A combined task force which is apart of a larger navy

A navy is the branch of a country's military forces principally designated for naval warfare and amphibious warfare (marines) namely lake or ocean borne combat operations and related functions. It includes operations conducted by surface ships, amphibious ships, submarines, and seaborne aviation, as well as ancillary support, communications, training, and other fields; recent developments have included space related operations. The strategic offensive role of a Navy is projection of force into areas beyond a country's shores (for example, to protect sea-lanes, ferry troops, or attack other navies, ports, or shore installations). The strategic defensive purpose of a Navy is to frustrate sea-borne projection-of-force by enemies. The strategic task of the navy also may incorporate nuclear deterrence by use of nuclear missiles. This is not the case for every navy, however; some are just for defence, like Japan's navy which is part of the JDF (Japanese Defence Force).


Naval warfare first developed whenever humankind conducted fighting from sea-borne vessels. Prior to the introduction of the cannon and ships with sufficient capacity to carry the large guns, naval warfare primarily involved ramming and boarding actions. In the time of Ancient Greece and the Roman empire, naval warfare centred around long, narrow vessels powered by banks of oarsmen (such as triremes and quinqueremes) designed to ram and sink enemy vessels or come alongside the enemy vessel so its occupants could be attacked hand-to-hand. Naval warfare continued in this vein through the Middle Ages until cannon became commonplace and capable of being reloaded quickly enough to be reused in the same battle.

The mass and deck space required to carry a large number of cannon made oar-based propulsion impossible and ships came to rely primarily on sails. Warships were designed to carry increasing numbers of cannon and naval tactics evolved to bring a ship's firepower to bear in a broadside, with ships-of-the-line arranged in a line of battle.

The development of large capacity, sail powered ships carrying cannon led to a rapid expansion of European navies, especially the Spanish and Portuguese navies which dominated in the Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries, and ultimately helped propel the age of exploration and colonialism. The repulsion of the Spanish Armada (1588) by the Anglo-Dutch fleets revolutionised naval warfare by the success of a guns only strategy and caused a major overhaul of the Spanish navy, partly along English lines, which resulted in even greater dominance by the Spanish. From the beginning of the 17th century the Dutch began cannibalise the Portuguese empire in the East and, with the immense wealth gained, began to challenge Spanish hegemony at sea. From the 1620s, Dutch raiders began to seriously trouble Spanish shipping and, after a number of battles which went both ways, the Dutch navy finally broke the long dominance of the Spanish navy in the Battle of the Downs (1639).

England emerged as a major naval power in the mid-Seventeenth Century in the first Anglo-Dutch war with a technical victory but successive decisive Dutch victories in the second and third Anglo-Dutch wars confirmed the Dutch mastery of the seas during the Dutch Golden Age, financed by the expansion of the Dutch empire. The French navy did win some important victories near the end of the 17th century but a focus upon land forces led to the French navy's relative neglect which allowed the Royal navy to emerge with an ever growing advantage in size and quality, especially in tactics and experience, from 1695. Throughout the Eighteenth Century the Royal navy gradually gained ascendancy over the French navy, with victories in the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714), inconclusive battles in the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748), victories in the Seven Years' War (1754–1763), a partial reversal during the American War of Independence (1775–1783), and consolidation into uncontested supremacy during the Nineteenth Century from the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. These conflicts saw the development and refinement of tactics which came to be called the line of battle.

The next stage in the evolution of naval warfare was the introduction of metal plating along the hull sides. The increased mass required steam-powered engines, resulting in an arms race between armor thickness and firepower. The first armoured vessels, the French FS Gloire and British HMS Warrior, made wooden vessels obsolete. Another significant improvement came with the invention of the rotating turrets, which allowed the guns to be aimed independently of ship movement. The battle between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor during the American civil war is often cited as the beginning of this age of maritime conflict. A further step change in naval firepower occurred when the United Kingdom launched HMS Dreadnought in 1906, but naval tactics still emphasised the line of battle.

The first practical military submarines were developed in the late 1800s and by the end of WWI, they had proven to be a powerful arm of naval warfare. During WWII the German Navy's submarine fleet of U-boats almost starved the United Kingdom into submission and inflicted tremendous losses on US coastal shipping. The German battleship Tirpitz, a sister ship of the Bismarck, was almost put out of action by miniature submarines known as X-Craft. The X-craft severely damaged her and kept her in port for some months.

A major paradigm shift in naval warfare occurred with the introduction of the aircraft carrier. First at Taranto and then in Pearl Harbor, the aircraft demonstrated its ability to strike decisively at enemy ships out of sight and range of surface vessels. By the end of World War II, the carrier had become the dominant force of naval warfare, replacing the battleship.

By the late 20th Century, naval power had become a major element in the military and strategic power of a country's power projection capabilities, though some would suggest its importance has declined in the wake of the development of military aviation and air power. Many leading thinkers, however, suggest that navies are more important today than ever and may even surpass armies once again as the main measure of a nation's military might.

Contemporary naval forces[]

Naval tactics and strategy[]

Template:Main articles It is tempting to regard modern naval combat as the purest expression of tactics. This assumes there is no cover, there are no civilians and the area of combat is level and flat. This is not, however, the truth. The presence of land, changing water depths, weather, detection and electronic warfare, the dreadful speed at which actual combat occurs and other factors — especially air power — render naval tactics truly formidable. The basic idea of all tactics (land, sea and air) is fire and movement: the fulfillment of a mission by the effective delivery of firepower resulting from scouting and the creation 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 one's 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).

Since the end of the Cold War, and with the disappearance of the Cold War scenario, there has been a return of focus to ships being able to operate in more coastal environments, in support of operations such as amphibious landings, embargo enforcement, peacekeeping and coastal patrol. Traditionally, this has been the main focus of some of the smaller European navies, especially the Scandinavian navies, such as the Norwegian Navy and the Swedish Navy. But in recent years, faced with the new requirements, larger navies, notably the US Navy have started developing these capacities as well, by planning and constructing the Littoral Combat Ship. The US Navy has indicated it may procure as many as 60 such vessels.[1]

In recent times modern navies are increasingly investing in stealth ships. These ships have a low radar signature and are only detectable at short distances. This gives the ship a tactical edge in warfare.

Naval powers[]

Historically, naval powers have been those countries that have a long coastline and a strong economy. Nations that have a significant maritime trade economy have also had an incentive to protect their interests with a potent navy. However, a few nations that lacked a navy but were faced with an enemy that was a strong naval power, such as Rome during the Punic Wars, built a powerful navy from scratch.


Historically a national navy operates from one or more bases that are maintained by the country or an ally. The base is a port that is specialized in naval operations, and often includes housing for off-shore crew, an arsenal depot for munitions, docks for the vessels, and various repair facilities. During times of war temporary bases may be constructed in closer proximity to strategic locations, as it is advantageous in terms of patrols and station-keeping. Nations with historically strong naval forces have found it advantageous to obtain basing rights in areas of strategic interest.

Navy ships normally operate with a group, which may be a small squadron of comparable ships, or a larger naval fleet of various specialized ships. The commander of a fleet travels in the flag ship, which is usually the most powerful vessel in the group. Prior to the invention of radio, commands from the flag ship were communicated by means of flags. At night signal lamps could be used for a similar purpose. Later these were replaced by the radio transmitter, or the flashing light when radio silence was needed.

A "blue water navy" is designed to operate far from the coastal waters of its home nation. These are ships capable of maintaining station for long periods of time in deep ocean, and will have a long logistical tail for their support. Many are also nuclear powered to save having to refuel. By contrast a "brown water navy" operates in the coastal periphery and along inland waterways, where larger ocean-going naval vessels can not readily enter. Regional powers may maintain a "green water navy" as a means of localized force projection. Blue water fleets may require specialized vessels, such as mine sweepers, when operating in the littoral regions along the coast.


A basic tradition is that all ships commissioned in a navy are referred to as ships rather than vessels. The prefix on a ship's name indicates that it is a commissioned ship. For example, USS is an acronym which expands to United States Ship; in the British Navy, HMS expands to Her Majesty's Ship (or when a King reigns, His Majesty's Ship), and so forth.

An important tradition on board British naval vessels (and later those of the U.S. and other nations) has been the ship's bell. This was historically used to mark the passage of time on board a vessel, including the duration of four-hour watches. They were also employed as warning devices in heavy fog, and for alarms and ceremonies. The bell was originally kept polished first by the ship's cook, then later by a person belonging to that division of the ship's personnel.

Another important tradition is that of Piping someone aboard the ship. This was originally used to give orders on warships when shouted orders could not have been heard. The piping was done by the ship's bosun and therefore the instrument is known as the Bosun's Pipe. The two tones it gives and the number of blasts given off, signify the order given. It is also used in a ceremonial way, i.e., to "pipe" someone aboard the ship - usually captains, including the ship's captain, and more senior officers.

In the United States, in a tradition that dates back to the Revolutionary War, the First Navy Jack is a flag that has the words, "Don't Tread on Me" on the flag.

By European tradition, ships have been referred to as a "she". However, it was long considered bad luck to permit women to sail on board naval vessels. To do so would invite a terrible storm that would wreck the ship. The only women that were welcomed on board were figureheads mounted on the prow of the ship. In spite of these views, some women did serve on board naval vessels, usually as wives of crewmembers.

Even today, despite their acceptance in many areas of naval service, women are still not permitted to serve on board U.S. submarines. The major reasons cited by the U.S. Navy are the extended duty tours and close conditions which afford almost no privacy. [2] The UK Royal Navy has similar restrictions. Australia, Canada, Spain and Norway have opened submarine service to women sailors, however. [3]

By ancient tradition, corpses on board naval vessels were buried at sea. In the past this involved sewing the body up in a shroud that had a weight at one end, often a cannonball. (During the age of sail, the final stitch was placed through the nose of the victim, just to make sure they were really dead.) The body was then placed on a pivoting table attached to the outer hull, and shrouded by a national ensign. After a solemn ceremony, the board was tilted and the body dropped into the deep. Later ceremonies employed the casket or crematory urn.

The custom of firing cannon salutes originated in the British Royal Navy. When a cannon is fired, it partially disarms the ship, so firing a cannon for no combat reason showed respect and trust. The British, as the dominant naval power, compelled the ships of weaker nations to make the first salute. As the tradition evolved, the number of cannons fired became an indication of the rank of the official being saluted.

Naval organisation[]

Navy ships[]

Historically, navy ships were primarily intended for warfare. They were designed to withstand damage and to inflict the same, but only carried munitions and supplies for the voyage (rather than merchant cargo). Often, other ships which were not built specifically for warfare, such as the galleon or the armed merchant ships in World War II, did carry armaments. In more recent times, navy ships have become more specialized and have included supply ships, troop transports, repair ships, oil tankers and other logistics support ships as well as combat ships. So long as they are commissioned, however, they are all "ships".

Modern navy combat ships are generally divided into seven main categories. The categories are: Aircraft Carriers, Battleships, Cruisers, Destroyers, Frigates, Submarines, and Amphibious assault ships. There are also support and auxiliary ships, including the minesweeper, patrol boat, and tender. During the age of sail, the ship categories were divided into the ship of the line, frigate, and sloop-of-war.

Naval ship names are typically prefixed by an abbreviation indicating the national navy in which they serve. For a list of the prefixes used with ship names. (HMS, USS, &c.)

On another note, ships of WWII were much slower than today. The average speed was about 15-20 knots. However, today ships can easily reach 25 knots, thanks to much improved propulsion systems. Also, the efficiency of the engines have improved a lot, in terms of fuel, and of how many sailors it takes to operate them. In WWII, ships needed to refuel very often. However, today ships can go on very long journeys without refueling. Also, in WWII, the engine room needed about a dozen sailors to work the many engines, however, today, only about 4-5 are needed (depending on the class of the ship). Today, naval strike groups on longer missions are always followed by a range of support and replenishment ships supplying them with anything from fuel and munitions, to medical treatment and postal services. This allows strike groups and combat ships to remain at sea for several months at a time.

Navy units[]

Naval forces are typically arranged into units based on the number of ships included, a single ship being the smallest operational unit. Ships may be combined into squadrons or flotillas, which may be formed into fleets. The largest unit size may be the whole Navy or Admiralty.

Naval ranks[]

A navy will typically have two sets of ranks, one for enlisted personnel and one for officers.

Typical enlisted ranks include the following, in ascending order:

  • Seaman Recruit
  • Seaman Apprentice
  • Seaman
  • Petty Officer Third Class
  • Petty Officer Second Class
  • Petty Officer First Class
  • Chief Petty Officer
  • Senior Chief Petty Officer
  • Master Chief Petty Officer (Petty Officers (PO) and Chief Petty Officers (CPO) are equivalent to Non-Commissioned Officers, or NCOs, in other services)
  • Chief Petty Officer

Within the U.S. Navy, sailors are more commonly referred to by their "rating," which indicates both their rank and job specialty (for example, "BT3 Jones" for "Boiler Technician 3rd Class Jones").

Warrant Officers, (WO) including Chief Warrant Officers (CWO), are senior to enlisted sailors and junior to commissioned Officers. The United States draws its Warrant Officers from the enlisted ranks. Warrant Officers serve in more technical positions than commissioned Officers.

  • Midshipmen are officers in training, such as at the US Naval Academy. They have not yet received their commission.

Typical ranks for commissioned officers include the following, in ascending order (U.S. ranks are listed first on each line):

  • Ensign / Corvette Lieutenant
  • Lieutenant Junior Grade / Sub Lieutenant / Frigate Lieutenant
  • Lieutenant / Warship Lieutenant / Lieutenant Captain
  • Lieutenant Commander / Corvette Captain
  • Commander / Frigate Captain
  • Captain / Warship Captain
  • Rear Admiral (lower half) / Commodore / Flotilla Admiral
  • Rear Admiral (upper half) / Rear Admiral
  • Vice Admiral
  • Admiral
  • Fleet Admiral or Admiral of the Fleet or Grand Admiral

"Flag officers" include any rank that includes the word "admiral" (or commodore), and are generally in command of a battle group or similar flotilla of shipss, rather than a single ship or aspect of a ship. However, commodores can also be temporary positions. For example, during World War II, a Navy captain was assigned duty as a convoy commodore, which meant that he was still a captain, but in charge of all the merchant vessels in the convoy.

For the Canadian Navy the ranks are as follows (in ascending order):

Non-Commissioned Members:

  • Ordinary Seaman (OS)
  • Able Seaman (AB)
  • Leading Seaman (LS)
  • Master Seaman (MS)

Non-Commissioned Officers:

  • Petty Officer 2nd Class (PO2)
  • Petty Officer 1st Class (PO1)
  • Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class (CPO2)
  • Chief Petty Officer 1st Class (CPO1)


  • Naval Cadet
  • Acting Sub-Lieutenant
  • Sub-Lieutenant
  • Lieutenant
  • Lieutenant Commander
  • Commander
  • Captain

Flag Officers:

  • Commodore
  • Rear Admiral
  • Vice Admiral
  • Admiral

For the Royal Navy the ranks are as follows (in ascending order):


  • Able Rate
  • Leading Rate

Senior Ratings and Warrant Officers

  • Petty Officer
  • Chief Petty Officer
  • Warrant Officer 2
  • Warrant Officer


  • Midshipman
  • Sub-Lieutenant
  • Lieutenant
  • Lieutenant-Commander
  • Commander
  • Captain

Flag Officers:

  • Commodore
  • Rear-Admiral
  • Vice-Admiral
  • Admiral
  • Admiral of the Fleet - only used in times of war. The position is currently vacant.

Marine troops[]

During the era of the Roman empire, the naval forces included legionaries for boarding actions. These were troops primarily trained in land warfare, and did not need to be skilled at handling a ship. Much later during the age of sail, a component of marines served a similar role, being ship-borne soldiers who were used either during boarding actions, as sharp-shooters, or in raids along the shore. Eventually the Marine Corps became a separate arm in the United States, with their own equipment. However the U.S. Navy SEALs and the British Royal Marines now serve a similar function, being a ship-based force specially trained in commando-style operations and tactics. The Royal Marines also have their own special forces similar to that of the SAS: the SBS (Special Boat Service) or The Boat Troop; and the Mountain Troop.

Example Navies[]

Additional reading[]


  1. The Royal Navy of Britain was once the greatest navy in the world before the Vietnam War. Now is has been overtaken by the United States Navy.

External links[]

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