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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.
—George Washington

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

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.

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.

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.[1]

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

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 captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.
—Horatio Nelson

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 Gage" (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 1800's, until sometime between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of The American Civil War.

Big Gun Battleships

Fear God and Dread Nought.
—Attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, as the inspiration for the name of HMS Dreadnought
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.
  • Improvements in gun design increased range, weight of projectiles, accuracy, and rate of fire. Fewer but bigger guns became the norm.
  • The steam engine freed ships from dependence upon the wind, and screw propellers soon replaced 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 iron, 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. A period of experimentation extending between the 1840s and 1890s resulted in some rather bizarre looking ships with various mixes of the above technologies and some rather intense arms races (UK v. France, UK. v. Germany, UK v. Russia, Russia v. Japan, US v. Japan, US v. UK, etc).

Some wars were fought which proved the concepts: In the Spanish-American War the US sank two Spanish fleets and seized their Caribbean and Pacific colonies without losing any ships of their own. In the Russo-Japanese war (opened with a surprise torpedo attack) the Japanese managed to destroy Russia's Pacific and Atlantic fleets, the latter in less than an hour. Then in 1906 the British changed everything.

Having observed these wars the Royal Navy 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.) 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 Fisher, and resulted in the development of the battle cruiser. 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.

The dreadnought increased the range at which battles could be fought to approximately eleven miles or all the way out to the visible horizon.[2] 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 WW 1 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 Two -- the British did the same with their surface navy with considerably more success.

Much of the pre-war 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 WW 2 few were built during the interwar period. During WW 2 battlecruisers fought battleships on 3 occasions:[3] 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.

After Jutland the British fleet remained in control of the North Sea and maintained their 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 WW 2). Despite these treaties battleships got to be so ridiculously powerful -- the largest battleship ever created, the Japanese Yamato had nine 18" guns, and the fastest, the US Iowa class, could sail at 33 knots -- that everyone freaked out and tried to come up with any counter they could to them. Two of these technologies led to the obsolescence of the Battleship: the airplane and the submarine. See below.

Carrier Aviation

[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
—US Navy Telegram, 7 December 1941.

The airplane was invented just before WW 1 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. (Sailors on both sides of the battleship/carrier debate agreed that they really hated "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 1930's developing fast, long-range twin-engine torpedo bombers for coastal defense.[4]

The first inkling that things may have changed came on 11-12 November 1940 when a daring British nighttime carrier strike at Taranto severely damaged three of the newest battleships in the Italian fleet--an attack that served as one of the inspirations for the later Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The second indication occurred on 26 May 1941 when another British carrier strike (flown by inexperienced pilots in appalling weather conditions) managed to achieve the lucky torpedo hit that prevented the German battleship Bismarck from escaping from her pursuers.

The question was definitively answered on the morning of December 7th, 1941, when a fleet of Japanese carrier-based aircraft sank or disabled all but one of the battleships of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, forcing the US navy to rely on its own carriers, which had fortuitously all been at sea on the day of the attack. Most of the decisive battles of World War Two in the Pacific were to be fought between carriers. Any doubt as to the new primacy of air power was sunk off Malaya along with HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse when a brand-new battleship and an old battle cruiser - fully alert and defending themselves, but without any friendly aircraft providing cover - proved no match against a concerted aerial attack by Japanese land-based torpedo bombers. [5]

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 US converted nine cruisers under construction into "light" carriers - almost anything would do as long as it could launch planes. The US 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. Old School Dogfighting originates here, though it took the invention and proliferation of radar to make fleet defense from air attack possible

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) proved less decisive though costly in men and materials.

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. 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 Two 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 WW 2, 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 and Gneisenau) 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 WW 2 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 one of the last few operational major Japanese warships, 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

Take her down!
—The last known words of Commander Howard Gilmore, Captain of the USS Growler (SS-215). Wounded during a surface gun battle with a Japanese escort vessel Gilmore ordered his crew to dive and sacrificed his own life to save the ship.

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 good 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 the 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,[6] who put these things together to create the first modern submarine, though since the US 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. Germany, 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 (Unterseeboot, "undersea boat" -- or "sub"-"marine") entered dictionaries. 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 threat of submarine caused the Allied to adopt convoys 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 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. US 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.

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

Underway on nuclear power.
—Message from the 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 refuelled 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 the 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/Russians "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, 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.

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. When things get that expensive it doesn't cost that much more to include nuclear power. But 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

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.

The Germans and the Americans had some success with with radio-guided bombs and missiles during World War Two and both sides had also fielded successful acoustic homing torpedoes. 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. 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 Kamikaze. Sea-skimmers followed later. 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 US carrier groups from space, the Americans worked on anti-satellite weapons, so the Soviets did the same.

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. This inspired both sides to work on surface-to-air missiles that could shoot down anti-shipping missiles, culminating in the US 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.

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. On the other hand, two Iraqi-launched Exocets failed to sink the smaller 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 of the USS Stark.

There was a sense of the old here too -- General Belgrano, an Argentine gun cruiser of World War Two vintage (it had been USS Phoenix) was sunk using torpedoes of World War Two 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.

In the 1991 Gulf War, anti-missile missiles finally proved their effectiveness when a British Sea Dart destroyed an Iraqi "Silkworm" missile.

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.

Navies are not blind to this idea, as it's been considered as a possible scenario since the late 1970s: The infamous "Backfire" raid, committed by supersonic Soviet bombers firing numerous missiles, haunted US planning throughout the late cold war. The US 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.

Ballistic missiles have also been proposed as a "carrier killer" weapon, most notably by the Chineese. 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 if NORAD detected a launch they might just assume it was a nuke and respond in kind before they realized where it was going or what it was carrying. 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. 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. The US Navy has taken the lead in developing these and currently holds the world record for most powerful railgun shot, at 32 megaJoules muzzle energy.
  • 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 (U Su V, 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 US 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 US 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.

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 US 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 US 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."


  1. Though most pirates, then as now, preferred to work close to shore in small fast boats that could sneak up on an unwary target or escape a wary one. An actual pirate ship tended to attract too much of the wrong sort of attention.
  2. The advent of radar in WWII extended these ranges even further. HMS Warspite achieved a hit on the Italian Cruiser Pola at 25,000 - 27,000 yards (15 miles) and U.S.S Iowa straddled a Japanese destroyer with five out of ten salvos at 35,000-39,000 yards (20 miles).
  3. Denmark Strait,24 May 1941; Second Guadalcanal,14-15 November 1943; and North Cape,26 December 1943
  4. Some eamples include the Mitsubishi G 3 M and G 4 M, the Bristol Beaufort, the Martin B-26, and the Junkers Ju-88
  5. Mitsubishi G 3 M and G 4 M as noted above.
  6. Holland was actually Irish by birth and emigrated to the US in his 30's which along with his building his first submarine for the forerunners of the IRA means he is often considered an Irish inventor rather than an American inventor. On the other hand he indisputably did most of his work in America.
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