Russian Cruiser Aurora
Looking at the broad sweep of history one constant is that there are few extensive eras of general peace. Armies are fighting somewhere just about all the time. It's hard to find a decade without major wars and battles, virtually impossible to find a peaceful century.
At least on land.
But major naval actions involving fleets are far less common than battles involving armies. And those eras when naval fleet actions occur are concentrated far more in time. It appears that there are special conditions required for there to be contending navies.
Naval fleet actions in history seem to be largely confined to two half-millennial periods of time, with those two eras separated by nearly a thousand years.
Now, I am not arguing that there were no navies at other times, and I'm not arguing that there were no naval battles at all. But outside the eras of contending navies naval fleet actions were very rare and isolated events, while during the eras of contending navies they formed an interrelated strategic narrative. And the two eras showed some remarkable parallels.
The natural state of affairs for most of history is what could be called open seas. Navigation is largely free, with what state control there is being confined to local waters. Military expeditions across the sea are episodic and generally unopposed due to a lack of capability to oppose them.
The first era of contending navies lasted from roughly 500 B.C. to 31 B.C. During this era the dominant form of warship was the oared ramming vessel. The era started with the maritime-Greek states led by Athens facing the powerful continental power Persia. Naval powers rose and fell over the ensuing five centuries but at the end of day Rome, the intellectual and cultural heir to Greece emerged with total naval supremacy. A supremacy that lasted for centuries before slowly evaporating into another era of free navigation and uncontrolled seas. But during the era of Roman naval hegemony military expeditions across the sea were not possible for non-Roman powers and the Roman state controlled navigation throughout the known world.
During the first era of contending navies, however, many states attempted to float fleets. Naval campaigns and battles were relatively common and there were even wars that were primarily naval affairs.
The second era of contending navies started around 1450 and also lasted about 500 years, until the mid-20th Century. Naval battles again became relatively common and many powers attempted to create navies and exercise control over large parts of the ocean. Again an early leading naval power in that era, England, eventually saw its intellectual and cultural heir, the United States, emerge with naval supremacy.
Naval supremacy, once won, seems impossible to have wrested away, although it can be lost through decadence and neglect. While effective armies can be raised in short order, creating a strong navy requires enormous resources and time, and cannot be done against the opposition of a hegemonic naval power. At the height of its naval power the Royal Navy sought to be as strong as the next two potential rivals combined, a margin of superiority it calculated could not be overcome. The contemporary U.S. Navy is stronger than all the other navies of the world combined, and most of those other navies are its formal allies.
Ships from five nations
There's a bit of talk circulating about China's rising naval power, but the stark reality is that China is generations away from being able to challenge U.S. Naval power, and will only succeed if the U.S. leadership is negligent. The best the Chinese can hope for in the case of a war with the U.S. is to seize temporary control of its local waters. This is much less ambitious than what England faced in its challenges from the Dutch, Spanish, French and Germans or the U.S. faced from the Japanese or Soviets.
From a wargamer's perspective, what all this means is that we may be generations away from seeing fleet-on-fleet naval actions again. Indeed, there may never be that sort of warfare on Earth again, although whether something similar might happen in space is an open question.
Nearly all naval wargames are set in one of those two eras of contending navies. There are a few wargames placed in the era or classical oared warfare from roughly Salamis in 480 B.C. to Actium in 31 B.C.
Most other wargames are set in the era that began roughly with Lepanto or the Armada in the late 1400s and came to a close, as far as active combat went, in 1945, although the Cold War standoff between the West and the Soviets included a strong naval component.
It seems to me that in order to have fleet actions there need to be particular conditions present. There have to be technological means to exercise naval control. There must be an international system with several great powers with access to the sea, but no one superpower. And there has to be sufficient economic wealth, as navies are extremely expensive propositions.
Because those conditions occur rarely, naval warfare is a very unusual occurrence. While battles on land are spread throughout the last 50-plus centuries, battles at sea are concentrated in about 10 of those centuries, in two consecutive batches.