Unlike Tanks or Combat Aircraft, warships have been around forever. Great naval battles are remembered throughout history books as far back as boats bigger than a canoe existed. This article covers the types of ships and their strategies throughout the ages.
Ships at this time were restricted to rivers or coastlines, partly because they could not endure rough conditions on ocean seas, but also because primitive navigation techniques restricted ships to remain in sight of land. As a result, most battles wouldn't take place far from major ports or routes. Before the invention of the cannon, there were really only a few ways for ships to fight each other:
- Boarding: getting onboard the enemy ship to take it by force, killing or capturing it's existing crew and passengers. This was usually the preferred method of combat because A: those ground troops you were carrying were useful for more than just ballast, B: it used mostly the same skill set that you used for ground and city fighting and C: if you won, you got a new ship for your fleet and some captives.
- Firing various missiles at the enemy (arrows, javelins, catapults, ballista): usually this was done to kill enemy soldiers and crew rather than to damage the ship. Arrows and Javelins can't do much damage to ships and Siege weapons which could were inaccurate and cumbersome.
- Ramming; a hundred tonnes of wood has a good deal of kinetic energy. To be most effective it required a specially designed prow, a skilled crew, some room to maneuver, and an enemy dumb enough to show you an opening to try it, but the Athenians and Syracusans were pretty good at it. If nothing else this can make boarding easier and disorient the rammed ship. Still occasionally seen as late as 2020, when a Venezuelan warship attempted to ram an unarmed passenger ship and sunk itself.
- Setting them on fire; at the time ships were generally sealed with tar or tree resins (for wood) or animal fats (for leather), meaning they'd burn like a torch if you got them started.
The last two in particular had a high probability of getting your own ships destroyed, so naval combat was kind of a crapshoot.
- Galley: Sailships that came with long rows of oarsmen to help give the ship an extra boost of speed. Very useful for maneuvering against the wind, or gaining speed to ram the enemy. The most common ones used two rows of oars (known as the bireme), but some of the larger warships could have as many as five, and some sources claim that some flagships had as many as ten. The Romans had a special version that used a spike to lock ships and allow their marines to board, as they found that if they fought better on land than on sea, then they'll just apply the same tactics onto boats. Because of the extra manpower needed to operate them, galleys had a grim reputation for needing large numbers of slaves (though this only actually applied to galleys from the 16th century and after). They were still in use until the 19th century by the Barbary pirates, when they were finally defeated for good by more modern navies. Latter galleys had cannons, but given the need for rowers you could only put a few guns onboard the front of one.
- Fire Ships: Usually made from suprlus ships or even rafts, sometimes one navy would try to set the enemy on fire by setting one of their own boats on fire, and hope that it drifts into their ships. At the very least, it could create panic, as the enemy would try to steer the hell away from them.
- Siphōn: A warship used by the Byzantine Empire, which deployed flamethrowers using an incendiary compound known as "Greek fire". Highly effective albeit short-ranged, the formula to produce Greek fire was eventually lost and so the ships fell out of use by the 13th century. The formula still has not been rediscovered, although historians suspect it employed a mix of naphtha and quicklime.
- Longship: A Viking galley that was long and narrow, allowing it to enter shallow waters for amphibious deployment. They had a characteristic large square sail and the sides were typically lined with shields.
Age of Sail
Advances in shipbuilding technology allowed ships to be able to maneuver against the wind without needing rows of oarsmen, allowing ships navigate the open ocean. As a result they became formidable powerhouses, especially when armed with a long row of guns. Broadside barrages were now the dominant tactic, as a ship would attempt to strafe the enemy within range of the side-mounted cannons. This is the type of warfare you normally think of whenever you think of pirates. And with newly developing sea trade routes appearing around the world, the importance of a powerful navy became a key factor in empire-building.
The British Royal Navy began categorizing warships on the Rating System, which was defined by size and number of guns (hence where we get the term "first-rate"). However, ships were also broken down by sail plan, of which there were many. Most large warships, at least European ones, were full rigged ships, meaning they had at least three masts and square sails. Variations on the three mast configuration included the barque and poleacre which substituted fore and alt or lateen sails on the aft masts to reduce the number of topmen required to work the sails.
Moving down to two masts there was the brigantine which used square sails and the schooner with fore and aft sails; the largest brigs when outfitted for fighting might rate as fifth or sixth rate warships, while the smaller schooner was better suited to merchant work as they did not require large crews.
The smallest sail vessels, with only a single mast, were the sloop and the cutter. The sloop mounted a fore and aft sail with a single jib, while the cutter would mount at least two headsails and potentially gaff sails (a square sail minus the lower spar). Both could be fitted with balloon-like spinnaker sails for running directly with the wind.
Advances within the Age of Sail included the many advances of cannons, ever shorter ships that were less and less of a target, and ever increasing levels of armor and ways to defeat it. The first USN warships were for example constructed with two foot thick live oak (which grows only in North America), making them impervious to the light 12 and 18 pound guns used by the British. The last British sailing ships in turn incorporated furnaces to produce molten iron shells during battles.
There were many variation of sail configurations and ships were often refitted to different sail configurations according to their intended purpose. In general, square sail rigs needed a lot of crew to manage but were by far the fastest running with the wind, so if your intention was to run a target down and bring it to battle, you had a square rig and hoped to have the wind at your back and your target downwind.
Fore and aft rigs however performed better than square rigs when sailing near the wind, so if a fore and aft got upwind of a square rigged ship, they'd get away. A bermuda sloop for example (one of the most common rigs today) can still make progress upwind as close as 30 degrees to the wind, while a full rigged ship can't go past 45 degrees. And they were just as good running across the wind, while needing far less crew to manage the sails. So merchant vessels tended to have fore and aft rigging.
|One Mast||Two Masts||Three Masts|
|Easy to handle with a small crew.|
|Requires more crew to manage.|
- Carrack: The first ocean-going large (by-then standards) ship capable of long voyages. The Carrack had "castles," or raised decks for archers to shoot from, until they eventually started carrying cannons.
- Galleon: Evolved from the carrack, galleons were armed merchant ships that acted as auxiliaries to the navy. The high castles of the medieval Carrack were no longer needed, but the same general shape was kept. Even after Ships of the Line were introduced, galleons were still the primary merchant vessel used until the 19th century. And because of that, they were also the ship type most commonly used by pirates.
- Ship of the Line: A ship that belong to the first three rates. These ships had three decks (two for third rate) full of guns, and got their name as they formed the main offensive line in battle, much like a line of riflemen in terrestrial battles. The winner was typically whoever brought the most cannons to the fight, hence they could go upwards of 90 cannons on the heavy ships, with some going for ludicrous 124 gun broadsides. Spain's Santissima Trinidad clocked in at 140 guns, effectively becoming a "fourdecker". The 74 gun ship was the most common, as it had the right balance of speed and power. Ships of the line continued to be built in steamboat versions until Ironclads took over.
- Frigate: A ship of the fifth or sixth rates. A Great Frigate belonged to the fourth rate. These smaller ships were not part of the line, but could be used as scouts, convoy escorts (or raiders), or to protect the flanks from other such ships. The ideal frigate was a fast ship with a single fighting deck of relatively large cannons (sometimes upgunned with carronades on the main deck for close range work), able to outrun anything it couldn't outgun allowing them to pick their battles. Frigates were highly desirable assignments for officers and crew alike, with the prospect of frequent career-advancing action, and the possibility of prize money from capturing ships (a prize for even a lowly rating could easily be more than they'd make in a year of service).
- Sloop of War: A ship below the 20-gun threshold, and was thus "unrated."
- Fluyt: A Dutch design, the Fluyt had a pear-like cross section, meaning that the main deck was narrower than the decks below it. This was because Dutch ship taxes were assessed on the area of the main deck, so reducing the deck area while maximizing the hold volume was very lucrative. While exceptionally good as cargo vessels they were poorly suited to combat and rarely pressed into service.
- Junk: In the Far East, the Junk was the most popular type of ship for both warships and treasure fleets. They came in a very large variety of sizes, but all used square sails that folded accordion-style. The most famous example is the fleet of Chinese Admiral-Explorer Zheng He, who sailed a massive treasure fleet with many specialized junks, including water tankers, supply and repair ships, etc.
- Turtle Ship: Some say was the precursor to the Western Ironclad; developed in Korea during their conflicts with Japan as early as the 15th century. Essentially a short, sail and oar powered ship, with an enclosed spiked roof and a U-shaped underside. Some variants had dragon-heads mounted on the bow that spewed smoke or were armed with fore-firing cannons, but it was primarily a ramming vessel that could get in close without fear of being boarded due to the spikes on the top, then turn on its axis and let rip with its own broadsides.
The Age of Sail started to wind down during the early 1800s, as the improvements to the steam engine in 1769 prompted several generations of inventors to experiment with using it to propel ships. Various successful prototypes were launched and by 1833 the globe was circumnavigated by steam powered ships. The Perry Expedition in 1853 led to Japan acquiring the Kanrin Maru in 1857, making steam's adoption truely universal. The duel of the Merrimack and Monitor in 1862 led to canceling wooden sailing ships for good.
When ships became self-powered, they also could become armored and better armed as well. New strategies began to emerge, especially now that navies could fight below the water with submarines, or above them with naval aircraft. But even after the steam engine was invented, arguably the modern warship didn’t come about until the invention of the steam turbine. Before that, steam engines were very inefficient and ships could only carry enough coal to push out of the harbour and maneuver during battle. For long-range travel, they were still dependent on sails. But when sails were no longer necessary, that extra deck space could now be taken up by massive gun batteries or other such weapons. Nuclear power was briefly explored but ultimately deemed too much of a hassle for most ships that have no other reason for needing it; today surface warships almost exclusively use gas turbine engines, usually with electric propeller shafts.
Some ship designs adopted an "All or Nothing" approach when it came to armor. Because excessive armor would slow down a ship and make it less able to maneuver in combat, it was decided that certain parts would be more armored than others, until they eventually decided to dispense with armor except on the most critical parts (I.e. Engine room, ammunition stores, etc). This allowed ships to stay fast and mobile while avoiding sinkage.
Since the end of the cold war the navies of the world have increasingly fielded general purpose, multi-role surface combatants. The old descriptions such as "corvette" or "cruiser" are not so much descriptive anymore of a ship's capabilities so much as merely it's size, and not necessarily even that. The typical surface warship sports at least one dual purpose gun, various missile launchers and aa defenses, phased array radar, several boats, and a hangar for a rescue/asw helicopter. The term "cruiser" originates from a ship being large enough to operate, or cruise, independently, but not large enough to need being escorted in the battle line. Most non-US navies use this classification, which lead to the percieved "cruiser-gap" and the 1975 reclassification of US navy vessels. The Russians still use the old definition, calling many of their ships cruisers and designing them for independant operation, giving us the Kiev and Kuznetsov heavy aircraft carrying cruisers (Aircraft carriers with guns and missiles) and the Kirov heavy missile carrying cruiser (Battlecruiser to the US). The US considering size the defining characteristic of a cruiser meant that by the 70's they only had 6 cruisers to the Soviets 19, and there was a massive panic to reclassify US naval vessels to maintain parity. Never mind that most of the Soviet vessels were far smaller, only the size of what the US was calling frigates at the time. So in 1975, the US reclassified most of its frigates as cruisers and established frigates as being smaller than destroyers. Ship classification was, is and probably will ever be a poor indicator of size and combat capability as nations all use varying criteria for classifying their vessels. The following types are only valid for US/NATO vessels and fictional navies based on them.
- Ironclad: The first modern ship that one would recognize as being distinct from Age of Sail ships; Ironclads were steamboats that were covered in a layer of iron that could block most cannonballs. They were invented during the early 19th century with England and France locked (as ever) in a dick measuring contest over who had the best fleet. The french were losing so they created the first ocean going ironclad: Gloire. But it was during the American Civil War that Ironclads had some of there first 'field tests'.' experiments against another full industrial nation (during the first Opium war the British Ironclad Nemesis went to down on the Qing dynasty navy). Iron Clads were used extensively during the American Civil War and it had the first battle between two Ironclad ships: the Confederate CSS Virginia, which was a conversion of a pre-existing ship (the frigate USS Merrimack) that had been converted simply by adding some metal armor with a sloped dome over the deck, and the Monitor, which was a purpose-built design featuring a rotating turret with two guns rather than the standard broadside gun arrangement. The clash between two at the Battle of Hampton Roads war showed something two things that interested naval designer: namely that the two ships could not hurt each other as they mostly just bounced shells off each other's armor and secondly that the Virginia (Merrimack but there is some skub about the names) rammed and sunk another ship USS Cumberland. The end result was that it was though that armor had exceeded guns and that the best way to destroy another ironclad was to ram it, almost upto world war one battleships had rams on them, though as gun improved the rams were obvious dropped as a weapon, though as the Occasional U-boat learned, a few thousand tons of ship can do a lot of damage on impact!
- Monitor: on the subject of the Monitor, Monitor class warships are somewhat lightly armored ships but with really big guns. They were primarily designed to take on other ships, but as ships got larger and larger, monitors did not see as much use past WW1 compared to other, more popular ship types. First used in the US Civil war, served until WW2, and still lingered around until the late 60s, monitor class warships were a type of ships built for coastal or shallow waters, often with one or two rotating turrets.
- Torpedo Ram: the torpedo ram dates from an odd part of naval history when Torpedos were first invented, were powerful, but were very short ranged. The ram's job was to use high speed and it's low profile to get up to a target and jam a torpedo down it's throat, while they were still in the harbor. To do so it had to first ram through harbor defense, hence the name. Needless to say, Torpedo Rams were not even all that well liked even when they were being built and so no designs survived past the 19th century. The most famous Torpedo ram is the Fictional "HMS Thunder Child" which fought the Martians in the War of the Worlds.
- Distilling Ship: A support ship who's primary goal is to treat vast quantities sea water into usable drinking water for it's allies, on both the ground and sea. Being a non-combat ship, their armerment would be light such as a few anti-aircraft guns or one or two naval guns to ward off light ships. Advances in technology allowed almost any modern naval vessel to do this themselves, removing the need for a dedicated distillery. Some research has gone into using decommissioned nuclear vessels to supply water to cities, though it hasn't yet taken off and would move this ship type to a purely civilian role.
- Fast Attack Craft: Small ships designed to fight in coastal waters and small bodies of water, they're limited to these areas as the lightweight construction of FACs means they can't survive turbulent storms or long-range patrols in open water. This typically includes Patrol boats, Gunboats, Missile Boats, Minelayers, and Torpedo boats. FACs are not terribly well-armed, a modern specimen is typically only armed with a single naval gun within the 70ish-mm range, a few anti-ship/air/ground missiles, and heavy machine guns. Patrol boats that are designed to guard smaller waters like rivers and streams are typically only armed with one or two heavy machine guns, although the crew may opt to bring a rocket launcher along for anti-vehicle needs.
- Corvette: The smallest "proper" warship, as in, being able to survive combat in open water. They are used as convoy escorts, or light Helicopter carriers. No modern coast guard operating on an ocean is one without these.
- Cutter: Technically warships, these are employed largely as customs and patrol vehicles. A large portion of their size is often devoted to carrying helicopters, such as those that carry the US Coast Guard's HITRON teams.
- Frigate: Better armed than a corvette, Frigates are escort ships designed mainly for protecting convoys in heavy combat. Most modern navies use mostly frigates, especially if they lack aircraft carriers. The term "frigate" is sometimes used as a catch-all term for Destroyers, Corvettes, and Cruisers, to differentiate them from "Capital" ships such as battleships and aircraft carriers.
- Destroyer: A fast escort ship designed to intercept Torpedo boats, there original name was 'torpedo boat destroyer' and was just shortened to 'destroyer'. Nowadays as light ships they also get anti submarine dutys. If the USS Zumwalt is anything to go by, they may be the first ships armed with functional rail gun technology. They are also one of the few ship classes outfitted with stealth technology (aside from the smaller Corvettes).
- Cruiser: Smaller than a battleship, the cruiser is used mainly for air defense and shore bombardment. After the (mostly) retirement of the battleship, the Cruiser is the largest warship still in use (not counting Supercarriers). In the form of Guided Missile Cruisers. As there is still no better way to deal with targets on land, sea or in the air by firing a crap-ton of rocket propelled explosive ordinance at them.
- Q-Ship: A warship disguised as a merchant vessel in order to lure enemy submarines.
- Battleship: The typical gun-armed capital ship of a navy and the former symbol of power for any nation. Battleships are basically floating artillery batteries, armed with a plethora of huge multi-barreled cannons (typically in the 150mm range or larger), smaller naval guns, and AA batteries. They were extensively used in WW1 and up to WW2, where even in the rising age of aircraft carriers: they still decided a good chunk of battles all over the world thanks to the power of their big guns. Post-WW2 however, and battleships started to decline in importance. Carriers basically do a better job at long-range saturated bombardment (and could do more than that as well), and a destroyer, submarine, or cruiser armed with rockets and cruise missiles can provide quick and close fire support at a fraction of the cost. They continued to serve well into the Cold War, the most famous of which was the USS Iowa shelling the ever-loving shit out of Iraqi coastal assets during the Gulf War, even receiving a surrender through the targeting drone camera by Iraqi personnel waving white flags at it. Fast forward into the 21st century and Battleships have been phased out modern navies by the 2000s, with most being broken up for scrapping or used for weapons testing, while some of the more distinguished ones are preserved as inert museum ships open to the public (Such as the IJN Mikasa and the USS Iowa). While there are some idiots who want to bring them back into service. It also would be prohibitively expensive. As there are no ammo for their guns, removing them for VLS would be a waste of time and their armor would not stand up to modern anti ship missiles, nor lasers and railguns currently in development. Battleships whether old or a completely new design are a very big and easy target for aircraft.
- Battlecruiser: A halfway step between battleships and cruisers. They were of similar size to Battleships, but made design tradeoffs that Battleships didn't. Typically this meant carrying similar guns and having equal or greater speed at the cost of armor, however many WW1 German ships carried battleship grade guns and armor at the expense of speed. Their traditional role was to outrun and destroy enemy frigates and older battleships, while the actual battleships did the bulk of fighting. Had a tendency to explode in line battles, which they were not meant to be in. The term "Battle cruiser" has seen a slight resurgence in use when describe the biggest combat ships afloat which are not carriers, but are also not quite the size of Battleships. The sole member of this category is the Kirov class battle cruiser. "Battle Cruiser" is a NATO designation, Russia/Soviet Union classifies it as "heavy nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser", the line between 'heavy cruiser' and 'battle cruiser'. has always been a vague one.
- Dreadnought: A large battleship where all of its guns are at maximum caliber. This not only increased its firepower, but also simplified both logistics and firing solution complexity, as all guns would have the same range and angle of fire. These were popular in WWI as many navies competed on who could build the biggest dreadnought. They were eventually made obsolete as they were massively expensive and could be blown to bits by aircraft. Replaced by the "fast battleships" which are Interwar to WW2 designs.
- Aircraft Carrier: A giant floating aircraft strip, the very best in force projection a naval force can ask for. These ships need to be massive to give fighters enough runway space, even with specialized launching systems such as the CATOBAR catapult system. By no accident, these ships are often called "floating cities." Besides their physical size and large crew, they are high-endurance self-sufficient ships; many aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered, allowing them to endure long deployment without refueling. Their aircraft also provide them with all they support assets they need, between strike capabilities and early warning craft to cargo transports and refueling craft. Supercarriers are even more massive, carrying a plethora of aircraft. The carrier itself has little weapons outfitted, mostly point-defense guns and AA missiles/guns, relying entirely on its on-board aircraft for defense, but carriers are almost always escorted by smaller ships in combat to defend it against direct attack. Aircraft Carriers are currently the battleships of the modern era, as WW2 has demonstrated: whoever controls the air, controls the conflict. The plethora of aircraft the carrier has means its able to do just about anything to win the war: send scout craft to gather intel, fighter craft to take down enemy aircraft, air troop transports to get boots on the ground, or bombing craft to lay down precision/mass bombardment over a targeted area at very long distances.
- Amphibious Assault Ship: These look like small aircraft carriers, but realistically they can only deploy helicopters and VTOL fighter jets. However, they can also deploy boats and amphibious craft, as they can include a sea deck below. Just like their bigger sisters they carry little weapons, but it is their payload in helo's or smaller boats that does the job indirectly. Recently, pioneered by Turkey's TCG Anadolu, they started to house drones in a relatively cheap platform.
- Attack Submarine: Submarines designed specifically to attack enemy ships and subs using torpedoes, though they may also be used as covert escort vessels or blockade runners. These optimize speed and stealth, and are among the smallest subs. The first submarines, such as the German U-Boat, were diesel-electric and this could not spend much time underwater due to the need for fresh oxygen to power their engines. Nuclear power solved this problem, allowing submarines to spend far more time underwater, although nuclear reactors are still somewhat noisy and better suited to long range patrols. Defensive submarines such as modern German and Japanese designs tend to be extremely quiet electric hybrids with spaceship-like fuel cells.
- Cruise Missile Submarine: Submarines designed mainly to fire long-range cruise missiles, though some were converted from Ballistic Missile Subs as part of nuclear disarmament. The Ohio class has 154 Tomahawks per vessel. Basically More Dakka in the form missiles.
- Ballistic Missile Submarine: Submarines used in strategic nuclear warfare rather than direct combat. Think of "The Hunt for Red October" on why this is a big deal. These subs are sometimes also called "Boomers", and since they’re armed with nukes the reason should be self apparent.
|Combat Aircraft - Siege Weapons - Tank - Warship|