Types of Naval ships
The modern naval warship has its roots in the sailing ships of our past. Some warships can trace their ancestry to a specific type of sailing ship, while others have been developed following the age of sail.
Frigates, more than any other warship, have their roots with the famous ships used during the age of sail. A frigate, as defined between the late seventeenth and mid-nineteenth century, was a full rigged sailing ship mounting its main battery of guns (at least 28 in number) on a single deck. These ships were too small to form part of a line of battle, but were instead used for convoy duty, patrolling foreign coasts and communicating between the larger ships of the line. One of the best examples of this type of ship is the USS CONSTITUTION, made famous during the War of 1812, and is the oldest commissioned vessel in the US Navy.
Frigates over the last one hundred and fifty years have evolved with technological advances. Around the time of the American Civil War, ships began to mount metal plating to defend themselves against shot from other vessels. The modern frigate retains some of the basic design features of its ancestors – being both fast and able. Modern frigates are often used to combat the threat of submarines during escort duty, but may be equipped with anti-air defenses as well. Many frigates carry one or more helicopters that can be used against submarines.
Destroyers developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in response to the advent of the modern torpedo. They were built to be escort vessels of the main battle fleet, capable of defending against small torpedo armed vessels and then submarines. They needed to be fast, capable of operating over long distances, strong enough to cope with the demands of the open ocean and nimble enough to deter the smaller coastal torpedo boats. With the evolution of the naval aircraft, the destroyer has retained its role as the primary escort ship and adapted to the new threat. The guided missile destroyer is used as an anti-aircraft escort to capital ships like aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships. Destroyers without guided missiles still retain their anti-submarine role.
Cruisers developed out of a need for a slightly smaller version of the mighty battleships. Between the World Wars, cruisers were heavily armored ships mounting larger caliber guns than the destroyers and frigates of their day. As the twentieth century came to a close many modern cruisers have taken on a significant command and control function. The U.S. TICONDEROGA and Russian KIROV class cruisers have cruise missile capabilities to engage other surface ships and land targets, as well as anti-aircraft missiles and very advanced radar tracking technology. Since technology now allows many of these capabilities on smaller platforms, many navies have replaced cruisers with destroyers and frigates.
Battleships were the modern equivalent to the mighty ships of the line used in the age of sail. Admiral Lord Nelson's HMS VICTORY was an early nineteenth century battleship. Battleships developed into the preeminent warship of the early twentieth century. They were heavily armed, with large caliber guns firing explosive shells; and heavily armored, with many inches of steel to protect against an enemy ship's firepower. During World War I, the Battle of Jutland saw British and German navies engage large fleets, including battleships. Again in World War II, the U.S. and Japanese fleets fought decisive surface fleet engagements, including the Battle of Surigao Strait. This battle saw the last shots of a battleship vs. battleship action, as the aircraft carrier became the predominant naval vessel by the end of the war. During the last half of the twentieth century, the U.S. maintained four battleships of the Iowa class. Used for surface bombardment, they were refitted with modern technology, which included advanced radar and tracking systems and surface launched missiles. The USS WISCONSIN was one of the last battleships in the U.S. Navy, and is now on display at Norfolk's premier maritime museum, Nauticus.
Air Craft Carriers have become the largest ships in modern naval fleets. Almost a dozen nations operate aircraft carriers, ships capable of launching 30-130 aircraft off their immense decks. Carriers are like floating cities, some carrying as many as 5,000 sailors – from mechanics and pilots, to fire fighters and police officers. Carriers extend the fleet's reach, provide surveillance hundreds of miles from the fleet, give offensive capabilities, and provide a platform from which humanitarian aid can be flown to areas stricken by natural disasters.
Amphibious Warfare Ships denote a variety of ships used to land and support troops on foreign shores. Many of the innovations and design features of these ships developed out of experiences during World War II's Pacific campaign. Some amphibious warfare ships are equipped with flight decks for helicopters and vertical take-off aircraft, as well as well decks for launching smaller assault craft. Others are designed specifically for landing vehicles and personnel on beaches. Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, in Virginia Beach, is home to many of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet's amphibious ships.
Submarines date back to the early 1600s, though their use as successful warships did not become a reality until the American Civil War. Early submarines were an improvement on the diving bells used by scientists to explore the bottom of the sea. Realizing their potential as a military weapon, many nations began developing submarines for their navies. In 1864, the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley was the first submarine to successfully launch an attack on a surface ship, though the Hunley was lost in the effort. During World Wars I and II, submarines became a major component of many navies. Today, submarines serve a variety of missions – research and surveillance, landing commandos undetected, fleet defense, and platforms for subsurface launched missiles.