Naval Development: The Age of Propulsion Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Warships have proliferated since the 1850’s, in size, number, and type.

Nature and Use

Warships have proliferated since the 1850’s, in size, number, and type. In the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered warships replaced sailing ships as the main element of naval forces, screened by smaller frigates. The battleship emerged as iron replaced wood in the 1860’s, and large-caliber guns were increasingly employed. Battleships and cruisers dominated late nineteenth century naval warfare. In the twentieth century, the development of submarines, torpedo boats, destroyers, aircraft, aircraft carriers, nuclear power, and guided weapons influenced naval warfare.Naval warfare;propulsion ageWarships;propulsion ageNaval warfare;propulsion ageShips and shipbuilding;propulsion ageWarships;propulsion age

DevelopmentNaval Technology Prior to 1850

The 1850’s marked a turning point in the development of naval warfare technologies. Up until this time wood had remained the building material of choice, and most warships relied on sail power. The few Steam-powered ships[steam powered ships]steam-powered vessels in existence were propelled by fragile and vulnerable side paddle wheels. Although they improved upon sailing vessels, paddle Paddle wheelswheel steamers had several problems. The externally mounted paddle wheels were susceptible to battle damage, and their drive machinery, high above the waterline, was vulnerable. The side paddles also took up a large portion of the side space, limiting the number of broadside weapons a vessel could carry. Also, only the portion of the paddle wheel that was in the water provided drive, wasting a large portion of the available power.

Mid-Nineteenth Century Naval Innovations

Within a decade, however, several technical developments transformed naval warfare. First, improved machinery was built to move new, propeller-driven ships. Propellers offered several advantages over paddle wheels. The propellers, below the waterline, were out of the line of direct enemy fire, as were the engines and boilers. Without large side paddles, steam-powered ships could carry additional broadside guns. In contrast to that of the partly submerged paddle wheel, all of the propeller’s turning motion moved the ship.

Second, Ironclad shipsiron began to replace wood in ship construction. Iron offered additional protection against ever-increasing gun calibers while allowing the construction of larger vessels than wood permitted. The use of iron as a building material stemmed from British and French experiments during the Crimean Crimean War (1853-1856);shipsWar (1853-1856), when both countries built floating armored batteries to bombard Russian positions. The shift from wood to iron as a construction material occurred in 1860, when the French commissioned La Gloire (first ironclad ship) La Gloire, a traditional wooden ship with an armored exterior, considered the world’s first seagoing ironclad. Concerned for its naval supremacy, the British in the same year launched HMS Warrior, HMS Warrior and HMS Black Black Prince, HMS Prince, frigates constructed entirely of iron, and also converted several wooden ships of the line into ironclads. A year later, the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-1865) promoted the use of ironclads. The Confederacy utilized many ironclad ships in an attempt to break the Union blockade, beginning with the CSS Virginia, CSS Virginia, a casement monitor built upon the burned hulk of a Union warship. The Virginia’s initial success was countered by the arrival of the USS Monitor, USS Monitor, the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad. Fighting to a draw, the March 9, 1862, clash between the Monitor and the Virginia was the first between armored Armored warships warships. Union ironclads appeared in increasing numbers throughout the war, as monitors to control southern rivers, as larger coastal ironclads, and as a single attempt at an oceangoing iron warship, the USS New New Ironsides, USS Ironsides. The Confederacy, with limited resources, produced few ironclads but used them with good effect to block many Union naval efforts.

Capital Ships and Cruisers

The CSS Alabama, during a battle with the USS Kearsage, was sunk off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in 1864 at the height of the U.S. Civil War.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Between 1865 and the end of the nineteenth century, naval warfare changed relatively little. With few naval battles to test technological developments, all the major navies followed a similar line of development. The dimensions and displacement of capital ships, or the most powerful ships in world navies, continued to grow at a generally even pace as armor grew thicker to defeat larger and larger naval guns. By the 1880’s, navies generally consisted of two types of ships: capital Capital shipsships, which formed the main battle line, and Cruiserscruisers, which policed overseas colonial holdings. Both types of ship had generally similar characteristics. BattleshipsBattleships with heavy armor typically carried four main-battery Guns;on ships[ships]guns, generally in the 10- to 13-inch caliber range, backed by a secondary battery in the 4- to 6-inch caliber range. Some battleships, particularly the early American vessels, carried an 8-inch-caliber intermediate Battery gunsbattery. The profusion of guns resulted from a shortcoming in fire control. The only means to estimate range on the featureless ocean was to observe the splash caused when shells landed in the ocean. Because shell splashes of various calibers looked the same at long range, ships had to be relatively close before accurate shooting from the main-caliber guns could begin. At these close ranges, the smaller guns came into play. Cruisers, optimized for long range, carried only light armor and a main battery in the 5- to 6-inch caliber category. Both types of warships used increasingly complex reciprocating machinery, with steam created in boilers forced through a piston engine to turn the propeller shaft, a noisy, complex, and relatively fragile means of propulsion.

Among the major navies, only the French followed a separate policy. Clearly unable to match England’s industrial capacity, the French navy opted for a wartime strategy of Guerre de course (French strategy)guerre de course, or preying upon an enemy’s seaborne commerce in lieu of a major fleet action. This strategy emerged from the success enjoyed by the small number of Confederate commerce raiders during the American Civil War American Civil War (1861-1865) (1861-1865). Although they were few in number, the Confederate raiders sank many Union merchant ships, drove up insurance rates, and diluted Union seapower. Unable to match the British in a building contest, the French followed the Confederate example to combat English numerical superiority. To achieve its wartime objectives, the French navy relied not on battleships but on large numbers of commerce-raiding cruisers.

Late Nineteenth Century Naval Innovations

At the end of the nineteenth century, however, additional technological advances further changed warship development. The creation of advanced optical range Range finders on shipsfinders vastly increased the accuracy of large-caliber guns, dramatically increasing the expected battle range. The demand for additional speed led to the adoption of turbine machinery that replaced the large piston engines with fan blades attached directly to the drive shaft, eliminating tons of machinery while increasing reliability. Although they were initially coal-fired, boilers of turn-of-the-century Dreadnoughtsdreadnoughts burned fuel oil with the advantage of better fuel economy and ease of transfer. Lastly, armor plate became smaller and stronger when alloy steel, especially the carbon steel developed by the German Krupp firm, replaced wrought iron.

In 1862, the American Civil War witnessed the first battle of armored warships: the Union’s Monitor (right), the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad, and the Confederacy’s Virginia.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

In a revolutionary leap in capital ship development, all of these developments were combined in HMS Dreadnought, HMS Dreadnought, launched by the British in 1906. The Dreadnought featured ten 12-inch guns, aimed by newly advanced rangefinders and backed only by a few light weapons. Unburdened by smaller guns, Dreadnought carried extensive side belt and interior deck armor. It was the first capital ship to be fitted with turbine propulsion, enjoying a significant speed advantage over its foreign rivals. In theoretical wargames, British officers believed the Dreadnought to be the equal of three mixed-caliber battleships. Dreadnought represented such a huge leap forward in technology that the ship gave its name to its own type of warship: All subsequent battleships became known as dreadnoughts, and all previous capital ships were termed pre-dreadnoughts. The firepower concentrated in these ships prompted a building spree throughout the industrialized world, as navies sought an edge in military power and national prestige in the form of dreadnought battleships. German dreadnought construction triggered a naval arms race with Great Britain that led directly to World War World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];naval power I (1914-1918). Even small navies, such as those of Austria-Hungary, Argentina, and Chile, emptied their national treasuries to build dreadnoughts. Technological advances also allowed for a different type of capital ship in 1907, when the British unveiled HMS Invincible, HMS Invincible, the first battle Battle cruisers cruiser. Designed to operate as a reconnaissance force for the dreadnought battle fleet, battle cruisers were dreadnoughts that sacrificed armor protection for additional speed. In practice, however, a few knots of speed could not protect the battle cruisers from other capital ships, and the British lost three battle cruisers within a few hours on May 31, 1916, at the Battle of Jutland, Battle of (1916) Jutland.

Naval Weapons Development

At the same time that technology accelerated capital ship development, other technical breakthroughs threatened the battleship’s dominance in naval warfare. Naval Mines;navalmines, first used in large numbers during the American Civil War, increased in explosive power and sophistication. The development of aircraft led to the use of battleships as reconnaissance platforms, with some early theorists speculating that airpower had rendered battleships obsolete. The Torpedoestorpedo, however, emerged as the biggest threat to the capital ship, while causing a proliferation in warship types. A single, well-placed torpedo could sink the largest battleship, and swarms of small, cheap torpedo Torpedo boatsboats threatened the existence of large battle fleets. The torpedo was even more of a threat when delivered by the Submarinessubmarine. First perfected in the United States, the submarine approached its target by stealth, defeating all defensive measures. Submarines also proved outstanding commerce hunters, and hundreds of British merchant ships fell victim to German submarines, the dreaded U-boats[U boats]U-boats, during World War I. The answer to the torpedo boat and submarine threat was the Destroyersdestroyer. A small, multipurpose warship, the destroyer was fast enough to hunt down and destroy torpedo boats while delivering its own torpedo attack to enemy capital ships. The destroyer’s maneuverability and speed also suited it to hunt submarines.

A 1902 schematic of the world’s principal navies.

(Premier Publishing Co.)
Post-World War I Naval Innovations

After World War I, naval technology expanded into wider fields, particularly after a naval limitation treaty signed at the Washington Naval Conference (1921-1922)Washington Naval Conference in 1922 restricted capital ship construction. Unable to build new battleships, the major navies applied advances in technology to update existing capital ships: converting them to fuel oil, adding exterior bulges to counter torpedoes, and mounting antiaircraft Guns;antiaircraftguns to ward off attacking airplanes. Although they were denied new battleships, navies faced no restrictions on other types of warships. Improved torpedoes fired from larger submarines greatly enhanced the impact of both weapons. Intended for fleet reconnaissance, the larger submarines with greater range developed into deadly commerce raiders in World War II (1939-1945). Technology also promoted the use ofAircraft;navalaircraft in naval warfare. From their origin as a reconnaissance tool, aircraft developed into offensive weapons thanks to new weapons such as the airdropped torpedo and bombs delivered by horizontal Dive-bombers[Dive bombers]dive-bombers. The significance of naval airpower increased when several navies introduced the aircraft Aircraft carrierscarrier in the 1920’s. The United States, Great Britain, and Japan began with makeshift vessels such as the USS Langley, USS Langley, converted from a collier, or coalship, and progressed to larger, dedicated carrier construction, beginning with HMS Hermes, HMS Hermes in 1923. Carrier construction also benefited from the 1922 Washington Treaty by permitting the United States and Japan to convert battle cruisers canceled under the terms of the treaty, such as the USS Lexington, USS Lexington and the Akagi (ship) Akagi, into aircraft carriers. These large ships, capable of carrying more than one hundred aircraft, gave the United States and Japan;navy Japan operational experience in large-scale carrier operations that both nations used to devastating effect in World War II.

The British ship HMS Dreadnought in 1909.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
World War II Naval Innovations

NavalWorld War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval powerwarfare changed dramatically in World War II, as the stresses of war pushed technology to its limit. The most significant operational change caused by the war was the shift in emphasis as the aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the primary capital ship. The range and flexibility of aircraft, coupled with the high-profile loss of many battleships early in the war, forced the combatants to rely on carrier airpower in lieu of battleships. This is especially true in the Pacific, where fast, wide-ranging carriers, with their ability to destroy both naval targets and inland enemy positions, proved a much more useful weapon. Airpower also benefited from the American capacity to mass-produce warships. Although the Americans and British had mass-produced small antisubmarine vessels in World War I, the rapid production of all types of warships in World War II transformed the scale of naval warfare. In addition to smaller ships, American shipyards churned out hundreds of destroyers, dozens of cruisers, and a plethora of aircraft carriers. These carriers ranged in size from the 35,000-ton Essex-class fleet carriers and the 15,000-ton Independence-class light carriers to the more than one hundred small escort carriers in the 10,000- to 12,000-ton category. In comparison, the British and Japanese produced only a fraction of America’s naval output, while Germany, France, and Italy produced relatively few ships in wartime. The one exception was Germany’s submarine production. The German navy’s reliance on U-boats to combat British naval supremacy led to the production of approximately 1,100 submarines during the war, most of which were destroyed by the Allies. Although the primary German fleet submarine was little more advanced than its World War I counterpart, late-war U-boats contained many advanced features. These advanced submarines featured advanced hull forms for high underwater speed, advanced peroxide fuel cells, and snorkels for submerged recharging of the batteries. Fortunately for the Allies, these vessels emerged too late in the war to change its outcome.

In response to the German U-boat threat, the Allies promoted the use of electronic warfare to detect the Submarines;World War II[World War 02]submarines. The British development of sonar between the wars proved invaluable during World War II, as did other detection methods. High-frequency direction High-frequency direction finding[High frequency direction finding]finding (HFDF, often called “huff duff”) allowed the Allies to exploit the large amount of radio traffic needed to coordinate the massed German submarine attacks, the famous “wolf Wolf packs (German submarines)Germany;naval powerpacks.” The Allies were able to divert convoys away from danger areas and to attack the U-boats with antisubmarine aircraft by triangulating the wolf packs’ radio transmissions to find their locations. Radar;antisubmarineRadar, usually associated with land-based air defense, also permitted aircraft to become potent antisubmarine weapons. Because they ranged over a much wider area than did slower surface ships, aircraft could use radar successfully, even at night, to detect and attack surfaced U-boats. The Germans attempted to counter Allied radar with a radar-detecting device known as Metox (radar-detecting device)Metox, a primitive form of electronic countermeasure that proved ineffective against more advanced British radar sets.

Guided Weapons Development

The USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine, surfaces at Portsmouth, England.

(Library of Congress)

The major German weapons development of World War II was guided Guided weaponsweapons. The Germans developed the first effective acoustic homing torpedo, which guided itself to its target, a ship, by the sound the ship generated. The weapon had little influence because it proved easy to decoy, and the Allies captured an example of the weapon and soon produced their own antisubmarine version. The German-developed antiship missiles, however, had a much bigger impact. Carried into the battle area by a German bomber, the FX-1400 FX-1400 missile[fx fourteen]missile flew under command guidance to its target, with an observer in the launch aircraft maneuvering the missile via joystick controls. The weapon menaced the Allied landings at Anzio in September of 1943, damaging the British battleship HMS Warspite, HMS Warspite and the U.S. cruiser USS Savannah, USS Savannah. Italian battleships, steaming out to surrender to the Allies on September 9, came under attack from the missile; the battleship Roma (ship) Roma was sunk, and the Italia (ship) Italia was severely damaged. The Allied development of electronic Jamming jamming, however, reduced the later impact of the weapon.

Naval Aircraft and Personnel Carriers

Specialized amphibious warfare ships represented the final major development during World War II. The conflict marked the first time that large-scale invasions came from the sea, and specialized landing craft emerged to carry troops onto enemy shores. The craft ranged from small personnel carriers to the utilitarian landing ship Landing ship tanks (LSTs)tank (LST), often referred to by their crews as “large slow target,” which came directly onto the beach. The immense landing ship dock (LSD) was capable of carrying other landing craft into the invasion area. In dozens of landings in the Pacific and Europe, the Allied navies perfected their ability to mass and deliver thousands of men and tons of matériel. During the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944, D day (June 6, 1944)D day, the Americans and British landed 100,000 men. Operation Operation Olympic (World War II)Olympic, the anticipated American invasion of Japan, envisioned the landing of more than one-half million men in the opening attack.

In the postwar era, navies struggled to incorporate many of the technological advances and weapons introduced during World War II. With the exception of the United States, the world navies relegated their battleships to the scrap yard as the aircraft carrier maintained its position as the primary capital ship. Two requirements caused a surge in the size of new American carrier construction. First, heavier jet aircraft, introduced at the end of the war, needed longer takeoff and landing spaces than wartime carriers permitted. Second, wary of losing its influence to the new U.S. Air Air forces;U.S.Force, the U.S. Navies;U.S.Navy demanded larger carriers capable of accommodating large carrier-based nuclear bombers. The first of these postwar carriers emerged in 1954 when USS Forrestal, USS Forrestal, the first of the Aircraft carriers supercarriers, was launched. Specially designed to operate jet aircraft, with British-developed steam catapults, arresting gear, and an angled landing deck, Forrestal and subsequent Supercarriers supercarriers formed the backbone of American naval strength. The massive supercarriers, more than 1,000 feet long and displacing more than 80,000 tons, pushed the limits of fuel-oil propulsion, leading to the construction of several nuclear-powered carriers: USS Enterprise, USS Enterprise in the 1960’s and the Nimitz class of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Nuclear power freed the carriers from any real speed constrictions and reduced the amount of logistic support needed by obviating the need for oilers.

Nuclear Nuclear weapons and warfare;submarinesSubmarines;nuclearpower, however, had the biggest impact on submarine construction, beginning with the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, USS Nautilus, in 1954. Nuclear power plants permitted the construction of the first true submarines. Non-nuclear submarines are properly Submersibles submersibles–vessels capable of submerging that actually spend most of their time on the surface, recharging their electrical batteries. Nuclear-powered submarines, however, can stay submerged indefinitely, limited only by crew fatigue, because water and oxygen are two of the by-products of their nuclear reactors. The postwar development of guided weapons led to two classifications of nuclear submarines. Attack submarines perform the traditional submarine missions: attacking surface ships and hunting other attack submarines. The threat of fast attack submarines became so acute, postwar surface vessels incorporated helicopter facilities into their design, as only aircraft could hope to counter the faster submarines. Ballistic-missile submarines, carrying long-range guided ballistic Ballistic missiles Missiles;ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, act as a last line of nuclear Deterrence deterrence. The first ballistic-missile submarine, the USS George George Washington, USS Washington, was commissioned in 1959. The Soviet, British, French, and Chinese navies followed suit with their own ballistic-missile submarines. One type of these submarines, the Russian Typhoon submarines Typhoon, is, at 26,000 tons displacement, the largest submarine in the world.

Postwar Naval Innovations

In the postwar era, electronic systems continued to proliferate, and modern warships were festooned with antennas and radar dishes. Contemporary warships feature electronic radar, sonar, electronic countermeasures, communications, fire control, and intelligence-gathering facilities, all considered necessary for modern naval warfare. The miniaturization of electronics also led to the replacement of guns with missiles as the main naval armament in the postwar era. Antishipping Missiles;antishippingmissiles, with a far greater range than that of the largest battleship battery, began to replace naval guns in the 1960’s. The Soviet Union in particular embraced antiship missiles fired from swarms of small attack boats and long-range bombers to counter the United States’ massive naval presence. Many smaller navies acquired inexpensive antiship missiles, such as the French Exocet missilesExocet or the American Harpoon missileHarpoon, to offset numerical deficiencies. For defense against this threat, warships acquired radar-guided, rapid-fire guns. In the air defense role, surface-to-air Surface-to-air missiles[surface to air]missiles replaced massed batteries of antiaircraft guns beginning in the late 1950’s, when the guns could no longer defeat the fast-moving Missiles;surface-to-air[surface to air]jets.

A final feature of naval development in the postwar era is the proliferation of the multipurpose ship. Due to the high cost of new technology, most navies can no longer afford specialized warships, and small, cheap, multipurpose frigates have come to form the backbone of most navies. Only major navies can afford such expensive items as aircraft carriers, amphibious warships, and dedicated antiaircraft cruisers.Naval warfare;propulsion ageShips and shipbuilding;propulsion ageWarships;propulsion age

Books and Articles
  • Baer, George W. One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.
  • Friedman, Norman. The Postwar Naval Revolution. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1986.
  • Gardiner, Robert, ed. The Eclipse of the Big Gun: The Warship, 1906-1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
  • _______. Navies in the Nuclear Age: Warships Since 1945. Edison, N.J.: Chartwell Books, 2001.
  • _______. Steam, Steel, and Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815-1905. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
  • Henry, Mark R. The U.S. Navy in World War II. Illustrated by Ramiro Bujeiro. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2002.
  • Hutchinson, Robert. Jane’s Submarines: War Beneath the Waves from 1776 to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
  • Mindell, David A. War, Technology, and Experience Aboard the “USS Monitor. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
  • Polmar, Norman. Historic Naval Aircraft: From the Pages of “Naval History” Magazine. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2004.
  • Poolman, Kenneth. The Winning Edge: Naval Technology in Action. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
  • Roberts, John. The Battleship Dreadnought: Anatomy of a Warship. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
  • Rose, Lisle Abbott. Power at Sea. 3 vols. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.
  • Schultz, Richard H., Jr., and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., eds. The Role of Naval Forces in Twenty-first Century Operations. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2000.
  • Sondhaus, Lawrence. Navies in Modern World History. London: Reaktion, 2004.
  • _______. Navies of Europe: 1815-2002. Harlow, England: Longman, 2002.
  • Tangredi, Sam J., ed. Globalization and Maritime Power. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2002.
  • Wertheim, Eric. The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World: Their Ships, Aircraft, and Systems. 15th ed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2007.
Films and Other Media
  • Air Power at Sea. Documentary. National Syndications, 1998.
  • Battleships. Documentary. A&E Television Networks, 1998.
  • Carrier: Fortress at Sea. Documentary. Discovery Channel, 1996.
  • The Ironclads. Documentary. A&E Home Video, 1997.
  • Sea of Honor: The U.S. Navy Story, 1775-1945. Documentary. Entertainment Distributing, 1996.
  • Seapower: The History of Naval Warfare from Ancient to Modern Times. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 2000.
  • Struggle for the Seas. Documentary. Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1995.

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