the ships were no match against a concerted aerial attack by Japanese land-based torpedo bombers. note
Tactics changed again, from "take your fleet and find the enemy's and sink it with your battleships" to "find the enemy's fleet with your planes and sink their carriers while protecting your own at all costs" and all surface ships besides carriers became little more than escorts. Meanwhile, acquiring new carriers became so important that the U.S. converted nine cruisers under construction into "light" carriers — almost anything would do as long as it could launch planes. The U.S. also constructed or converted dozens of small "escort" carriers that the U.S. and Royal navies used for escorting convoys, antisubmarine patrols, and invasion support — nearly a hundred carriers all told. Battle ranges increased yet again, this time to well over the horizon, and battles were fought entirely with aircraft without each fleet ever seeing the other. The Old-School Dogfight
as a factor in naval warfare originates here, though it took the invention and proliferation of radar to make fleet defense from air attack possible. Ironically, the heavy bombers that Mitchell believed would make navies obsolete proved largely ineffective at attacking ships.
Five battles between carrier groups involving the mutual exchange of air strikes took place during World War Two, most famously Midway in June 1942. All of these battles took place in the Pacific between the U.S. and the Japanese. By the end of the war the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet outnumbered all of the rest of the world's navies put together, centered around massive task forces composed of dozens of carriers plus all the logistics necessary to support them across transoceanic distances. By contrast the 21 major Pacific surface engagements (most of which took place in the South Pacific at night) generally proved less decisive though costly in men and materials, with the sole exception of the battleship era's second to last hurrah, the horrific Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 14-15 November 1943.
All of the carrier battles took place in the Pacific since only the US, Japan, and Great Britain were able to create naval air arms. The Germans belatedly realized the value of carriers in 1940 but were never able to complete any (they never even developed a naval air arm as Hermann Goering saw it as a threat to his authority as Commander of the Luftwaffe). The other major sea powers, France and Italy, had little need for carriers since they operated mostly within the Mediterranean well within the range of land-based aircraft. (The Soviet Union, faced with Russia's historic lack of a warm-water port, was not a major sea power at this time.) With the Italians bottled up in the Mediterranean and the German surface fleet largely confined to Norway and the Baltic most carrier operations in the Atlantic consisted of convoy escort and anti-submarine warfare with attacks on German warships in port and a little invasion support thrown in.
The old methods had their last hurrah in World War II
as well, largely because there were still conditions (night battles and arctic seas) where aircraft were ineffective, especially early in the war. There were nine battleship-on-battleship engagements in WW2
, all but one happening by 1943. There were also many surface engagements among cruisers and destroyers in the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Indian oceans without battleships present. And battleships did continue to prove useful since they made good antiaircraft and shore bombardment platforms. Later they were even placed in front of the carriers to protect them from aircraft attack since they could take more damage
and were more expendable
in the aviation era and proved highly effective in this role since late war advances in radar and anti-aircraft gunnery gave them the means to protect themselves if they were provided with sufficient air cover.
There were also two engagements of where battleships managed to get within gun range of carriers. The first (HMS Glorious
vs KM Scharnhorst
) took place in 1940 and was won by the battleships; the second (the Battle Off Samar) took place in 1945 and was won by the carriers. (See the WW2 Crowning Moment of Awesome
for the details of the latter.) But by 1945 battleships were no longer a match for even escort carriers. The swan song of the battleship was written in the final, futile sortie of IJN Yamato
, which was literally obliterated by swarms of aircraft less than halfway to her objective, having never justified the vast resources expended on her construction. Barely one month later the last operational major Japanese warship, the heavy cruiser Haguro
, was sunk off Penang by a British destroyer squadron in the world's last mass torpedo attack. Ironically, the navy that launched the era of seaborne air power suffered its final defeat in history's last traditional surface battle.
This period of warfare is more or less still going, with some modifications as seen below.
Submarine Warfare (1910s-present)
The only thing I truly feared during the war was Dönitz and his U-boats.
The very idea of a ship has a single weak point: if it sinks, it's useless. Someone finally got to the conclusion "Gee, wouldn't it be funny if I swam over there and made a hole in that ship?". Not everyone, though, is a good swimmer, and not every good swimmer swims well enough. So someone came up with the idea that all this swimming under sea's surface can be done by a dedicated machine: sub
- (under) -marine
(sea); in a sense, it's a SUBversion of the concept of a ship
Naturally, it's an idea that has primarily appealed to underdogs. Which is why the first recorded instances of attempted submarine attacks were made by weak naval powers against much stronger ones. The first recorded attempted submarine attack took place in the American Revolutionary war, when David Bushnell's Turtle
(essentially a wooden barrel powered by a hand cranked propellor) tried and failed to attach a mine to a British warship. The second, more successful attack occurred during the American Civil War when the somewhat more sophisticated (but still hand cranked) Confederate submarine Hunley
managed to sink U.S.S. Housatonic
with a "spar torpedo" (essentially a bomb on a stick) at the cost of the lives of her own crew. The Confederates also tried steam powered semi-submersibles called "Davids" that were virtually submarines (only a small part stuck up above the water) but without success.
However, two things were invented near the end of the 19th Century that made things look up (or down) for submarine enthusiasts: The first was the invention of the self propelled or "locomotive" torpedo, which gave submarines a weapon they could use from a range greater than 20 feet and without surfacing, and the second was the invention of the internal combustion engine and the electric motor, which together freed submarine crewmen from all of that laborious hand-crankery provided they were given sufficient time between dives to recharge their batteries on the surface. And once again it was a couple of Americans, Simon Lake and James Holland,note
who put these things together to create the first modern submarine, though since the U.S. was no longer a naval underdog Lake and Holland (who were competitors, not collaborators) had to go elsewhere to find someone who was truly interested in their machines.
And now we come to the part when it begins to matter, because for Lake in particular that someone was Wilhelm II, the Kaiser (Emperor) of Germany (Lake's main competitor Holland, on the other hand, had his main success with the Germany's main rivals
— United Kingdom and Imperial Russia
, being unified only around the 1870s, was a bit late to the colonial cake. Being late, it had yet to build up its naval muscle. The Germans took up the development of their Hochseeflotte
but then, their likely enemy, the insular United Kingdom, was rather known for its naval capabilities. However, the Germans thought, being located on an island means you are dependent upon supplies, which are brought by ships, and while these can be protected from surface ships by the Royal Navy they are still vulnerable to submarine attack. Even from the submarines of the day, which were still little more then temporarily submersible (one hoped) torpedo boats. A bit of trivia: one of the most successful submarine captains of World War One
was an Austrian named Georg Von Trapp
And thus, the Germans embraced the submarine as a means of naval warfare, and thus the word U-Boat
, "undersea boat" — or "sub"-"marine") entered dictionaries, and all submarines are referred to as "boats" to this day. While the Germans initially tried to be gentlemanly by surfacing to stop ships before torpedoing them
it didn't take them long to realize that merely exposed their subs to British countermeasures and threw away their advantages
. Besides, depriving Britain of sea trade required more than just torpedoing British merchant vessels, so the idea of unrestricted submarine warfare was born: Sink all ships you suspected of aiding your enemy, even if they belonged to neutral nations, and let the chips fall where they may. In WWI the chips fell on the other side of the Atlantic, drawing the United States into the conflict in 1917. However, it was probably the prospect of facing the United State's potentially unlimited reserves of manpower rather than America's initial battlefield accomplishments that convinced Germany to sue for peace in November 1918.
The submarine threat caused the Allied to adopt convoysnote
to protect their shipping and to seek out ways to detect and dispose of them, starting with depth charges
and hydrophones and proceeding through sonar to radar and radio direction finding — as well as specific kinds ships to carry all of these things. Twenty years after the first World War Britain was still an island so the Germans tried the same naval strategy again — this time with significantly more success, since they'd also developed their "wolfpack" tactics in the interim. The idea behind the wolfpack was fairly simple—any submarine locating a convoy would report it to base, which would in turn vector all available U-Boats to the vicinity. The Allies in turn responded to heavy losses with new technologies — radar and aircraft, both land-based and flying from the specialized small "escort carriers" mentioned above, fancier means of delivering depth charges like "hedgehog" and "mousetrap" and eventually even acoustic homing torpedoes. The Germans, in turn, responded with defensive homing torpedoes of their own, radar warning receivers, anti-sonar and radar coatings, the Schnorkel
which allowed subs to cruise submerged while recharging their batteries, and ultimately the Type XXI, a very advanced type of sub that carried a larger number of torpedoes and was actually fast enough to run away from the chasers, even while underwater.
Ultimately the end result of the battle of the Atlantic (which lasted from the beginning of the war in 1939 to the end in 1945, making it the longest battle in human history) was defeat for Germany. But that didn't mean it wasn't a near-run thing. And despite all the gee-whiz gadgetry the true key to victory proved to be the German's heavy dependence upon radio to control their Wolfpacks, which left the U-boats vulnerable to both high-tech code-breaking and low-tech radio direction finding. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the United States, despite having been drawn into two world wars largely over their objections to the unrestricted submarine warfare conducted by Germany, was ironically enough engaged in an unrestricted submarine campaign of their own against another island nation: Imperial Japan
. This time with the technological balance firmly on their side the result was a resounding victory for the submarines. U.S. submarines sank thousands of Japanese ships, far more than all other arms combined, despite having spent the first 21 months of the war with defective (and often ineffective) torpedoes. Nor was the Pacific submarine war entirely one sided: early Japanese successes against major U.S. warships note
critically reduced U.S. aircraft carrier strength during the pivotal Guadalcanal campaign and ensured that there were no carrier battles in 1943.
After the war, somebody came up with the idea that the newly-invented nuclear reactor would make a fine, nearly unlimited, energy source for a submarine, allowing the sub to stay underwater almost as long as its crew wanted to. And then, somebody got the idea — first proposed by, again, the Germans (they even had prototypes) — to arm them with rockets, this time nuke-tipped.
And thus, thanks to wonders of nuclear physics, the sub was promoted from highly dangerous seaborne nuisance to strategic threat (H. G. Wells
saw it coming). As a nearly unintentional side-benefit, nuclear power also made the noisy, clanky machinery of submarines much, much quieter, making true stealth under the water possible. Ironically there some water conditions where some of the quietest submarines, such as the United States' Ohio
class, can be detected by a particularly skilled and alert sonar operator by being quieter than the surrounding water. Non-nuclear submarines can also shut down any mechanical equipment, potentially rendering them entirely quiet at the cost of not being able to do anything. A nuclear sub cannot shut down its coolant pumps while the reactor remains hot.
Nuclear Power (1950s-present)
Underway on nuclear power.
Message from USS Nautilus (SSN 571), 17 January 1955
It was realised that nuclear power was not only useful for submarines, but other vessels too, which would not need to be refueled at sea. And fuel occupies space and weight that ship designers would often prefer to use for other things. Even burning fuel can cause problems if the empty tanks are not ballasted to maintain stability. Aircraft carriers especially benefit from nuclear power, since the tanks not used to carry fuel for the ship can instead be used to carry fuel for the aircraft. The United States proved the concept with USS Enterprise
followed over a period of five decades by the ten-ship Nimitz
-class, the last of which is now entering service. Another class is being developed. Nuclear-powered cruisers and destroyers followed, but nearly none remain in service (bar two of the Soviet/Russian "Kirovs
"), mostly due to the end of the Cold War
While there have been some safety concerns, especially early on and in the Soviet Navy (whose early nuclear shipbuilding program was very
rushed), radiation has not proven to be the problem so much as cost. The major bar to nuclear powered ships is and always has been the expense. Nuclear ships are extremely expensive to build and even expensive to decommission after you are done with them. Nuclear powered ships are so expensive that only a few nations were ever able to afford them, and even then a few. It's been calculated that the total cost of running a nuclear ship over its lifetime becomes lower than that of a conventional ship only for the fairly large ones: starting at about 12 to 15 kilotons of displacement, and few modern warships are that big. Basically only heavy cruisers and aircraft carriers can be justified to be made nuclear, and so they did.
However, the cost of building, equipping, and operating a modern full-sized fleet carrier is so stupendously expensive that the U.S. is currently the only nation willing to maintain even one of them. France, Soviet Union/Russia and now China also has a large carrier each, but these are a good 30% (Kuznetsov
-class) or even 50% (Charles De Gaulle
-class) smaller than a Nimitz
-class, and also quite problematic at that
. When things get that
expensive it doesn't cost that much more to include nuclear power. And even then France, the only other nation than U.S. to operate a nuclear carrier, has so much problems with her that they decided to make her replacement/complement a conventional ship. Also, given that the cost of maintaining even one fleet carrier is larger than many national defense budgets and anything less than a fleet carrier would be helpless against one (let alone eleven) it should come as no surprise that most nations other than the United States are investing in a different kind of naval air power: the guided missile.
Guided Missiles (1960s-present)
Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Coinciding with the development of nuclear power for warships, stand-off weaponry started to come into its element. The problem with weapons before this was that their effective range had always been limited by the ability to see the target, and hit him before he got the chance to evade. If you fire from too far away, even if your shot was lined up perfectly (not likely on a pitching sea), the enemy can still try to get out of the way before the projectile reaches him. Even the invention of radar and sonar didn't fully solve this problem, instead merely giving you a "higher" platform from which to look at the enemy from.
During World War II, a hard look was taken at the problem, and both sides came up with the same solution: find a way to let the projectile change its course in mid-flight (or swim, for torpedoes). You don't even really have to worry about your aim too much, if the weapon will follow the enemy around until it hits. Thus the guided missile was born. This carried implications beyond the obvious. Scoring hits not longer depended upon pumping as many shells as possible into the air. Increasing the probability that each weapon will hit means you don't have to fire as many of them, which means you don't have to carry as many of them. Self contained weapons need fewer men to service them, and self-propelled weapons don't produce any recoil. All of which meant increasingly powerful weapons could be mounted on smaller and smaller ships.
The Germans and the Americans had some success with with radio-guided bombs and missiles during World War II
and both sides had also fielded successful acoustic homing torpedoes. The American air-launched Mark 24 "Fido" acoustic torpedo sank or damaged 27% of the submarines it was dropped on. The Germans even managed to sink an Italian battleship (after Italy switched sides and joined the Allies) using the "Fritz-X" air-to-surface missile. The Japanese managed to trump both the Germans and the Americans (and horrify the world) by damaging more than 300 ships using the human-guided
missiles known as Kamikaze
, sinking 47 and causing more than 15,000 casualties. But things really started to develop in the 1960s after the development of semiconductors resulted in quantum leaps in electronic control systems.
Following the Japanese lead, the Soviets and Americans developed long-range guided anti-shipping cruise missiles
, originally designed to fly high like normal aircraft and then dive on their target at very high speed — essentially pilotless kamikazes. Sea-skimmers followed later. At the same time, the dominance of air power also lead both sides to develop a myriad of anti-air missiles as well—and navies, now terrified of the damage anti-ship missiles could do to their ships, realized that since an anti-ship cruise missile is basically a small, unmanned, explosive aircraft, ships had now been given a way to defend themselves again. Both sorts of missile began to increase in range, power and accuracy.
This caused problems with guidance, namely the fact that most radars can't go too far beyond the horizon- the ones that can wouldn't fit on a ship, leading to developments in target data-sharing, allowing an airplane, helicopter or submarine to send course corrections to the missiles in flight. The Soviets did some work on radar satellites to detect U.S. carrier groups from space (the stupendous energy needs of which also meant that they also had the lead in the satellite-based nuclear reactors
), the Americans worked on anti-satellite weapons, so the Soviets did the same.
Originally considered poor man's airpower for nations that couldn't build or afford carriers, missiles soon changed the face of naval warfare because they allowed a relatively small boat to pack a big punch. Like the submarine and airplane before them, missiles primarily appealed to a relatively weak naval power hoping to leapfrog a larger rival, in this case the Soviet Union. In the Six Day War of 1967, Soviet-built "Komar"-class missile boats in Egyptian service sank several Israeli vessels, including a destroyer, which was a wake-up call to everyone. Some were heedless though, and in the 1972 war the Indian Navy pretty much destroyed the Pakistani naval base in Karachi with two extremely successful raids using Soviet-built missile boats, sinking a number of Pakistani vessels and blowing up much of the port's land-based infrastructure while sustaining zero losses. These episodes proved without doubt that firepower had at last won the ancient struggle of gun vs armor.
In this new environment, the only real defense was not getting hit. Small, fast missile boats rapidly replaced larger vessels in the navies of smaller nations because they were significantly cheaper to build, maintain, and man while their powerful missile batteries offered the same sort of David-vs-Goliath defence capabilities that torpedo boats had offered against battleships in the previous century. (They also have the advantage of being a lot more useful for most of the peacetime missions navies have, like fisheries patrol and search and rescue.) Nations with transoceanic commitments that required large ships couldn't take that route, however, and this inspired all sides to work on countermeasures like jammers, chaff, surface-to-air missiles that could shoot down anti-shipping missiles, culminating in the U.S. Aegis system, and on gatling gun
based automated "close in weapons systems" for last ditch defense.
In 1982, two modern navies went to war over some islands in the South Atlantic
. Argentina demonstrated the effectiveness of sea-skimming cruise missiles using the (in)famous French-made Exocet. The British demonstrated the effectiveness of chaff as a decoy. Both demonstrations were particularly vivid in the case of the Atlantic Conveyor
on 25 May, where the chaff from one vessel attracted two Exocets but led to the missiles acquiring the next target they could, a requisitioned merchant vessel. Two missiles designed to destroy a warship made short work of the Atlantic Conveyor
which promptly sank, resulting in the loss of twelve men and a lot of helicopters. It also meant the British troops had to walk across the Falklands to capture Port Stanley. There was a sense of the old here too — General Belgrano
, an Argentine gun cruiser of World War II
vintage (previously the USS Phoenix
) was sunk using torpedoes of World War II
design from a nuclear-powered submarine, an act that to this day constitutes the only confirmed kills by a nuclear powered sub in combat. Gotcha.
Naval warfare sped up tremendously here — in the case of HMS Sheffield
, the time from Exocet launch to impact was four minutes — with Sheffield
only getting five seconds warning as they disbelieved the alert until it was too late. In a confrontation between the U.S. and Iranian navies precipitated by the mining of USS Samuel B Roberts
an Iranian patrol boat was sunk so quickly by two U.S. missiles that a third missile couldn't find enough left of it to hit. On the other hand, two Iraqi-launched Exocets failed to sink the frigate USS Stark
due to a combination of sheer luck (HMS Sheffield
lost her high-pressure fire main—a seawater system used to extinguish fires—due to the missile impact), stout construction, and outstanding damage control work on the part of the crew, proving that even in the missile age luck and seamanship still count for something.
In the 1991 Gulf War, anti-missile missiles finally proved their effectiveness when a British Sea Dart destroyed an Iraqi "Silkworm" missile fired against USS Missouri
, one of the world's last battleships and ironically the one ship in the world least likely to be damaged by it.
The 21st Century
While there have been no major naval conflicts in the 21st century, some armchair-generals
have speculated that the standard carrier group still in use by the U.S. has been rendered obsolete in that they are basically large sitting ducks to the newer technologies above. The theory goes that a multi-billion dollar carrier can apparently easily be overwhelmed by multiple low cost missiles approaching at Mach 2+ speeds from different directions
. Actual non-armchair (lieutenant) general Paul K. Van Riper used a similar strategy to "sink" 16 American warships, including a carrier, during the 2002 Millennium Challenge wargame
Navies are not blind to this idea, as it's been considered as a possible scenario since the late 1970s: The infamous "Backfire" raid scenario, consisting of supersonic Soviet bombers firing numerous missiles, haunted U.S. planning throughout the late cold war. The U.S. Aegis system installed on cruisers and destroyers was designed expressly to defeat this threat, and is capable of engaging dozens of small, fast moving targets simultaneously at any range from "beyond visual" to "knife fight". In fairness, there has not been a major missile engagement since the system was invented, so it is unknown how well it would work in a real fight.
The new British Type 45 destroyers are another attempt at dealing with this problem. The official stats claim it has the smallest radar profile of any modern surface warship and an air-defence system capable of destroying multiple objects the size of cricket balls traveling at Mach 3. This argument also begs the question of who exactly is going to be firing all those anti-ship missiles; with the end of the USSR, the potential for a massive missile attack on a carrier group has gone way down. Russia, despite a recent naval buildup combining several new missile-heavy designs and a generally more aggressive attitude currently has neither the resources, the intention, or the warm water pointsnote
to enter into another major naval arms race. So for now the nations of the world seem content (or at least resigned) to the allow the U.S. Navy to continue to dominate the world's oceans just as they have since WWII, a situation that seems unlikely to change as long as the U.S. Navy outguns all of the world's other navies put together.
Ballistic missiles have also been proposed as a "carrier killer" weapon, most notably by the Chinese. They would have the advantage of nearly unlimited range, and allow for extremely fast attacks with minimal warning. However, there are questions about whether they've really created an accurate enough weapon to be effective without a nuclear warhead, and whether they would actually ever consider using one even in a declared war—all ballistic missiles look the same on radar, and in general countries don't want to fire any kind of ballistic missile towards an adversary out of fear it might be mistaken for a nuke, which could lead to said adversary responding with actual nukes.note
Additionally, several navies—most notably the US—have begun installing Anti-Ballistic Missile systems on their escort ships. The eternal battle between offensive and defensive weapons continues.
Other emerging naval technologies include:
- Stealth Design: Making ships harder to detect by radar, sonar or infrared makes them harder to destroy and allows more opportunity for surprise attacks, but requires some clever engineering and exotic materials to be effective, and a change in surface ship tactics to take advantage of their newfound invisibility.
- Railguns: These have the potential to bring back the age of the battleships, in a way. A railgun or similar electromagnetic weapon would have the ability to take a heavy slug of metal and accelerate it to ridiculous velocities (Mach 6+), to the point where it would have so much kinetic energy on impact with a target that a warhead is pointless. You could as easily bombard land targets hundreds of miles away as destroy ships and aircraft nearby with the same weapon. This is also fast enough that if the fire control system were sufficiently accurate it could be used as an anti-missile system. Eliminating explosive ammo also gets rid of a major shipboard fire hazard and allows the interior layout of ships to be re-arranged, as protected magazines are no longer required. Even simple economics favor railguns, as a 10lb steel spike and generating the electricity to fire it cost significantly less than a 1000lb anti-air missile, and you can fit many more spikes than missiles onboard. Drawbacks would however include the ridiculous power generation capabilities required to charge up the gun's capacitors, and the problem of somehow defending against a railgun hit, not to mention the problems current railgun prototypes are facing with keeping the rails from deforming during firing. The U.S. Navy has taken the lead in developing these and currently holds the world record for most powerful railgun shot, at 32 megaJoules muzzle energy. The real-world meaning of 32 megajoules? The muzzle velocity of the BAE railgun tested was 2520 m/s, well above seven times the speed of sound through air.
- Lasers: Similar to the above, sufficiently powerful lasers would serve as an excellent line-of-sight anti-surface weapons and also be highly effective against aircraft. Additionally, a laser requires no ammo, though subject to vast power requirements. Also currently being pioneered by the US, which possesses an air-based one that can shoot down missiles, and a sea-based one that can light small boats on fire from miles away.
- Unmanned Vehicles: Unmanned surface, flying, and submerged vehicles (USuV, UAV, and USV, respectively) all exist in the world's navies, though they are currently used only for specialty jobs seen as too dangerous for human-piloted vehicles, like mine clearance, target spotting and surveillance, and as target drones. However, several navies are trying to create combat vehicles with no crew-members. Once again, the U.S. does a lot of this. While expensive, the public sensitivity to casualties in war make them ideal for a country that has the naval budget to develop and build them. The ability to send an unmanned vehicle into a dangerous combat situation also has implications for the conduct of battles, as commanders who previously might not have risked people's lives for riskier strategies may no longer have such hesitation.
Submarine and antisubmarine warfare tactics continue to evolve but it is still not known exactly what a modern submarine battle would look like; as noted in the Hot Sub-on-Sub Action
page, only one such engagement has ever taken place and it happened without nuclear subs and guided torpedoes. Germany has returned to the U-boat business, developing a new line of submarines which are much quieter that are powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
The U.S. has also recently become concerned about littoral warfare, especially boats packed with explosives in a crowded shipping channel, as demonstrated by the attack on USS Cole
in 2000. Concerns over the DDG-1000 class' ability to operate there led to its cancellation after four examples. Another examples from 2010 is how an old North Korean submarine sunk a modern South Korean corvette in a sneak attack; it took an extensive forensic investigation to figure out what really had happened, and even then some doubts remain, though mostly raised by the DPRK traditional supporters.
Part of the difficulty of predicting what the next naval war will look like is trying to figure out who it would be fought between. A fight between major powers like the U.S. and rising power China might look like the massive, deep-water all out missile-and-torpedo-fest everyone was predicting would happen between late Cold War U.S. and USSR, complete with carrier battles, furballs with high-performance fighter aircraft, nuclear subs on both sides, and amphibious invasions. On the other hand, it might be between two smaller navies where the largest ship available is a frigate and most of the combat is done at visual range by patrol boats with machine guns. Some theorists think instead that the next waterborne conflict won't be fought between nation states but rather between non-state actors—terrorist groups, private military contractors, etc, or as a "waterborne insurgency" of a state vs. a non-state. Whichever conflict one choses influences the vision of future combat.
In many ways, the current naval scene is a lot like it was in the mid-to-late 1800s; no one is sure how the scene will resolve; everyone is trying various different weapons to see what works, but no one will really know until things get combat tested.
All this assuming no one simply puts ships in orbit
for the ultimate in "high ground."