The Constants of Naval Warfare

By Frank Uhlig, Jr. | Naval War College Review, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Constants of Naval Warfare


Frank Uhlig, Jr., Naval War College Review


LET US CONSIDER A SUBJECT THAT not many people think about: the constants of naval warfare.

Here is how we will do it. First, we will run through some of the changes in naval technology from the days the United States was being born late in the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, when it became a major player on the world scene. We will then make a brief foray into our own time.

Next, in order to lay down a base line, we will focus on what the fleet of the United States, and the fleets of its allies, did operationally in the wars during that long and eventful period. I will provide just enough examples to illustrate what was happening operationally. Neither strategy nor tactics will figure largely in this.

The busiest period that navies have ever experienced was that of the world wars in the twentieth century, when great fleets fought each other fiercely. We will skip almost all that. The reasons are, first, that so far as we can see into the future, wars of that size are not likely to come again. Second, nowadays only one country has a great fleet; for another country to engage in so long-lasting and expensive a venture as the creation of a fighting fleet powerful enough to rival it would be so threatening to other states that the cost of the venture would likely be much greater than any profits it might yield.

Still, wars are a permanent part of the scene, and the United States has had enough experience to know now that it will take part in some of them.

We will discuss the nation's operational experience, and that of some of its allies, since the disappearance of its last powerful naval enemy, the Imperial Japanese fleet, destroyed at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. There has been enough experience in naval warfare since then to support some reasonable conclusions about what navies do in war under these circumstances.

Finally, I will propose briefly one potential naval scenario, and what it is that the naval forces involved in it might reasonably expect to have to do.

In the great days of sailing fleets-that is, late in the eighteenth and early in the nineteenth centuries-there were three main types of fighting ship. These were the ship of the line, the frigate, and the sloop of war. All were square-rigged, seagoing vessels. The ship of the line, or "line-of-battle ship," would measure about two or three thousand tons and carry a battery of between sixty-four and 130 smooth-bore, muzzle-loading guns, of which the most important would be thirty-two-pounders-that is, they could fire a thirty-two-pound solid shot. The shot would carry for a mile or so; but if the opposing ships wished to be sure of hitting and penetrating each other, they would have to get much closer than that. The rate of fire for a well served gun might be one round a minute.

Frigates, which served the purpose of large cruisers, were normally rated at about thirty or forty guns. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, their standard weapon was an eighteen-pounder. The American frigate Constitution, which soon will mark its two-hundredth birthday, was rated at forty-four guns, but seems always to have carried over fifty. The main battery consisted of twenty-four-pounders, with a number of short-range, low-velocity thirty-twopound carronades on the spar, or weather, deck. Sloops of war, the equivalents of small cruisers, normally would carry up to two dozen six to twelve-pounders. Unlike the larger ships, many sloops were two-masted, and therefore (properly) brigs, rather than three-masted, and thereby "ships." Because they were cheap to build and operate, they were more common than either of the larger types of ship. The Constitution was driven by the wind. The frigate sometimes could make twelve or thirteen knots, but it could only sail in those directions the wind allowed; without a wind the ship could not sail at all. An average speed of advance might be four knots, or a hundred miles in a day. …

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