It’s no secret that science fiction tends to borrow pretty vigorously from history, this goes double for any SF that makes even the most casual contact with military affairs. Battleships, battlecruisers, frigates, destroyers, all of these terms are merrily thrown around but to what do most of them refer? Well I thought I might instead take more of an overview examination of some of the terms I’ve been throwing around in my Ships of the Fleet series and provide something of a quick primer for anyone considering writing science fiction.
First off to what is meant by the term ‘Class’? Quite simply this refers a number of ships built to the same or very similar design, the name of a class is usually either the name of the first to be built or the theme along which they have been named – an example of this being the British C Class light cruisers where the names of individual ships as might be expected all started with the letter C.
Classes of ships that have been built in large number may be broken down into sub-classes as experience with the earlier ships or improvement in technology results in changes to the design. As ships get further into their service career then individual ships of a class will often begin to diverge, as some receive upgrades or are re-purposed for different roles. An example of this in science fiction can be found in David Webers On Basilisk Station with the hero commanding a ship with non-standard and experimental armament. On a final note often a class could receive a overall nickname, there was a class of British battleships that went by the nickname The Wobbly Eight due to their slightly questionable ability to sail in a straight line!
Now moving onto categories, my own area of interest is military vessels from about the mid eighteen hundreds to the mid nineteen hundreds and in my own work, it’s from this period I took inspiration. The first thing to realise it that there is no right or wrong answer, historically categories have been decidedly fluid. Terms have come and gone, with ships re-catagorized. Some category names were chosen because they sounds impressive, while other to sound cheaper to a fleet’s political master. The running order is going to be roughly smallest to largest with some historical and science fiction examples followed by thoughts on how it might be used in a science fiction.
The first and smallest of types I intend to cover, during the age of sail the corvette was the smallest type of regular warship. Used for inshore work (meaning close to the coast) and general patrolling. During the late nineteenth century the term dropped out of use to be revived during World War Two and applied to small, easy to build patrol ships that could be produced in large numbers. The armament of these vessels was extremely limited – usually whatever was available – and in practical terms the only opponents against which they stood a fair chance were submarines or single aircraft. Certainly these were far from ideal vessels but were a demonstration that in the real world a balance has to be sought between quantity and quality or to put it another way – quantity is a quality all of its own. These vessels had no place in fleet actions and instead were used as convoy escorts. Often only marginally faster than the ships they escorted, this was their main flaw as surfaced submarines could often outrun them. Post war the corvette has mostly remained a inshore vessel although some are used as a fast attack type.
The science fiction view of the corvette has retained the idea of it being a small ship but often as a more front line combatant. That said the most famous corvette in SF-
ended up demonstrating the inherent limitation of the corvette concept as it was chased down and crippled with relative ease by a more combat focused vessel. The Homeworld video game series presented the corvette as a small strike vessel – a missing link – larger than one man fighters but smaller than capital ships and unable to travel faster than light on their own. While in literature some books of David Drake’s RCN series were based upon a corvette class ship and for the would be writer this last point is worth considering. If you are planning story which will see a young officer gain their first command, it is worth remembering most fleets tend to start people off with something small and cheap like a corvette, in case they bend it. Command of something big and expensive is definitely not given to someone because they made the previous captain loose their sh*t – yes JJ Abrams Trek, I am looking at you. In a science fiction setting a corvette type ship could be presented at something used primarily within a single system, not really capable of deep space work but useful for various internal security duties.
The term frigate in the age of sail was a fast maneuverable vessel that could serve with the main fleet, acting as its eyes and ears. Away from the fleet frigates performed long distance patrolling, escorts and raiding. to use later terminology the frigate might be thought of as a cruiser, although at that point in time the term was applied to any warship that was operating on its own. The armament was carried on a single deck and at least during the Napoleonic Wars there was something of a convention that ships of the line didn’t shoot at frigates unless provoked. Arguably during the late nineteenth century the frigate evolved into the battleship
The term had dropped out of use by the start of the twentieth century but during World War Two it would be revived and applied to a category of vessel that could loosely be described as a larger, faster, more deep water capable version of the corvette. While more combat capable than corvettes these were still primarily patrol and convoy escort vessels, not really fast enough for fleet deployments nor armed for such work. The recognition of this limitation resulted in later frigates being designed for greater speed, sufficient to keep up with the fleet, while their role remain the defence of other ships.
In science fiction once again the video game Homeworld has made use of the term as the smallest capital ship with a number of specialist designs.
While the Mass Effect prefers to present the type as a fast moving and maneuverable strike vessel able to redeploy quickly around the battlefield
In literature David Weber’s Honorverse setting which borrows heavily from the Napoleonic Wars period but only briefly mentions as a type being phased out of service. For would be science fiction writers the frigate is possibly another type with which to start of their wet behind the ears hero. Capable of more deep space operations, with a frigate the hero can boldly go that bit further.
The first main fleet type we’ve examined so far, unlike the corvette and frigate the destroyer’s genesis is a good deal more recent. In the late nineteenth century the first self propelled torpedoes were invented (prior to this any weapon designed to strike underwater was called a torpedo) which was a potential game changer in naval warfare. A very small vessel equipped with torpedoes could in theory sink even the biggest warship; the French in particular seized upon this much to the concern of Britain – the leading owner of big warships. In theory large expensive battleships could be swarmed under by large numbers of small, fast, inexpensive torpedo boats. In practice these small torpedo boats never really lived up to the billing but their existence demanded a remedy. The solution to and ultimately replacement for the torpedo boat was the torpedo boat destroyer, later shortened to the destroyer. Unlike the frigate and corvette, the destroyer was always intended as a fleet vessel, with the pace to keep up with the main battle fleet. Although not much larger than contemporary frigates, destroyers usually had much shorter range as much internal space was given over to engines and armament rather than fuel supply. The early destroyers were still pretty small, boats rather than ships, so operated in groups often lead by a small cruiser. By World War Two destroyers had grown large enough to dispense with the cruiser but still operated in groups. Their role was generally to mount torpedo attacks against larger enemy ships while at the same time screening against enemy destroyers and later submarines. The other rather brutal truth about destroyers of the world wars, is that they were still small and quick enough to build that they could be viewed by commanders as somewhat expendable, if in the course of being expended they absorbed a hit intended for something more expensive. The modern destroyer is really the primary surface combatant and unlike their predecessors really too expensive and large to be fielded in groups.
The term destroyer is probably where science fiction most drastically diverges from the historical use of the term.
In practical terms the Star Destroyer and the Omega class destroyer seem to operate very much more like battleships or battlecruisers. In my experience literature tends to stick closer to the idea of the destroyer as a smaller vessel that serves in groups. This can be viewed as either TV and film getting it ‘wrong’ or possibly an indication that while authors are more versed in the historical use of the term, those making film and television are more familiar with the modern reality. Which can also be taken as an example that ship classifications are not set in stone.
As previously mentioned the term cruiser originally referred to role rather than an actual ship type, this was to change during the nineteenth century with the coming of steam. The problem with the early steam engines was that their fuel efficiency was pretty dire and the infrastructure for fueling stations hadn’t been developed. So if you wanted to have a warship that could go anywhere you needed it, then you had to keep the masts and sails. Unfortunately those same masts and sails were heavy, required large crews and took up a lot of space. Long story short, a ship could have first class fighting ability or first class cruising ability, but not both. By World War One the cruiser had stabilized into a swift, mid-sized armoured vessel, that’s primary firepower came from guns larger than those carried on destroyers but smaller than battleship’s and yet still small enough to be built in numbers. There were exceptions to this mostly in the form of specialist designs like minelayers and anti-aircraft designs, as well as a few large and ultimately unaffordable monsters. They were used for various roles like raiding against enemy merchant ships, defending against raiders, scouting, long distance patrolling and leading smaller vessels like destroyers. By World War Two with battleships thinner on the ground, cruisers were often the major surface combatants, with the Mediterranean and the Fast East seeing a number of cruiser vs cruiser encounters. One final note is the distinction between Heavy and Light cruisers. Between the two world wars a number of arms limitation treaties defined a heavy cruiser as a vessel of up to ten thousand tons displacement with eight inch guns, while a light cruiser was a vessel of up to ten thousand tons displacement with six inch guns. Which resulted in situations even within the same navy of there being light cruisers that were heavier than some heavy cruisers!
Obviously when it come cruisers in science fiction the big name is Star Trek, with the original Enterprise usually described as a cruiser or heavy cruiser. In the rest of science fiction then depending on the setting the cruiser as either presented as the peak combatant or as something a good deal more cannon fodder-sh
As reader of my Nameless War series will know I use cruisers a lot, personally I find it a useful size category, big enough to be presented as a major combatant, while still small enough to be risked. It depends on the setting but in one where resources are finite, getting from A to B takes time and your fleet needs to have ships in several places at once, then in my opinion a cruiser fits the bill. It is also possible for cruiser within your setting to be optimised for a number of specialist roles.
That’s enough for now, next time I’ll be moving onto the big stuff.