Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Naval Classification - Part I

A confusing topic at times involves the differences between sizes of ships.  This article will review various ship classifications and their uses through history.  Given the length of the topic, it is broken into multiple articles.

The Ram
Pre-canon ships involved two ways to attack: either boarding or ramming.  Powered by human muscles, the ram ship has served as the primary naval warship for thousands of years.  However, ramming was as dangerous for the ramming vessel as for the rammed vessel.

Fire Ship
Fire ships were an accepted battle tactic during the days of wooden ships.  Creating a fire ship basically involves turning a ship into a barge of combustible materials and igniting it.  The ship is then steered into an opposing ship.   Succeeding with a fire ship requires some luck and, more importantly, a trapped foe.  Ships in open water would be difficult to hit, so most fire ship attacks occurred when the foe was stuck in a bay, harbor, or enclosed area.  A later variation of the fire ship involves filling a ship with explosive material, get the ship close to the target, and explode it.

Torpedo Boats
The objective of torpedo boats is to deliver torpedoes to enemy ships.  Torpedoes have differed over time.  Original torpedoes consisted of explosives attached to a long pole.  Thus, torpedo boats were required to get close and plant explosives on the enemy ship, usually under the cover of night.  Another use was for a torpedo boat to "plant" the torpedoes in the water.  These type of torpedoes would become "mines" later in history.

When the self-propelled torpedo, or "fish torpedo", came into use, the role changed again.  World War II introduced a small, light, fast craft capable of high speed "hit-and-run" attacks.  The primary tactics of torpedo boats is to swarm larger enemy ships and, through sheer numbers, attempt to destroy more expensive craft.

The first submersible vessel used in military operations, Turtle, involved a small ship with a screw on the front of it.  The concept of the attack was to approach unnoticed and plant explosives onto the enemy ship, HMS Eagle.  Although creative, the attempt (and all subsequent attempts) were unsuccessful.

The first significant use of submarines would wait until WWI.  From that time onwards, submarines became the main threat to naval merchant vessels.  WWI and WWII submarines traveled on the surface of the ship, powered by diesel engines.  These same engines powered batteries, which became the  power source once submerged.  Submarines are low to the water and difficult to spot.  However, Diesel engines required Submarines to surface regularly and recharge the batteries.  During this time they were vulnerable to air and surface attack.

The advent of nuclear power changed submarines forever.  Finally, submarines could run submerged for months at a time.  Unlike their predecessors, however, the role of the nuclear submarines changed again.  Instead of attacking naval shipping, nuclear subs (or "boomers") carry nuclear ICBMs.  The role of hunting submarines fell to destroyers and aircraft.  However, the reintroduction of the 'attack sub', a sub designed to hunt other submarines and ships, returns the submarine to its original concept.

Surface Ships
Surface ships come in many different types.  The main idea for all surface ships is to carry large bore guns long distances and pound the least until the advent of aircraft.  Classifying surface ships becomes tricky because the classification system used differs from country to country, and technological advances made some "big ships" into "smaller ships".  The easiest way is to identify them by "Role"

Technically, a Ship-of-the-Line was any large ship with many guns and heavy, thick skin.  The "ship" part is easy to understand, but the term "line" comes from the battle tactic of having ships in a column and going into battle.  Moving in column makes sense in many ways.  It is easier to keep track of all ships, every ship needs to keep track of, at most, two ships: the one in front of it and the one behind it.  It reduces the possibility of collision with friendly ships, a danger when vessels were self-propelled.  The possibility of friendly fire was removed.  Lastly, if any ship but the last had to be abandoned, a ship further down the line could pick up survivors.

However, many of the "destroyers" and "frigates" were also a Ship-of-the-Line.  But over time Ship-Of-The-Line came to mean the biggest ships with the most firepower, although the American Frigate tends to disrupt this image.

Next week we will discuss the different classifications of Surface ships.

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