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Tactics 101: Naval Formations - Part 1

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#1 CV32



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Posted 13 December 2008 - 01:25 PM


Although far more detailed than is necessary for the purposes of Harpoon Commander's Edition (HCE), Part 1 of this discussion about naval formations will help to establish the fundamentals and could be useful for other versions of Harpoon (principally Harpoon 4.1 paper rules) and other naval wargaming efforts. Part 2 will focus on the step by side assembly of a naval formation within HCE. Part 3, in turn, will deal with adding fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to a naval formation.

So what is a naval formation?

A naval formation is an ordered arrangement of two or more ships.

Naval formations serve two basic functions:

(1) to facilitate the movement of a group of ships from one place to another; and
(2) to organize a group of ships for optimum tactical effectiveness.


A naval formation has two main components: the main body, and the screen. The main body of a formation comprises its principal ships, typically the high value units (HVUs) such as an aircraft carrier. The formation's screen, consists of ships (typically escorts in the way of cruisers, destroyers, frigates, etc.) whose purpose is to protect the main body.

1. Organization of the Formation in HCE

The components of a naval formation, as depicted in HCE's Formation Editor, are:

(1) Main Body

The innermost circle of your formation, normally reserved for high value units and units with limited defenses (such as aircraft carriers, oilers or replenishment ships, and freighters). Units within the main body hold their position and have the exact course and speed of the entire group at all times.

(2) AAW (Anti-Air Warfare) Ring

The second innermost ring of your formation. It should be used for platforms that have the ability to engage air targets such as missiles and aircraft (such as Aegis cruisers and destroyers). You should place them in sectors that correspond to the anticipated direction of an airborne threat.

(3) ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) Ring

The next to outermost ring of your formation. Units placed in this ring should have ASW capabilities, so they can detect and kill any submerged threats before they penetrate into your main body or AAW ring. Typical units used in this ring would include ASW helicopters and destroyers and frigates with significant ASW weapons/sensors. Units within this ring patrol within their sectors, sprinting from place to place, then slowing down or hovering to check for sonar contacts.

(4) Picket Ring

The outermost ring of your formation. Used to place scouting assets that can give early warning of incoming threats. Units used for picket duty include AEW (airborne early warning) aircraft and low value ships with good sensors. All units in this ring patrol within their sectors, speeding up and slowing down to cover it while moving with the formation.

2. The Screen

The AAW Ring, the ASW Ring and the Picket Ring collectively comprise the screen of a naval formation in HCE. As earlier stated, the screen is designed to protect the main body, and the type(s) of screen chosen is based upon the anticipated or most serious enemy threat.

In HCE, individual units are assigned to sectors, or areas of responsibility, to be patrolled by that unit or unit(s). Each ring of the formation is further broken down into these sectors. The sectors vary in size (relative to the overall size of the formation) to make optimum use of individual unit capabilities. A sector screen is most effective if the units assigned to them aggressively patrol their own areas of responsibility, changing course and speed constantly, while simultaneously keeping up with the formation. This is reflected in HCE in the ASW and Picket Rings, where ships sprint and drift, aircraft patrol and loiter, etc., as discussed above.


When organizing your formations you should designate a "Guide". The default guide is the flagship of the formation, if one is assigned, or the biggest ship in the group if one isn't.

An example of a formation order for an aircraft carrier battle group (or strike group in modern parlance) might look something like this, where the Guide is the formation center:

USS Birdranch (CVN-00) station 090/2000
USS Oldfrigate (FF-00) planeguard Birdranch 2000
USS Missileguy (CG-00) station 090/4000
USS Newcan (DDG-00) sprint and drift 020/9000, 080/6000, 010/8500, 012/5500
USS Newfrigate (FFG-00) patrol 280/9000, 280/7000, 260/7000, 260/9000

What does all this mean?

It means that inside the Main Body, the carrier, USS Birdranch, is maintaining a position of 090 true at 2,000 yards (yd) from the formation center and USS Oldfrigate is acting as a planeguard 2,000 yd astern of the carrier. You need a planeguard in case one of your aircraft has an accident, in which case you may need to rescue the crew. (Which means she sits back there waiting to collect anyone that goes in the drink while getting kerosene in her drinking water).

USS Missileguy, assigned to its station in the AAW Ring, another fixed point relative to the guide, will act as the anti-air defender for the group, especially the carrier.

USS Newcan is on station in the ASW Ring, conducting "sprint and drift" away from the rest of the formation to reduce noise interference. What "sprint and drift" involves is charging to the front (relative to the course of the formation) and then maintaining bare steerage speed (or creep) until the formation has moved forward far enough for the ASW ship to be at the rear of its patrol sector. This rather bizarre sounding motion reduces self-generated noise, thereby enhancing the platform's passive acoustic detection capabilities and is generally used with top end ASW ships (like the Spruance class destroyers) equipped with good passive sonar sets.

Finally we have USS Newfrigate out there storming around her sector in the Picket Ring. This is often done with ships that have less capable sonars but decent radars or to ensure that a particular area is thoroughly searched.

(2,000 yd is often used as a default in formation distances, as it is equivalent to one nautical mile. It's a fairly safe interval for ships traveling in company, and it's within easy visual signaling range.)


1. The Circular Formation

For most tactical purposes, and for our purposes in HCE, the most commonly encountered formation is the "circular formation", with ships contained in the center or main body and a screen of escorts assigned to various stations on the perimeter.

The circular formation became popular in World War II (as opposed to the even earlier favorite, the line formation, which permitted massed gun firepower) to achieve optimum air defense for the protection of the main body. Pickets on the perimeter, particularly along the threat axis, thus screened the main body against potential air attack. Variations on the same theme sought to defend against the threat of submarines.

The reference direction for a circular formation is called the formation axis.

As stated, HCE tends to emphasize the circular formation or variations thereof, although the Formation Editor can readily accommodate other types of formations.

2. Line Formations

The principal advantages of a line formations relate to ease of station keeping and maneuvering. There are several variants of the basic line formation.

Types of Line Formations

(1) Single Column

A column of US Navy Colorado class battleships (and others) steaming off of the coast of California in the mid to late 1920s:

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One of the more basic line and classic naval formations is the single column, in which a formation of ships travel in single file (lined up one behind the other), with the lead ship normally acting as the guide.

The column formation dates back to the age of fighting sail, whose original purpose was to bring massed broadside gunfire to bear on an enemy. It is still one of the most common naval formations used today, and is primarily used for minesweeping; entering port; or maintaining a group of ships, such as amphibious ships ("phibs") or merchants, in a compact, defensible unit. As it is easy to maneuver, it is also often the best choice for transiting a narrow channel, or when steaming at night or in low visibility, as each ship in the column need only concentrate on the ship directly ahead.

There are two major drawbacks for the column formation. Firstly is its potential to become unwieldy as more ships are added to the formation, taking long periods of time to complete a simple formation turn. Secondly, and more importantly from a battle point of view, the column is unable to bring significant firepower to bear forward or astern of the formation.

(2) Double Column and other Multiple Line Formations

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Multiple line formations, such as the double column, are simple arrangements of basic line formations. The double column comprises two column formations arranged side by side. Each column has its guide in the lead position, with the guides forming a line abreast.

These are not combat formations, as the outer lines of ships block the line of sight of the inner ships, and the formation is difficult to maneuver. Any multiple line formation will always seek to deploy into a line formation (or some other formation) prior to battle.

Multiple line formations were the formation of choice for large numbers of ships steaming together at night prior to the introduction of radar, due to the improved safety provided by the regular spacing of the individual ships. Often times, multiple columns abreast were employed to reduce the area covered by convoys.

(3) Column Open Order

Here the lead ship again acts as guide, the second ship is typically 4 degrees off the port quarter of the guide at the standard distance (or the default, 2000 yd), the third ship is 2 degrees off the starboard quarter of the guide at twice the standard distance, and the remainder alternate from port to starboard

The column open order is another "golden oldie" designed to maximize firepower from gunships in a small area. It is also preferred for open ocean transits, and has the advantages of allowing all ships to see each other, thereby facilitating visual communications (useful when traveling under emission control, or EMCON), minimizing radar blind spots,

(4) Line Abreast

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In line abreast formation, ships are formed up abeam of the guide. The relative bearing of one ship to another is either 90 or 270 degrees, or in other words, the ships are side by side.

This is the formation most often used when conducting visual searches of large areas of ocean or, in the modern era, localizing electronic emissions. (In the latter mode, it provides a known series of angles (cuts) to the source emitter and helps with triangulation). This formation is also useful for rapidly mining an area from surface ship minelayers.

The line abreast is a formation well suited for anti-submarine screens, as it provides the best possible forward visibility and sonar coverage across a broad front. However, it is usually a poor formation for battle, especially for air defense or anti-surface warfare, as it allows only the forward or aft weaponry to be used, and the ships in the formation block each other's line of sight to the sides. The exception is torpedo attack, in which case the line abreast formation can be excellent, permitting all of the attacking vessels to approach an enemy rapidly and simultaneously. The line abreast formation is also a poor choice for night and low visibility steaming, as even small errors in maintaining course can cause the break up of the formation.

(5) Echelon Left/Right or Line of Bearing

An echelon formation is one which the ships of the formation are arranged diagonally, each stationed behind and to the starboard (echelon right), or behind and to port (echelon left), of the ship ahead.

Tactically, echelon formations provide excellent range of vision to each ship in the formation and large, overlapping fields of fire.

In the modern era, echelon formations are often used in minesweeping.

(6) Diamond

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The diamond is a line formation that maximizes distance between individual ships without lengthening the formation. It is often used as the formation for the main body of the larger, a "formation within a formation" if you will. In the diamond formation the most forward ship is often the guide, while the second ship takes station on its port quarter at twice the standard distance (at a 45 degree angle off the port quarter). The third ship takes station on the guide's starboard quarter (again at a 45 degree angle) at twice the standard distance, and the fourth ship takes station astern of the guide at three times the standard distance.

The diamond formation provides generally increased anti-air warfare (AAW) coverage, as units can more effectively bring their anti-aircraft weaponry to bear on attacks against other ships in the formation.

The diamond also permits individual ships to maneuver unexpectedly (and radically) without endangering other ships. Because of this latter advantage, the diamond was often employed prior to the advent of the circular formation in situations where there might be an unexpected air or submarine attack.

Additional ships may be added to the diamond by similar expansions of the column. In all cases, odd numbered ships are placed to starboard and even numbered ships are placed to port, except for every third ship after the leader, which remains on the formation axis.

The diamond formation is not used at night or in low visibility, as the increased distances between ships reduce their ability to see each other. In such situations, a diamond formation will typically collapse back into a column. (And, in fact, the only formation into which a diamond formation may change, without breaking formation, is a column).

Notably, this formation is also popular for those dramatic end-of-exercise photographs that you often see.

(7) Vee Formation

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In a Vee (or V) formation, the guide is always in the lead, and the other ships of the formation form lines of bearing on the guide. The angle between the two lines of bearing is typically less than 90 degrees, so that the formation is always aligned along its intended course (in other words, the centerline of the formation and the course are the same).

It is a special purpose formation not commonly used in the modern era, as it offers no advantages for anti-air defense, ASW efforts, or scouting, and almost half of the lines of sight for battle are blocked. It is of little use as a screen for other ships either, as it requires too many units to form an adequate screen for a main body of any appreciable size.

It is, however, often used by mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) when they are actively sweeping mine fields, as each following ship is safely positioned within the swept area of the preceding ship. By this method, only the lead ship (and guide) must sweep its own path unaided.

The Vee formation is not easily maneuvered. Although a wheel may be executed, it lacks the precision typified by this maneuver in other formations. Simultaneous turns are used to shift laterally and move the formation sideways. Such turns would normally be limited to 45 degrees or less.


Formation steaming (i.e. travel) and maneuvering are necessarily based on the assumption that all ships in the formation are in station. It is very important (and a yardstick by which a ship's reputation can be measured) that each ship maintain its assigned station. Remember, of course, that station is measured from the position of the guide.

1. Maneuvering Rules

Maneuvering involves a change of course, speed, formation, or any combination of these, made by a ship to adjust its station or to take up a new station.

The goal of the ship handler in station keeping is to settle accurately within the limits of the station, so that only very minimal adjustments are necessary to maintain it. This is a relatively simple exercise when the formation is steaming on a steady course and speed. Sometimes, however, when a formation comes under attack or is attempting to avoid attack, it will take evasive maneuvers (such as in a zig zag steering plan). In such an instance, it is essential that a ship's timing be in synchronization with the guide.

The precision and effectiveness of formation maneuvers depend upon prompt and precise execution, as well as some basic rules. Some basic maneuvering rules to avoid other ships that have the right of way include avoiding ships that are engaged in minesweeping, flight operations, or underway replenishment; avoiding helicopters that are employing dipping sonar; and avoiding other ships in the formation, including ships both in the main body and in the screen, by maintaining a distance of at least 1,000 yd and trying to pass astern.

In naval formations that contain aircraft carriers, ships of the formation are expected to obey the "3-2-1 rule": pass no closer than 3,000 yd ahead, 2,000 yd abeam, or 1,000 yd astern.

The plane guard finds itself in special circumstances when it comes to operating in conjunction with aircraft carriers, and as such her skipper must keep several things in mind. For example, carriers
sometimes "forget" that you're back there, and may turn without warning. Since carriers are always in search of the wind to maintain flight operations, the plane guard must be equally cognizant and always know where the wind is blowing. As the plane guard ship will always be more maneuverable than the carrier, it must always stay on the outside of any turns executed by the carrier, and never turn inside the carrier. As a general rule of thumb, if the plane guard ever has doubt about what the carrier is doing, he should turn away and put the carrier on his stern.

In HCE (and this is probably a good thing) you don't have to worry about things like maneuvering rules. There is no chance of a collision, ever, and you can therefore occupy your mind (and your time) with optimizing your naval formation for battle rather than for the "rules of the road".

2. Form, Turn and Corpen

Maneuvering within naval formations usually involves three basic terms - "form", "turn" and "corpen" - and variations on the latter two.

"Form" is used to change the axis of the formation without changing its course. When executed, the guide remains on course while the other ships of the formation re-orient to form a new line of bearing based on the guide axis.

"Turn" is when all the ships in a formation turn to a specified heading simultaneously, regardless of position relative to the guide. The turn signal can be used to order a turn of a specified number of degrees, or to come to a certain specified course. At night or in periods of low visibility (or when ships with dissimilar turning capabilities are part of the formation), the turn signal is not used for turns greater than 90 degrees.

"Corpen" involves turning but maintaining position relative to the guide when changing course. It is typically executed out of a column, line abreast or diamond formation. (A line changes front by swinging in an arc as with the turning of a spoke in a wheel). If the formation is steaming in column open order, all ships form a column automatically upon receiving the signal, and prior to its execution.

Some examples of turns and corpens:

(1). Turn in Line Abreast or Search Turn

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The search turn is a maneuver used to change the direction of a line abreast while allowing the ships to hold a constant speed and maintaining a continuous search frontage. It is often employed in scouring an area systematically.

As with all line formations, it is somewhat cumbersome to execute, but can be impressive when performed well. Each ship in company, starting with the one opposite the direction of the turn, passes behind the others and assumes its new heading until the last ship simply turns. These turns are limited to 90 degrees or less. (Beyond this it is not possible for any ship other than the innermost to safely reach its final station without passing through another line of ships). Because it is a maneuver of some difficulty, and requires that each ship turn toward and close on the next ship in the line, it is not a maneuver to be executed during a battle. If any type of steering or engineering problem occurs on a ship in the course of the turn, whether by damage or otherwise, a collision is a distinct possibility.

The search turn can achieve very accurate turns, and was typically used to allow a group of ASW ships to turn while keeping continuous sonar coverage over the formation's intended path. In the modern era, the search turn is used to change the direction of a search line when there is a need to very carefully cover an area, such as in search and rescue (SAR) operations (typically when searching for a sailor who has been lost overboard).

Simultaneous turns will allow the line to adjust itself to the left or right, but for the formation to come to a new course, a wheel is required.

(2). Formation Turn

In a formation turn, the ships simply change course, but maintain their same position in a 90 degree turn.

(3). Formation Corpen or Wheel

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Here the ships in the formation move to maintain their position relative to the guide during the turn. This takes a longer period of time to complete, due to the added distance, but it is a good way to respond to a change in a threat axis without having to reorganize the disposition of the force.

While not a difficult maneuver conceptually, when a line abreast executes a wheel, either the inner ships must slow dramatically, or the outside ships must increase speed significantly. This can be challenging, but if the ships of the formation are pretty well distributed, this can be a viable, and rapid, way to change direction.

It is not a good battle maneuver for large ships as it usually causes the inner ships to move slower, making them easier and more predictable targets until the maneuver is complete.

(4). Maneuvers in HCE

In HCE, the formation axis is always static and does not change with changes in course by the guide. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. On the plus side, you need not be concerned with the speeds, angles and movements needed for large formations to complete the execution of complex maneuvers such as turns and corpens. Course changes are instantaneous.

The principal drawback, however, and in some respects it is admittedly a large one, is that the layout of your formation does not automatically adjust to the new course change.

For example, assume your carrier strike group is heading East, led by an Arleigh Burke in the AAW Ring, a pair of Spruances in the ASW Ring, and some S-3 Vikings and F-14 Tomcats in the Picket Ring (performing ASW and combat air patrol duties, respectively). The anticipated enemy threat is to the East, so you've sensibly oriented your forces in that direction as you travel.

Then suppose that for some reason, you need to make an 180 degree course change and turn back to the West. Maybe a group of enemy ships has appeared that wasn't there before. Although your new threat axis is Westerly, your various forces in the screen, assigned to their individual sectors as previously described, do not re-orient to the West. They will remain in their previously assigned sectors until you re-assign them.

3. Formation Speed

The overall speed of the formation should be something that allows all the ships in it to maneuver to new stations or to respond to formation corpens in an expeditious manner. Usually this is going to be 80% of the maximum (flank) speed of the slowest unit. Depending on circumstances you may want to go even slower. Arranging a formation speed so high that maneuvering units take hours to reach station is usually a bad idea. If radical turns are necessary, you may prefer to use a turn instead of a corpen.

In HCE, the speed of the formation is limited by the maximum (flank or cruise) speed of the slowest unit. The formation's creep speed will always be 5 knots (kt), unless the entire formation is made up of units whose creep speed is higher than 5 kt.

If a ship in the formation receives damage that limits its speed, that reduction will be reflected in the overall speed of the formation. You may be prompted in such an instance to separate that damaged ship from the rest of the formation, in which case the remaining units will continue at their previous speed.


It is entirely feasible to assign sub-units of formation stations.

For example, you might have the amphibious component of a task force assigned a station within the overall formation. You can even assign the sub-unit to maintain its own internal formation. Using the amphibious group example, you could place them in an overall station astern of the formation center and have the ships in that sub-unit then deployed in line of columns. There are many different possible variations on this theme. For the purposes of HCE, however, it is difficult (and probably unnecessary) to achieve that level of detail in your formations.


These are the fundamentals of naval formations in a nutshell. Again, as stated earlier, even this briefest of descriptions of the fundamentals is generally beyond the scope of what is necessary for HCE. However, it does provide a useful background upon which to build your understanding of why formations are organized in different fashions, and what purposes they hope to achieve in naval warfare.

Part 2 of this discussion will tackle how to assemble a naval formation from scratch using HCE's formation editor.

A photo from the exercise Valiant Guard 2006, showing a mixture of formations, naval and air, no doubt posed for its dramatic effect rather than its tactical value ;) :

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Source references:
1. A Guide to Naval Tactics, Scott Gainer.
2. An Introduction to Naval Wargaming in the 20th Century.
3. HCE manual (PDF), page 49.
4. Naval Shiphandlers Guide, by Capt James A. Barber, USN (Ret), 2005.

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