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As with all other forms of battle modern naval tactics are reliant on fire and movement. The effective delivery of firepower results from scouting and assumption of good firing positions. Movement is a large component of modern combat; a naval fleet can travel hundreds of kilometres in a day.
In naval warfare, the key is to detect the enemy while avoiding detection. Much time and effort is spent to deny the enemy the chance to detect your forces.
There is also the concept of battle space: a zone around a naval force within which a commander is confident of detecting, tracking, engaging and destroying threats before they pose a danger. This is why a navy prefers the open sea. The presence of land and the bottom topology of an area compress the battle space, limit the opportunities to maneuver, make it easier for an enemy to predict the location of the fleet and make the detection of enemy forces more difficult. In shallow waters, the detection of submarines and mines is especially problematic.
One scenario that was the focus of American naval planning during the Cold War was a conflict between two modern and well equipped fleets on the high seas, the clash of the United States and the Soviet Union. The main consideration is for Carrier Battle Groups (CVBGs).
In modern naval combat there is the potential of a deadly strike being launched from up to 600 nautical miles (1,100 km) away. This is a huge area to scout. The double-edged answer to this is electronic warfare.
Submarines are the greatest threat to offensive CVBG operations due to the stealth of modern submarines (anechoic coatings, ultra-quiet Pump-jets etc.), which is the submarine's sole advantage. The move towards shallow-water operations has greatly increased this threat. The cherry-on-top is that even the suspicion of a submarine threat forces a fleet to commit resources to removing it as the consequences of an undetected submarine are too great.
The key threat in modern naval combat is the missile. This can be delivered from surface, subsurface or air units. With missile speeds ranging up to Mach 4 the engagement time may be only seconds. The key to successful defence is thus to destroy the launching platform before it fires, thus removing a number of missile threats in one go. This is not always possible so the AAW resources need to be balanced between the outer and inner air battles.
Mankind has fought battles on the sea for more than 3,000 years. Land warfare would seem on the face of it unreliant upon the oceans, but nothing could be further from the truth. Land navigation, until the advent of extensive railroads was extremely dependent upon river systems and canals. The latter were crucial in the development of the modern world in the United Kingdom, the Low Countries and northern Germany, for they enabled the bulk movement of goods and raw materials without which the industrial revolution would not have occurred. Prior to 1750, things moved by barge or sea, or not much at all. So armies with their exorbitant needs for food, ammunition and fodder were tied to the river valleys throughout the ages.
The oceanic influnces throughout pre-recorded history (Homeric Legends, e.g. Troy), and classical works like the Odyssey underscore the past influences. The Persian Empire — united and strong — couldn't prevail against the might of the Athenian fleet combined with that of lesser city states in several attempts to conquer the Greek City States. The Phoenecian's and Egypt's power, Carthage's and even Rome's depended in no mean way upon control of the seas. So too did the Venetian Republic dominate Italy's city states, thwart the Ottoman Empire, and dominate commerce on the Silk road and the Mediterranean in general for centuries. For three centuries, the Northmen commonly called the Vikings raided and pillaged and went where they willed, far into central Russia and the Ukraine, and even to far off Constantinople (both via the Black Sea tributaries and past the Strait of Gibraltar.
The many sea battles through history also provide a reliable source for shipwrecks and underwater archaeology. A major example, albeit not very commonly known, is the exploration of the wrecks of various ships in the Pacific Ocean, namely Japanese warships that sank during the Battle of Midway.
Oarsmen of the Mediterranean Sea
Assyrian reliefs from the 700s BC show Phoenician fighting ships, with two levels of oars, fighting men on a sort of bridge or deck above the oarsmen, and some sort of ram protruding from the bow. No written mention of strategy or tactics seems to have survived.
The Persian Wars were the first to feature large-scale naval operations, not just sophisticated fleet engagements with dozens of triremes on each side, but combined land-sea operations. It seems unlikely that all this was the product of a single mind or even of a generation; most likely the period of evolution and experimentation was simply not recorded by history.
After some initial battles while subjugating the Greeks of the Ionian coast, the Persians determined to invade Greece proper. Themistocles of Athens estimated that the Greeks would be outnumbered by the Persians on land, but that Athens could protect itself by building a fleet (the famous "wooden walls"), using the profits of the silver mines at Laurium to finance them.
The first Persian campaign, in 492 BC, was aborted because the fleet was lost in a storm, but the second, in 490 BC, captured islands in the Aegean Sea before landing on the mainland near Marathon. Attacks by the Greek armies repulsed these.
The third Persian campaign, under Xerxes I of Persia ten years later (480 BC), followed the pattern of the first in marching the army via the Hellespont while the fleet paralleled them offshore. Near Artemisium, in the narrow channel between the mainland and Euboea, the Greek fleet held off multiple assaults by the Persians, the Persians breaking through a first line, but then being flanked by the second line of ships. But the defeat on land at Thermopylae forced a Greek withdrawal, and Athens evacuated its population to nearby Salamis Island.
The ensuing Battle of Salamis was one of the decisive engagements of history. Themistocles trapped the Persians in a channel too narrow for them to bring their greater numbers to bear, and attacked them vigorously, in the end causing the loss of 200 Persian ships vs 40 Greek. At the end, Xerxes still had a fleet stronger than the Greeks, but withdrew anyway, and after losing at Plataea in the following year, returns to Asia Minor, leaving the Greeks their freedom. Nevertheless, the Athenians and Spartans attacked and burned the laid-up Persian fleet at Mycale, and freed many of the Ionian towns.
During the next fifty years, the Greeks command the Aegean, but not harmoniously, and after several minor wars about which we know little, in 431 BC, tensions exploded into the Peloponnesian War between Athens' Delian League and the Spartan Peloponnese. Naval strategy was critical; Athens walled itself off from the rest of Greece, leaving only the port at Piraeus open, and trusting in its navy to keep supplies flowing while the Spartan army besieged it. This strategy worked, although the close quarters likely contributed to the plague that killed many Athenians in 429.
There were a number of sea battles between galleys; at Rhium, Naupactus, Pylos, Syracuse, Cynossema, Cyzicus, Notium. But the end came for Athens in 405 at Aegospotami in the Hellespont, where the Athenians had drawn up their fleet on the beach, and were there surprised by the Spartan fleet, who landed and burned all the ships. Athens surrendered to Sparta in the following year.
Navies next played a major role in the complicated wars of the successors of Alexander the Great.
Rome was never much of a seafaring nation, but it had to learn, and learn fast, in the Punic Wars with Carthage, and developed the technique of grappling and boarding enemy ships with soldiers. The Roman Navy grew gradually as Rome found itself involved in more and more Mediterranean politics; by the time of the Roman Civil War and the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, hundreds of ships were involved, many of them quinqueremes mounting catapults and fighting towers. The Roman Empire however had little use for navies beyond periodic piracy suppression.
In ancient China, the first known naval battles took place during the Warring States (481 BC - 221 BC), a period where regional warlords battled against one another while claiming loyalty to their Zhou Dynasty sovereign. Chinese naval warfare in this ancient period featured grapple-and-hook, as well as ramming tactics with ships called "stomach strikers" and "colliding swoopers" (Needham, 678). It was written in the subsequent Han Dynasty that the Warring States era Chinese had employed ge chuan ships (dagger-axe ships, or halberd ships), thought to have a simple description of a ship manned by marines carrying dagger-axe halberds as personal weapons. However, the later 3rd century Three Kingdoms era Chinese writer Zhang Yan asserted in his writing that the Warring States Chinese named the boats this way because halberd blades were actually fixed and attached to the hull of the ship in order to rip into the hull of another ship while ramming, to stab enemies in the water that had fallen overboard and were swimming, or simply to clear any possible dangerous marine animals in the path of the ship (since the ancient Chinese did believe in sea monsters, see Xu Fu for more info).
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC), owed much of his success in unifying China (specifically southern China) to naval power, although an official navy was not yet established (see Medieval Asia section below). Zhou Dynasty era Chinese were known to use temporary pontoon bridges for general means of transportation, but it was during the Qin and later Han Dynasty that large permanent pontoon bridges were assembled, and used for purposes of warfare (first written account of a pontoon bridge in the West being the oversight of the Greek Mandrocles of Samos in aiding a military campaign of Persian Emperor Darius I over the Bosporus).
During the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), the Chinese discovered the use of the stern-mounted steering rudder, as well as designed a new ship type, the junk. During the late Han Dynasty into the Three Kingdoms period, significantly large naval battles like the Battle of Chibi marked the advancement of naval warfare in the East. In the latter engagement, the Chinese military strategist Zhuge Liang from the Kingdom of Shu is well known for his fire attack upon the massive naval fleet of Prime Minister Cao Cao.
In terms of seafaring abroad, arguably one of the first Chinese to sail into the Indian Ocean and to reach Sri Lanka and India by sea was the Buddhist monk Fa Xian in the early 5th century (although diplomatic ties and land trade to Persia and India was established during the earlier Han Dynasty). However, Chinese naval maritime influence would not present itself in the Indian Ocean until the medieval period.
The Dark and Middle Ages
The barbarian invasions of the 4th century and later mostly occurred by land, but there are mentions of a Vandal fleet fighting with the Romans, and a defeat of an Ostrogothic fleet at Sena Gallica in the Adriatic Sea.
In the 7th century Arab fleets begin to make an appearance, raiding Sicily in 652, and defeating the Byzantine Navy in 655. Constantinople is saved at the Battle of Syllaeum in 678 by the invention of Greek fire, an early form of flamethrower that is devastating to the ships in the besieging fleet. This was just the first of many encounters.
In the 8th century the Norsemen begin to make an appearance, although their usual style is to appear quickly, plunder, and disappear, preferably undefended locations. King Alfred the Great of England built a fleet and was able to beat off the Danes.
The Norse also fought several sea battles among themselves. This was normally done by binding the ships on each side together, thus essentially fighting a land battle on the sea. However the fact that the losing side could not easily escape meant that battles tended to be hard and bloody. The Battle of Svolder is perhaps the most famous of these battles.
As Arab power in the Mediterranean began to wane, the Italian trading towns of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice stepped in to seize the opportunity, setting up commercial networks and building navies to protect them. At first the navies fought with the Arabs (off Bari in 1004, at Messina in 1005), but then they found themselves contending with Normans moving into Sicily, and finally with each other. The Genoese and Venetians fought four naval wars, in 1253–1284, 1293–1299, 1350–1355, and 1378–1371. The last ended with a decisive victory for Venice, which gave them almost a century to enjoy Mediterranean trade domination before other European countries started exploring to the south and west.
In the north of Europe, the near-continuous conflict between England and France rarely entails naval activity more sophisticated than carrying knights across the English Channel, and perhaps trying to attack the transports. The Battle of Dover in 1217, between a French fleet of 80 ships under Eustace the Monk and an English fleet of 40 under Hubert de Burgh, is notable is the first recorded battle using sailing ship tactics.
Medieval Asia (China, India, Japan, and Korea)
The Sui Dynasty (581 - 618 AD) and Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD) of China were involved in several naval affairs over the triple-set of polities ruling medieval Korea (Three Kingdoms of Korea), along with engaging naval bombardments on the peninsula from Asuka period Yamato Kingdom (Japan). A prominent factor in the sudden decline and collapse of the Sui Dynasty was its pouring of state funds into the Goguryeo-Sui Wars, where the Chinese assembled an enormous naval fleet that in the end was unsuccessful. The succeeding Tang Dynasty of China took on a different foreign policy, aiding the Silla Dynasty (see also Unified Silla) in expelling the armies and naval forces of the Japanese (see Battle of Baekgang) and conquering Silla's other Korean rivals, Baekje and Goguryeo by 668 AD. In addition, the Chinese Tang Dynasty had maritime trading, tributary, and diplomatic ties as far as modern-day Sri Lanka, India, Islamic Iran and Arabia, as well as Somalia in East Africa. From the Axumite Kingdom in modern-day Ethiopia, the Arab traveller Sa'd ibn Abi-Waqqas sailed from there to Tang China during the reign of Emperor Gaozong. Two decades later, he returned with a copy of the Quran, establishing the first Islamic mosque in China, the Mosque of Remembrance in Guangzhou. What followed was a rising rivalry between Arab and Chinese for dominant control of sea lanes of trade in the Indian Ocean. In his book Cultural Flow Between China and the Outside World, Shen Fuwei notes that maritime Chinese merchants in the 9th century were landing regularly at Sufala in East Africa to cut out Arab middle-men traders (Shen, 155).
The Chola Dynasty of medieval India was a dominant seapower in the Indian Ocean, an avid maritime trader and diplomatic entity with Song China. Rajaraja Chola I (reigned 985 to 1014) and his son Rajendra Chola I (reigned 1014-42), who were from the Dravidian kingdom in southern India, sent out a great naval expedition that occupied parts of Myanmar, Malaya, and Sumatra. While many believe the Cholas were the first rulers noted to have a naval fleet in the Indian subcontinent, there are at least two evidences to cite use of navies. Narasimhavarman Pallava I transported his troops to Sri Lanka to help Manavarman to reclaim the throne. Shatavahanahas from early C.E. were known to possess a navy that they widely deployed to influenced South East Asia. What is not known is the extent of use. Some argue that there is no evidence to support naval warfare in a contemporary sense. Others say that ships routinely carried bands of archers to keep pirates at bay. However, since the Arabs were known to use catapults, naptha, and devices attached to ships to prevent boarding parties, one can resoanably conclude that Chola navies not only transported troops but also provided support, protection, and attack capabilities against enemy targets.
In the 12th century, China's first permanent standing navy was established by the Southern Song Dynasty, the headquarters of the Admiralty stationed at Ding-hai. This came about after the conquest of northern China by the Jurchen people (see Jin Dynasty) in 1127, while the Chinese court fled south from Kaifeng to Hangzhou. Equipped with the magnetic compass and knowledge of Shen Kuo's famous treatise (on the concept of true north), the Chinese became proficient experts of navigation in their day. They raised their naval strength from a mere 11 squadrons of 3,000 marines to 20 squadrons of 52,000 marines in a century's time. Employing paddle wheel crafts and trebuchet's throwing gunpowder bombs from the decks of their ships, the Chinese became a formidable foe to the Jin during the 12th-13th centuries. With a powerful navy, China dominated maritime trade throughout South East Asia as well. Until 1279, the Chinese were able to use their naval power to defend against the Jin to the north, until the Mongols finally conquered all of China. After the Song Dynasty, the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty of China was a powerful maritime force in the Indian Ocean. The Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan attempted to invade Japan twice with enormous fleets (comprised of both Mongols and Chinese), in 1274 and again in 1281, both attempts being unsuccessful (see Mongol invasions of Japan). Building upon the technological achievements of the earlier Chinese Song Dynasty, the Mongols also employed early cannons upon the decks of their ships.
In the 15th century, the Chinese Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He was assigned to assemble a massive fleet for several tributary missions abroad, sailing throughout the waters of the South East Pacific and the Indian Ocean. During his maritime missions, on several occasions Zheng's fleet came into conflict with pirates. Zheng's fleet also became involved in a conflict in Sri Lanka, where the King of Ceylon traveled back to Ming China afterwards to make a formal apology to the Emperor.
In the late 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi of Momoyama-era Japan gathered an enormous fleet to assault the Joseon Dynasty of Korea when the latter's monarch refused to allow Japanese armies to invade Ming Dynasty China via the Korean Peninsula as a staging ground. During the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), the Japanese employed clever close-range tactics on land with arquebus rifles (see Oda Nobunaga), but also relied upon close-range firing of muskets in grapple-and-board style naval engagements. The Japanese were successful in first capturing the Korean port at Busan, the capital at modern-day Seoul fell to their forces, and then proceeded to move far north into the Korean peninsula. Military aid sent by Chinese Wanli Emperor of Ming assisted the Koreans somewhat, but the farther firing range of Korean cannons, along with the brilliant naval strategies of the Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin, were the main detrimental factors in ultimate Japanese defeats. Admiral Yi effectively cut off the possible Japanese supply line that would have run through the Yellow Sea to China, as well as severely weakened the Japanese strength and fighting morale in several heated engagements (where many regard the most critical Japanese defeat to be the Battle of Hansando).
Sails and Empire
- Main article: Age of sail
The late Middle Ages was important as the time of the development of the cogs and caravels, ships capable of surviving the tough conditions of the open ocean, with enough backup systems and crew expertise to make long voyages routine. In addition, they grew from 100 tons to 300 tons displacement, enough to carry cannons as armament and still have space left over for profitable cargo. One of the largest ships of the time, the Great Harry displaced over 1,500 tons.
The voyages of discovery were fundamentally commercial rather than military in nature, although the line was sometimes blurry in that a country's ruler was not above funding exploration for personal profit, nor was it a problem to use military power to enhance that profit. Later the lines gradually separated, in that the ruler's motivation in using the navy was to protect private enterprise so that they could pay more taxes.
Like the Egyptian Shia-Fatimids and Mamluks, the Sunni-Islamic Ottoman Empire centered in modern-day Turkey dominated the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Ottoman Turks upheld a powerful navy, rivaling the Italian city-state of Venice during the Ottoman-Venetian Wars (1499-1503). Although they were sorely defeated in the Battle of Lepanto (1571) by the Holy League, the Ottomans quickly rebuilt their naval strength, and afterwards successfully defended the island of Cyprus so that it would stay in Ottoman hands. However, with the concurrent Age of Discovery, Europe had far surpassed the Ottoman Empire, and successfully bypassed their reliance on land-trade by discovering maritime routes around Africa and towards the Americas.
The first naval action in defense of the new colonies was just ten years after Vasco da Gama's epochal landing in India. In March 1508, a combined Gujerati/Egyptian force surprised a Portuguese squadron at Dabul, and only two Portuguese ships escaped. In the following February, the Portuguese viceroy destroys the allied fleet at Diu, thus confirming Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean.
In 1588, Philip II of Spain sent his Spanish Armada to subdue Elizabeth I of England, but Admiral Sir Charles Howard defeated and scattered the force, beginning the rise to prominence of the Royal Navy.
In the 17th century competition between English and Dutch commercial fleets came to a head in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the first wars to be conducted entirely at sea. Most memorable of these battles was the raid on the Medway, in which the Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter sailed up the river Thames, and destroyed most of the British fleet.
The 18th century developed into a period of seemingly continuous world wars, each larger than the last. At sea the British and French were bitter rivals; the French aided the fledgling United States in the American Revolutionary War, but their strategic purpose was to capture territory in India and the West Indies. In the Baltic Sea, the final attempt to revive the Swedish Empire led to Gustav III's Russian War, with its grande finale at the Second Battle of Svensksund. The battle was unrivalled in size until the 20th century, was a decisive Swedish tactical victory but its strategical result was poor (due to poor army performance and previous lack of initiative from the Swedes) and the war ended without any territorial changes.
Even the change of government due to the French Revolution seemed to intensify the rivalry rather than diminish it, and the Napoleonic Wars included a series of legendary naval battles, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, by which Admiral Horatio Nelson broke the power of the French and Spanish fleets, but lost his own life in so doing.
From Wood and Wind to Steel and Steam
Trafalgar ushered in the Pax Britannica of the 19th century, marked by general peace in the world's oceans, under the ensigns of the Royal Navy. But the period was one of intensive experimentation with new technology; steam power for ships appeared in the 1810s, improved metallurgy and machining technique produced larger and deadlier guns, and the development of explosive shells, capable of demolishing a wooden ship at a single blow, in turn required the addition of iron armour.
Although Chinese naval power during the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties established China as a major world seapower in the East, the Qing Dynasty lacked an official standing navy like earlier dynasties. They were more interested in pouring funds into military ventures closer to home (China proper), such as Mongolia, Tibet, and Central Asia (modern Xinjiang). However, there were some considerable naval conflicts during the Qing Dynasty before the Opium Wars (such as the Battle of Penghu, or the conflict against Koxinga). The insignificant naval effort that the Manchus/Chinese pitted against the more advanced British steam-powered ships during the first of the Opium Wars in the 1840s was sorely defeated. This left China open to virtual foreign domination (from European powers and then Japan) via spheres of influence over regions of China for economic gain.
The famous battle of the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor in the American Civil War was the duel of ironclads that symbolized the changing times. The first fleet action between ironclad ships was fought in 1866 at the Battle of Lissa between the navies of Austria and Italy. Because the decisive moment of the battle occurred when the Austrian flagship the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max successfully sank the Italian flagship Re d'Italia by ramming, in subsequent decades every navy in the world largely focused on ramming as the main tactic.
As the century came to a close, the familiar modern battleship began to emerge; a steel-armored ship, entirely dependent on steam, and sporting a number of large shell guns mounted in turrets arranged along the centerline of the main deck. The ultimate design was reached in 1906 with the Dreadnought which entirely dispensed with smaller guns, her main guns being sufficient to sink any existing ship of the time.
With the advent of the steamship, it became possible to create massive gun platforms and to provide them with very serious armor protection. The Dreadnought battleships and their successors were the first heavy capital ships that combined technology and firepower into a mobile weapons platform. However, in the first half of the 20th century, naval strategists and planners failed to take into account the effect of airpower on the effectiveness and usability of large capital ships, such as battleships.
World War I pitted the old Royal Navy against the new navy of Imperial Germany, culminating in the 1916 Battle of Jutland. (The future was heralded when seaplane carrier HMS Campania missed the battle.)
Between wars, the first aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, appeared. Many nations agreed to the Washington Naval Treaty and scrapped many of their battleships and cruisers while still in the shipyards, but the growing tensions of the 1930s restarted the building programs, with even larger ships than before; Yamato, the largest battleship ever, displaced 72,000 tons, and mounted 18.1-inch guns.
Above and below the surface
The victory of the Royal Navy at the Battle of Taranto was a pivotal point as this was the first true demonstration of naval air power.Following 7 December 1941 when the United States came into World War II, the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse marked the end of the era of the battleship, and the new importance of aircraft and their transportation, the aircraft carrier, came to the fore. During the Pacific War, battleships and cruisers spent most of their time bombarding shore positions, while the carriers were the stars of the key Battle of the Coral Sea, Battle of Midway, Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the climactic Battle of Leyte Gulf, which was the largest naval battle in history.
Just as important was the development of submarines to travel underneath the sea, at first for short dives, then later to be able to spend weeks or months underwater powered by a nuclear reactor. In both World Wars, submarines (U-boats in Germany) primarily exerted their power by sinking merchant ships using torpedoes, as well as other warships. In the 1950s the Cold War inspired the development of ballistic missile submarines, each one loaded with dozens of nuclear-armed missiles and with orders to launch them from sea should the other nation attack.
Three major naval conflicts took place in the second half of the 20th century, of which two pitted fleet against fleet. One was the well known Falklands War, pitting Argentina against the United Kingdom. The other took place 11 years earlier in 1971. It was the third and last of the Indo-Pakistani Wars, in which Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan with Indian assistance. The Falklands in particular showed the horrible vulnerability of modern ships to sea-skimming missiles like the Exocet. One hit from an Exocet sank HMS Sheffield, a modern anti-air warfare destroyer. Important lessons about ship design, damage control and ship construction materials were learnt from the conflict. The third major naval war took place between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988. It did not feature any large fleet battles, but it featured attacks on merchant ships as routine for the first time since 1945. It also featured the largest surface action since WWII, when United States Navy ships went after Iranian oil rigs to punish the Iranians for their actions in the war. Iranian naval vessels intervened, and Operation Praying Mantis resulted. At the present time, large naval wars seem to be very rare affairs, with the main function of the modern navy being to exploit its control of the seaways to project power ashore. Power projection has been the primary naval feature of conflicts like the Korean War, Suez Crisis, Vietnam War, Konfrontasi, Gulf War, Kosovo War and both campaigns of the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.