Up to the 1400s naval warfare is a species of land warfare. Fire your guns a few times and board the enemy. Warships have very high forecastles and after castles because it is advantageous to hold the high ground. The distance of your “bang” is quite short – an arrow’s range, a musket ball or the end of your sword.
Sometime in the 1500s the English get the idea that ships are floating gun platforms but don’t fully understand how to do it and so in the Armada battle they bang away at the Spanish fleet without doing much damage. It takes a while to standardize guns, work out tactics and it all comes together at Trafalgar. The bang/distance ratio is still short – a thousand yards is pretty good shooting – and most engagements are much closer. But as guns get bigger and more accurate the bang/distance ratio grows until at Jutland battleships are hitting smudges on the horizon thousand of yards away.
Enter the airplane. The first aircraft carrier is built in 1918 but airplanes are flimsy things and can’t carry much of a bang and the battleship lobby is contemptuous. But the Yamato and Musashi, the greatest battleships ever built, are sunk by planes whose home carriers are far over the horizon. And that’s the end of the reign of the gun platform.
The US Navy has heavily invested in the aircraft carrier – huge nuclear-powered super-carriers, a lot of them and immense experience with using them. At 700-800 miles they’re the queens of the bang/distance ratio.
Or are they?
On October 7 2015 four ships in the Caspian Sea launched 26 cruise missiles at targets in Syria 900 miles away. Three of them were Buyan-M class corvettes. 1000 tons displacement, a crew of 50 and 8 1000-plus mile range missiles. That’s a big bang/distance ratio isn’t it? The lifetime cost of the USN’s 10 or 11 carrier battle group groups must be something like a thousand billion dollars. But what gives the better bang/distance – a trillion dollars’ worth of them, or a hundred million dollars’ worth of Buyans?
If the bang/distance ratio is the key to naval surface warfare, then it’s clear the carrier’s day has passed.