Warship classification systems

There have been a couple articles over the past few years complaining about the quite useless warship classification systems. Big and small carriers with totally different capabilities are being lumped together as "aircraft carrier" when people talk about them loosely, while the official classifications can be as ludicrous as helicopter destroyer.

Europeans often call a warship of theirs a "frigate" when they could just as well call it "destroyer".

The list of inadequacies is long, and it's entirely believable that the classification system(s) serve little purpose. They don't inform politicians and taxpayers well, for sure.

Some alternative classification systems have been proposed, often oriented at size or inspired by a pre-19th century system for ranking ships of the line by the quantity of their guns.
Symbol picture*
None of these proposals have convinced me so far. The only classification system which appears to be intuitive and have information value is in my opinion is the one in widespread unofficial use: Distinguishing warships by the focus of their capabilities or tasks.

A division of warship classes into
AAW (anti aircraft warfare; ships with a good area air defence capability),
ASW (anti submarine warfare, typically with powerful sonar and helicopter component), 
GP (general purpose),
mine countermeasures,
coastal attack craft (missile boats, coastal corvettes) and
OPV (offshore patrol vessel)

appears to be quite intuitive and informative.

Submarines are different; their big division is between nuclear and conventional, and this stems mostly from the nuclear subs' ability to deploy much quicker from one region to another and the conventional subs' ability to be practically noiseless. The difference between conventional with or without air independent propulsion (AIP) as well as the difference between nuclear-powered subs of the 'attack' and 'ballistic missile' varieties is rather small nowadays. Both pairs appear to consist of subs which are largely interchangeable for post-Cold War missions. A difference such as the equipment with submarine-to-surface missiles or not is of greater interest than the difference between conventional subs with or without AIP in my opinion.

I see no really informative classification system for carriers, albeit one could divide carriers into small ("light", "CVL"), big (or CVB) and amphibious ones. The current diversity of carrier classifications is so great that we're not far from assigning every carrier class its own.
One might consider calling them ACsomething (aircraft carrier ...), for "carrier" might become a handy term if mothership concepts become more popular in the future and I have a feeling that navies run by old admirals won't like to call their precious ships 'mother'-anything.

The inadequacy of the classification systems which have grown and diversified over more than a century of warship novelties ("destroyer" goes back to "torpedoboat destroyer"!) isn't only a nuisance to naval enthusiasts with too much idle time.

As mentioned before, there's some reason to complain about the lack of information value for the public. Few newspaper or TV news journalists convey the impression that they understand what a particular warship class can do or shall do, save for the difference between carriers, surface ships and subs. How could the public or the media keep an eye on military spending if even a rudimentary idea of what the billion dollar ship is capable of or meant to do is absent? A more informative classification system which is intuitive enough to not offend the taste of all people interested in naval stuff  is likely overdue.

Classification systems like "Warship 1st class, 2nd class ..." and similar are not going to be any improvement, though.

S Ortmann

*: One of the confusing things about the human mind is that actually rather distracting symbol pictures make long texts much more pleasant to read. This pic came up when I looked for "beautiful warship".


  1. you might want to look into soviet/russian classifications , a´la BDK - big landing ship, MDK small landing ship, large anti-submarine ship etc. these are somewhat more informative?


  2. lol Anon, not when their carriers are called "aircraft carrying missile cruisers" :)

    BTW, CV (Big)'s common nomenclature is either just CV or CVA (Attack Carriers)

    1. There's also CVN, but the nuclear drive is actually of little interest since no navy has nuclear-powered surface escorts any more and the air wing guzzles a lot of kerosene anyway.

      The difference between CV/CVA and CVN is mostly in procurement costs and whether certain countries will allow you to enter their ports.

      The USN ceased to use "CVA" just as it ceased to use "CVB":

    2. The descriptive Soviet system was actually very fitting, and in the case of Kuznetsov described the ships capabilities and intended role much better than the generic and old-fashioned term of "aircraft carrier". It actually was an aircraft carrying missile cruiser, nothing more, nothing less.

  3. I have often wondered about whether or not it is time for a revival of the monitor, I.E, an armored shore bombardment vessel. No navys today have a strong NGFS capability, all they have are billion dollar destroyers or cruisers, with a single 5 inch gun and no armor plating. While I realise that you see no significant role for shore bombardment (at least, not one that would tie in with your defensive mindset), this is a topic that deserves some attention! I'm surprised that the boys at think defense haven't covered this.

    1. It's misleading to speak of naval gunfire support (NGFS). This term is too invasion-centric and stems from old USMC-centric discussions.

      Naval gunfire can also be used in raids, to strike when air power is not capable of accomplishing the same mission. The raid of the IJN against Henderson Field (13/14 Oct 1942), for example.

    2. " No navys today have a strong NGFS capability, all they have are billion dollar destroyers or cruisers, with a single 5 inch gun and no armor plating."

      This sounds more like historical nostalgia than practical relevance. Whats the point? Provocatively put, for the opponent and threat environment, where you would require massive shore bombardment, no platform would survive in the littorals for very long, and for the opponent, who cannot threaten your fire-support platforms at sea, you do not need these assets in the first place.

      A stand-off platform (arsenal ship, SSGN, anything, that can fire your stand-off ordinance really) has no need for strong hull plating (its actually a disadvantage, since it makes it slow or expensive or both).

      No requirement, hence no attention. Strictly IMO.


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