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What is a Conning Tower?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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A conning tower is an armored structure raised high above the deck of a surface ship or a submarine that is used by the captain to direct or command the ship during combat. Consisting of a steel structure with small slit windows, the conning tower was created to provide protection to the captain during battle. Outfitted with only the bare essentials such as a radio and a link to the engine room, some conning tower designs also included a steering wheel. The conning tower has been omitted from most combat ships and submarines due, in part, to advances in technology as well as fighting characteristics of the ships' captains.

Many early battleship and destroyer designs included a heavily armored conning tower above the bridge. This tower was intended to provide protection for the captain during periods of battle. It was learned that most captains did not escape into the conning tower during battle, but instead chose to command the ship from the bridge during battle. While this was rationalized by stating that the captain of the ship was brave and did not fear battle, it was actually due to the unobstructed vision and easy access to the crew that the bridge afforded the captain.

With the advent of radar and increased design in ship communication systems, the conning tower was abandoned from ship design following World War II for most countries. The practice of placing a heavy structure very high above a ship's center of gravity was thought to be a design flaw by most ship builders. Couple this belief with the fact that most captains did not use the tower in battle situations anyway, and the structure was seen as a waste of space and materials. Designers argued that they could use the added space for more combat weapons and create a more formidable fighting vessel.

The use of the tower was longer-lived on submarines. Placed above the main pressure cabin of the submarine, the conning tower was located in the top sail of the vessel. Used to house the periscopes and direct torpedo attacks, the tower gave a comfortable position for the captain to command the ship. Advances in electronics have led to the absence of periscopes in modern submarines, and the conning tower has disappeared from their design as well. There is no longer a need to place the captain of a submarine away from the command area of the main body of the ship, and the torpedoes can now be fired using computers and radar.

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