Naval warfare

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Naval warfare considers the military history of the organized navies of the world from 300 BC to the present.



Early modern

In 17th-century Europe, maritime war was subordinate to land warfare. Few theorists paid attention to naval strategy or tactics. However, French writers began to produce works on naval doctrine, focusing on the defense of coasts and the defense of and attacks on maritime traffic. The English Admiralty meanwhile began to develop tactical fighting instructions for fleet actions, but not on strategies fleet actions would support. Late-17th-century maritime wars thus demonstrated the centrality of French doctrine, in which major naval campaigns were concerned with coastal defense and attacks on individual or small groups of ships. Maritime activity was therefore extended in pursuit of these campaigns and was only periodically punctuated by concentrated fleet battles.

The Spanish Armada was a failed seaborne invasion of England by Spain in 1588. The Armada included 130 large ships of 57,900 tons mounting 2,500 cannons and manned by 30,700 crewmen. The English fleet consisted of 197 vessels of 29,800 tons manned by 15,800 men. The problems of logistics, and the prevailing winds and currents in the English Channel, proved devastating for the Spanish, whose basic strategy was inherently flawed. A Spanish victory was highly improbable. There were six naval encounters, but none were decisive. What destroyed the Armada was stormy weather and disease. The defeat of the Armada was not decisive militarily but it did encourage English morale and undermine Spanish morale; it fatally weakened the Catholic League, and in reduced the respect of neutrals for Spain.

18th century

Rodger goes beyond battle history and fleet operations to examine the organizational superiority of the Royal Navy, especially in contrast with the French navy. He argues the British were better at ship architecture (gaining speed via bronze plating), maintenance, practical officer training, and crew care. British repair docks could handle ships of the line better than the French, who concentrated on construction rather than maintenance. Much credit goes to the Admiralty, under the direction of civilian Samuel Pepys as secretary and chief administrative officer.[1]

19th century

At the beginning of the 19th century, the standard wooden warship used sail power and smoothbore broadside cannon. By the end of the century, ships had completely changed, to steel and iron hulls, using steam power and turret-mounted rifled guns.

Napoleonic wars

The British navy's victory, under Admiral Horatio Nelson over the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile in 1798 thwarted Napoleon's attempt to cripple Britain and represents the most complete naval triumph of the 18th century and the apogee of naval warfare in the age of sail. Nelson, who was killed in action, commanded the final Battle of Trafalgar, ending any effective French naval capabiity.

Rodger (2005) examines the implications of victory at sea during the Napoleonic wars and the impact that British naval success had on the ultimate defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Naval warfare in the early 19th century was almost never decisive; military engagements on land remained the most crucial determinant of success under arms. However, success at sea could contribute to wasting an enemy's resources via the destruction of technology (complex and costly warships) and skilled manpower. Naval engagements, because they were far removed from the presence of civilians, also had the advantage of arousing little, if any, resentment from civilian populations, resentment that could be transformed into popular uprisings and insurgency. Ultimately, Britain's Royal Navy, despite a string of naval victories, was unable to counter Napoleon's hegemony on the European continent. For that, a coalition of land powers was needed. Naval contributions remained but a sideshow throughout the conflict.[2]

Crimean War and Privateering

The abolition of privateering by the Declaration of Paris (1856) marks an important stage in the state monopolization of violence in the modern world. The Confederate States of America purchased raiders from Britain, but could not sell the prizes and could not get private interests to build privateers against the U.S. merchant fleet.

American Civil War

From a strategic standpoint, the most important aspect of the war was the Union blockade of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, there were major tactical attacks on ports and rivers. The Battle of Hampton Roads was a two-day affair marked by a two-generation leap in technology, both rendering the wooden warship obsolete.

20th century

At the beginning of the century, the battleship, in various forms, was the dominant naval vessel. Cruisers scouted for the heavy ships. The assumption was that battleships would fight battleships and lighter craft would stay out of their way.

Challenging that assumption was the first generation of fast attack craft, torpedo boats, or light, fast surface vessels that could speed at battleships and launch torpedoes. Torpedoes, striking below the waterline, could do as much or more damage than the main guns of battleships; gunfire from above creates holes that let in air, while torpedo holes let in water. Fast attack craft were generally used for coastal defense and did not need to be able to cope with open-ocean operations.

A class of vessel, initially called torpedo boat destroyers, emerged. These were large enough to accompany battleships and cruisers across oceans, but small and nimble enough to maneuver between heavy ships and torpedo boats, attacking the latter with fast-firing medium and light guns. Eventually, the name simplified to destroyer, which became the all-purpose vessel of navies.

21st century

The information age has presented to us another transformation in naval warfare. Both World Wars and the Falklands War have shown that ships built for the sole purpose of firing guns at long range are vulnerable: to air attack, submarine attack, missile attack, and close-in engagements with vessels encountered unexpectedly at night or in fog. An answer to this vulnerability has been an increased dependence on electronics and a host of weapons systems for varying roles of defense.

The cruiser of World War Two has been replaced by U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruisers now specializing in anti-air warfare, but with significant anti-submarine warfare, and anti-surface. The ex-Soviet Kirov-class and Slava-class are comparable multimission ships, although only the U.S. appears to be planning a new cruiser generation. These missions are carried out almost solely by missiles, torpedoes, and ship-based helicopters; destroyers and light escorts also only use gunnery as a secondary system, or provide naval gunfire support to troops ashore. The only conventional gun defenses are two 5-inchers and a "last-ditch" Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS). Even pure gun CIWS are being replaced or supplanted by point defense missiles such as the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile, or the Russian Kashtan hybrid missile-gun CIWS. So representative of technology's multi-role place in the modern navy, these 9,000-ton fossil-fueled missile cruisers have supplanted the 58,000-ton battleships of yesterday as the navy's flagships, highlighting the fiscal advantages of a larger fleet comprised of smaller, more capable boats.

Ticonderogas, however, are built on the same hull as Burke-class destroyers, which are almost as capable. The cruisers have somewhat more air defense capability and also more space for additional staff personnel.

New classes, such as the Littoral Combat Ship, are emerging as operations move from the deep ocean to coastal waters.

See also

Battles and campaigns

  1. N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (2006)
  2. N. A. M. Rodger, "The Nature of Victory at Sea." Journal for Maritime Research 2005. Issn: 1469-1957 Fulltext: online