In the past few years, several incidents have brought maritime issues to the forefront of international conversations. There was the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat after a collision with a Chinese vessel, the South Korean navy ship sunk by a North Korean torpedo, and that time Ukraine’s navy was blocked from the Black Sea by intentionally sunken Russian ships.
During peace time the law of sea is found in customary international law and treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which deals with, among other things, innocent passage of warships in the territorial waters of other states (Article 19). However, during armed conflict the governing rules are found in the Second Geneva Convention, as well as in customary international law. Additionally, the San Remo Manual is a highly respected—yet non-binding—source that further interprets the law of the sea during armed conflict.
The Second Geneva Convention adapts the protections of the First Geneva Convention to reflect conditions at sea. This Convention protects wounded and sick combatants at sea, and obligates parties to the conflict to follow the main principles of international humanitarian law. Specifically, members of armed forces who are at sea and are wounded, sick, or shipwrecked are to be treated humanely and are entitled to receive prisoner of war status.
There are various types of warships, defined in UNCLOS (Article 29), that are used during warfare at sea. With the recent attention on naval developments and the maritime issues described above, it might be useful to look at a few examples of ships used during armed conflict at sea.
|A capital ship is one of a navy’s most important warships and it is traditionally much larger than other warships. Capital ships serve a crucial part in an armed conflict; a navy cannot win an armed conflict without its capital ships. Capital ships include battleships and aircraft carriers.|
|A battleship is a large warship containing heavy caliber guns. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the battleship was the most powerful type of warship. Battleships were a symbol of dominance and were a major factor in both diplomacy and military strategy. During World War II, however, aircraft carriers overtook battleships in power projection.|
|An aircraft carrier has been considered a capital ship since 1942 and is one of the biggest ships used in time of war; the attack on Pearl Harbor was launched from an aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier is basically a regular ship with a flight deck. These ships move in excess of 30-35 knots, which means that they can cross oceans in just a few weeks. Yet, one of the big disadvantages of this ship is that it lacks a good defense system.|
|A destroyer is a fast warship that helps escort larger vessels in a fleet and defends them from smaller short-range attackers. Today a destroyer is used as a multi-purpose vessel that can search a hostile coast as well as attack an enemy fleet. These ships are currently a part of all major navies; two main types of destroyers in the U.S. Navy include Guided Missile Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts.|
|A cruiser is a bit larger than a destroyer. The role of the cruiser varies according to the actual ship and navy, but it often includes air defense, commerce raiding, and shore bombardment. Currently only three nations—the United States, Russia, and Peru—operate cruisers; the difference between cruisers and destroyers can change between navies. New models of destroyers, as the Zumwalt class, are larger and more powerful than cruisers.|
|A corvette is a small, maneuverable, lightly armed warship. From the 6th to the mid-19th century, the role of the corvette consisted mostly of coastal patrol, fighting minor wars, and supporting large fleets. Today the corvette is usually armed with medium- and small-caliber guns, surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and antisubmarine weapons. Many can accommodate a small or medium antisubmarine warfare helicopter.|
|Frigates are used to protect other warships and merchant-marine ships, usually as Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) combatants for amphibious expeditionary forces, underway replenishment groups, and merchant convoys. Today, the frigate and corvette are actually really similar and so navies may classify the same ship differently depending on its use.|
|A littoral combat ship is a small surface vessel that operates in the littoral zone (close to shore). The ship is easy to reconfigure for different roles, it has additional weapons systems, and it can be used for intelligence, surveillance, homeland defense, special operations, and logistics. An example of the similarity between frigates and corvettes is the United States’ LCS ships, the Freedom and the Independence. They are both smaller than the U.S. Navy’s frigates and are often considered corvettes. Yet, some countries, like Saudi Arabia and The Republic of China (Taiwan), have expressed interest in a modified version of the Freedom as a replacement for their existing frigates.|
Furthermore, certain types of warships that do not fall into one of the categories mentioned or can be included in more than one category, depending of the specifics of the ship and the navy that owns the ship. Examples include amphibious ships and missile boats.
|An amphibious warfare ship is employed to support ground forces such as Marines in enemy territory. In general, the ship carries the troops from the port of embarkation to the drop point for the assault, and a smaller craft on the ship carries the troops from the ship directly to the shore.|
|A landing craft tank is an amphibious assault ship used to land tanks, rather than troops, on beaches. It was developed by the British Royal Navy during World War II and later used by the U. S. Navy. As the forefront ship during assault landings, the landing craft tank often sustained heavy losses during the Second World War.|
|A missile boat/gunboat is a small warship armed with anti-ship missiles. Being a small craft, missile boats are popular with nations interested in forming an inexpensive navy, and focusing on mobility over defense. The world’s first naval missile battles between warships occurred between Israel and Syria during the Yom Kippur War.|