Surface combatants (or surface ships or surface vessels) are a subset of naval warships which are designed for warfare on the surface of the water, with their own weapons. They are generally ships built to fight other ships, submarines or aircraft, and can carry out several other missions including counter-narcotics operations and maritime interdiction. Their primary purpose is to engage space, air, surface, and submerged targets with weapons deployed from the ship itself, rather than by manned carried craft.
The term is primarily used to mean any modern vessel type that is not a submarine; although a "surface ship" may range in size from a small cutter to an aircraft carrier, the weapons and tactics have some commonality, more so than for submerged vessels. They look unusual and different from cruise and other ships.
Surface ships include cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes, and several outdated types including battleships and battlecruisers. The category does not include aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and mine hunters, as these generally do not use on board weapons system (i.e. aircraft carriers generally only attack with their aircraft, and mine hunters are not primarily combat vessels). However some warships combine aspects of the surface combatant and other roles, such as the Russian Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier, which carries both aircraft and an array of conventional armament (the class is sometimes termed a "heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser").
Modern naval warfare is divided into three operational areas: anti-surface warfare (ASUW), anti-air warfare (AAW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The current canonical combined arms naval task force or task group centers around a flagship hosting dedicated command elements to conduct tactical operations within each of these areas. In smaller surface action groups (i.e. a single or a few task elements, such as a lone Aegis-equipped destroyer or cruisers on patrol), the same combatant commander may be responsible for managing all three areas as part of his duty in carrying out his vessel's mission, while larger formations such as a carrier strike group may have an individual commander in charge of each separate warfare element. Western naval career advancement for unrestricted line officers also follow this model: a career line officer in a command-oriented track will specialize, train, and be billeted into distinct surface, naval aviation, or subsurface warfare posts.
- Battle Force Capability (BFC): defines ships capable of command of the sea and power projection:
- in a carrier battle group
- as units of a Surface Action Group (SAG) without a carrier.
- Protection of Shipping (POS): defines ships intended to protect:
- For discussion of command of the sea and power projection, see pages 7-8 of reference - Naval Transformational Roadmap.