Types and Classes of Warships

Ever since the pre-historic craft made from animal skins to modern day gigantic nuclear powered aircraft carriers, Ships have always reflected the values and technologies of the societies that built them. Ancient traders of the Mediterranean built swift-sailing ships with large cargo holds, and their warring successors added oars to increase manoeuvrability in battle. The Spanish and Portuguese built small, seaworthy craft to carry their best sailors, exploring new lands.

‘The Day the World Changed’  was how the headlines proclaimed the appalling events of Nine Eleven 2001. Unconstrained by host-nation considerations, USS Enterprise was ready within 11 hours after the terrorist attacks to launch strikes against enemy positions had those been required. This amounted to a formidable striking power when added to the cruise missiles fired from surface ships and submarines. Let’s identify and comprehend these floating fighting units of the global navies.

According to historians the earliest ships appeared around 16,000 BC in Europe and perhaps earlier in Asia and Africa. The earliest representation of a ship under sail engraved on an Egyptian vase was from about 3500 BC, which consisted of a wooden framework covered with Papyrus reeds. The most able shipbuilders of ancient times were the Phoenicians and they constructed merchant vessels capable of carrying large consignments in between the colonies around the Mediterranean Sea.

In the 8th century BC Mediterranean shipbuilders’ incorporated Bireme and Triremes to a war galley built to accommodate levels, or banks of oarsmen. In the 9th century BC the Greeks armed the galley with a ram, a sharp spike that extended beyond the ship below the waterline, encased in bronze, the ram could be driven into an enemy vessel to disable or sink it. In the middle ages the Viking long ships dominated from the European waters to Mediterranean Sea.

By the 13th century the Cog had taken its place as the major cargo vessel in Northern Europe. Developed over many centuries, the Cog was clinker built like the Viking ships. It had raised structures at the bow, called the Fore-castle generally pronounced as Fo’cstle, and the stern, called the Stern-castle. These castles permitted sailors to hurl stones or spears and to shoot arrows downward at the enemy ships.

Throughout the next few centuries ships of sails evolved from strength to strength advancing from improved technology. Years of exploration, conquest and colonisation demanded speedier, larger and powerful ships. During this period we see, Carracks, Caravels, Galleons and East Indians plying the world ocean in trade and sea domination. It would be interesting to note that the three Caravels, namely the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta carried Columbus and his men to the Americas.

The broadside battle configuration earned the powerful warships to fight on the front lines of battle. Hence the name ‘Ships of the line’. From the 17th century, British warships were rated in six classes, according to the number of guns they carried. By size and guns they were rated Frigates, Sloops and Brigs. At the dawn of the machine age the iron clad ships and turtle ships fought in the American civil war.

As we have seen, the warships have changed considerably over the years, and every advantage of technological revolution has taken ship construction and its armament a step ahead. First the steam engine, then internal combustion, metallurgy, ballistics; all played a key role in evolution of men of war into the 20th Century. Next to armoured ships, the broadside gun was replaced by a centrally mounted turret, which could fire a heavier shell. Then came the discovery of torpedo that could hit a ship below her armour belt and sink her. These torpedoes were carried by small, fast boats and it was first called torpedo boat destroyer.

Well, that was a very brief history on the evolution of the warship. Let us now move from by gone days to the present day and recognise various types of Warships, which are classified by their Type and Class. The type indicates the purpose for which the ship was built and a displacement hierarchy, such as Destroyers, Frigates etc. Class distinguishes different group of ships within the same Type.

Modern warships are generally divided into seven main categories, and they are; Aircraft Carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers, Frigates, Corvettes, Submarines and Amphibious Assault Ships. Battleships encompass the eighth category, but are not in current service with any of the navies of the world, and only the decommissioned American Iowa class battleships still exist.

The type designations no longer reliably indicate a displacement hierarchy. The size of all vessel types has grown beyond the definitions used earlier in the 20th century. Most navies also include many types of support and auxiliary vessels, such as minesweepers, patrol boats and offshore patrol vessels. The type classification has prefix designated to describe the type. The pennant designation is assigned by the type and an individual pennant number given by the respective navy.

Let’s see the type designation of warships and sub categories. The pennant number is the individual identification of the ship and essential in administration and task organization. The pennant number should be conspicuously displayed on the ship and in most cases it will be either on bows or amidships and stern.



  1. That was very interesting Akram. I just sat down to have a pedicure done. A New Idea magazine was shoved into my hands and your web link came through at the same time. Guess which one I chose to read! Thank you for increasing my knowledge base 🙂


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