Skip to content

Evolutions of the Cruiser Pt 1

July 27, 2009
Imperial German Light Cruiser SMS Emden.

Imperial German Light Cruiser SMS Emden.

A discussion on the continued need for and lack of cruisers in war at sea which began at the Information Dissemination blog, has spilled over here and is the subject of the following posts.

A brief definition of a cruiser would be a vessel of lighter construction than a battleship but heavier than a destroyer. What it couldn’t match in firepower it could run away from. Cruisers from the age of sail to World War 2 were essential for scouting and screening for a battlefleet, or in the guerre de course role against an enemy merchant fleet.

As a type Cruisers began disappearing during and after World War 2 (despite the name still existing in USN service. See below), with its primary function now that of a fleet screen, specifically for the new aircraft carrier battle groups. Its commerce role among others passed to various and newer types as detailed below:

  • Fleet screen-Destroyers, Frigates, Submarines, and Aircraft.
  • Scout-Destroyers, Submarines, and Aircraft.
  • Commerce Hunter-Submarines
  • Commerce Defense-Destroyer Escorts, Frigates, Corvettes

The bulk of the war-built ships remaining after WW 2 saw their gun-power greatly diminished with the introduction of guided missiles on warships. The only like-vessels constructed were single USS Long Beach class guided missile cruisers, the obsolete Sverdlov class guns cruisers by the Soviet Navy, and several European ASW cruisers. The latter designs are interesting as it showed a side evolution of the type as well, into light or auxiliary aircraft carriers. Here are some notable and air-capable war and post war vessels:

Zhdanov-a Russian Sverdlov class cruiser seen in 1983.

Zhdanov-a Russian Sverdlov class cruiser seen in 1983.

With the expense of deploying a carrier arm already prohibitive to most nations, it proved more cost effective for navies to arm the large destroyer leaders of the 1950s as missile escorts. In American service, such vessels as the nuclear powered USS Bainbridge and USS Truxtun , to the smaller conventional Farragut class were dubbed “frigates” but still kept their official destroyer leader designation (DLGN), revealing their true lineage. Britain also built large destroyers of the County class to defend their diminishing attack carrier arm.

In 1975 the US Navy officially changed the designation of their large missile escorts to “cruiser”, perhaps as an homage to nostalgia, though the ships’ functions did not change. Smaller missile escorts  like the Farraguts were called “guided missile destroyers”, while the frigate designation followed the European model of naming lighter ships geared toward ASW escorts.

At about the same time a large frigate entered Royal Navy service called the Broadsword class. Armed with the potent Sea Wolf anti-missile system, battle tested in the 1982 Falklands Conflict, the ships were nearly as large as the previous County class and larger than the newer Sheffield class (Type 42)destroyers. Such very lethal and versatile warships further blurred the distinction between cruiser, destroyer, and frigate.

Spanish Aegis Frigate F-102 Almirante Juan de Borbon.

Spanish Aegis Frigate F-102 Almirante Juan de Borbon.

Modern missile escorts, from the giant Russian Kirov class battlecruisers and American  Ticonderoga class cruiser, Arleigh Burke class destroyers, British Type 42 and Type 45 destroyers, , and Franco/Italian PAAMS frigates, to the smaller Spanish Bazan Aegis Frigates bear no significant difference in their roles. In the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century, cruisers, destroyers, and frigates possessed clear and separate functions that set them apart in the fleet. Today missile firing warships bear no such distinctions, save in hull size or missile payload.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2014 4:52 pm

    Me ha satisfecho bastante como has puesto en relacion a el topico.

    ¿En donde lograria adquirir mucha mas info sobre el topico?.
    Me interesa tu web.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 30, 2009 7:59 pm

    Sven, all my research suggests these ships were not a great success, but they were kept busy because they were already under order. Proof can be seen in that there were few followups in both the RN and USN after the war. All had trouble with their main armament. I think you are mistaken about the importance of the AAW cruisers.

  3. July 30, 2009 5:12 pm

    The real destroyer leaders of the interwar years were a cross between DD and CL – also called “super destroyers” and usually armed with guns larger than 5.1″ and less than 6.1″, therefore incapable of producing long-range anti-air fire.
    They were not meant and not really suitable as CV escorts due to their poor AAW capabilities.

    Whatever the USN called its ships in the 60’s; the AAW cruisers of WW2 with 5 to 5.2″ guns were the closest thing to Long Beach, California, Virginia and Ticonderoga classes in concept, capability balance and employment; especially the Atlanta class.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 30, 2009 9:29 am

    Sven you are correct that I should have mentioned the AA cruisers of the war which were excellent ships. I actually considered doing so but time and space didn’t permit. Still I would say they played their part but were not necessarily “the real ancestors”, so my premise is still correct. Like the traditional cruisers, they were big and very expensive so their role was taken over by the destroyers leaders by the 1950s.

    Notice also that the Dido’s and Atlanta class AA cruisers used the destroyer DP armament on their cruiser-sized hull, making them more like over-sized destroyer leaders. So in armament and mission you might still say they were born out the flotilla, despite their “cruiser” designation.

  5. July 29, 2009 6:58 pm

    A cruiser was originally a lone patrol ship. It was possible to form a cruiser/destroyer task force, but its real purpose was in ‘cruising’ the seas.
    Get yourself a map of the British Empire’s standard cruiser routes – it helps to understand the defensive cruiser patrol role. Cruisers were like police patrols, just at the high seas.
    The offensive cruiser patrol role was invented by the french jeune école as a modern corsair and best executed by the WWI Emden, WW2 Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer.

    Your description of the cruiser lineage fails to pay attention to the real ancestors of the modern CG: The anti-air cruiser classes of WW2, to be found primarily in US and UK fleets (like the Atlanta class).
    They were no more patrolling/cruising cruisers, but rather long-range and quite large battle fleet (CVBG) and priority convoy (Malta supply ) escorts.
    Their job was almost exactly the same as that of a Ticonderoga class CG or the Long Beach. Atlantas (CL-51 class) even had sonar and depth charges.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 29, 2009 2:22 pm

    “I was thinking more about a small, bird-sized hovering UAV”

    If we don’t have it yet, its coming! Perhaps sooner than you think.

  7. jim permalink
    July 29, 2009 11:54 am

    Right, the FireScout exists, but I was thinking more about a small, bird-sized hovering UAV – ie something that could fly around inside a ship to investigate it remotely.

    DARPA has funded several projects over the last decade. A bird-sized hovering UAV would also be very useful on land for recon inside buildings. It probably only needs 30-60 min battery life to be useful.

    I’m thinking something the size of a loaf of bread. It takes off from it’s charging base, scouts the inside of a structure (house, building, boat, cave, etc) for 30 minutes or more, then returns to its charging base. It would be remotely guided with point and click instructions, but would autonomously avoid obstacles. It would function in boarding parties like a virtual human – hovering at eye height and being the avatar for the operator back on the ship (or stateside).

    I think this might be possible by 2020.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 29, 2009 8:02 am

    “the hovering UAV doesn’t exist yet”

    I beleive Fire Scout would fall into this category, recently tested by USS Mclnerney:

    Like you Jim I am exited about the potential for UAVs from surface ships, and now I here, even launched from US Subs:

  9. jim permalink
    July 29, 2009 12:56 am

    Could the boardings ever be done remotely? I’m imagining a mothership sending out a USV like the Protector which pulls up alongside the suspect ship and out pops a small, bird-sized hovering UAV.

    The crew back on the mothership (or back stateside even) uses cameras, mics, and speakers on the hovering UAV to instruct the crew on the boarded ship what to do, what doors to open, etc. A small hovering UAV could go anywhere a man could go.

    A hostile crew could kill the UAV, of course, so it would have to be expendable. A real boarding party would then show up.

    I’m assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that most boardings turn out innocently. If so, then doing it remotely would be faster and cheaper. Save the people for the hostile boats.

    I know the hovering UAV doesn’t exist yet. There’s lots of research though. Hardest part might be to maintain the wireless connection back to the USV. Dropping repeaters periodically would help. Maybe remotely searching the bowels of a ship is impossible, but maybe not.

    Seems like US and allies face a problem of lack of manpower for boarding going forward. We want ever more automated ships with ever fewer sailors. Boarding seems one of the few areas where we’ve made little if any progress on reducing manpower.

    So we need either better robots, or some magical sensor that can see through metal. Hovering UAVs seem plausible in the next decade or so.

  10. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 28, 2009 2:13 am

    We’ve been doing the boarding mission pretty well around Iraq’s off shore oil terminals, but that is relatively small scale and resource intensive and benefits from operating off a “friendly” shore.

    The last time we did it on a large scale, it was “Market Time” off South Viet Nam. That also benefitted from being off a “friendly” shore, but it was about 1000 miles long.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 27, 2009 9:50 pm

    Chuck, my thinking too. You need small ships which can better interact with the population of the sea, or commerce.

    New Alex, I think up until about the mid-20th century the Burkes would have been called a cruiser, or at least a pocket battleship!

    But most of the new cruisers, destroyers, frigates being built except in small navies are geared toward the air-defense mission first, and with some surface and ASW capability as well. There are some exceptions as with the French Lafayette frigates, but these are exceptions to the rule. Like the American LCS, they may be too large for the littoral mission.

  12. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 27, 2009 9:23 pm

    Think the real question here is, who is going to do the boardings? That is, how will we exercise “sea control” if there aren’t enough platforms to actually see what ships at sea are doing. Where are they going? What are they carrying?

    Sometimes you just have to go down in the holds and see for yourself.

  13. Alex. (the new'un) permalink
    July 27, 2009 5:39 pm

    Cruisers, Frigates and Destroyers are all different depending on where in the world you are, in the RN and USN it wasn’t much harder than just another step up the ladder, however into the missile age and you lose that kind of scale. Since the cold war the Royal Navy has used the term destroyer to refer to it’s role as opposed to size and armament(well sort of), A destroyer in the RN is an AAW ship, much the same as ASW and GP ships of similar/smaller size are frigates. Where a frigate becomes a cruiser is a grey area, some have refered to T22B3(sometimes B2 aswell) as cruisers, I myself am not so sure. Terminology for frigates and destroyers has changed into the missile age and the cruiser didn’t enjoy such a luxury, the entire role of a cruiser has more or less been assumed by a modern frigate.

    In my own opinion I would label a ship a cruiser when it is capable of operating solo in a potentially hostile environment while boasting formidable equipment and weapons to defend herself from attacks above the water, below the water and if necessary ON the water whilst maintaining the Ability to attack at the same time (to what extent is a debatable matter)

    using my own definition (i cant say much for other navies of the world, i never had much of an interest!) Tiger was NOT a cruiser, she was a Frigate (suppose that would make her an FFH in USN terms?) T22B3/T23 lack the AAW systems to forfill the requirement, T42/45 lack the ASW capabilities, Vincy? They were only ever cruisers to pull the wool over the eyes of a government that didn’t want aircraft carriers but until Sea Dart was removed they would have satisfied the role provided there was a large complement of ASW Sea Kings aswell as a handful of SHARs but it’s not really the same as a proper cruiser!

    The only ship that comes close in my opinion is T82 (well seeing as RN only got one i could just say HMS Bristol). When she was commissioned she boasted Ikara ASW aswell as(the then obsolete) Limbo ASW mortar, Sea Dart SAM and was later refitted with various smaller calibre guns. However! Bristol lacked any form of a credible armament suitable for attack, no AShM and no aviation facilities (this problem was eased but she still never got a hangar!), with little more than a 4.5″ MCG for attack i wouldn’t say she filled the criteria but is definitely the closest to the mark in recent History (when referring to RN warships anyway)

    HMS Bristol; the last proper British cruiser?

    PS: By my reconing in USN service Burkes are more like cruisers than the Ticos

    PPS: T22/T23 do have Sea wolf which is a formidable (war proven) point defence system this said i wouldn’t want to be the commander(or one of the crew for that matter) of one underneath potentially hostile airspace to say the least!

    PPPS: When i say in my opinion i REALLY mean in my (unprofessional) opinion.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 27, 2009 3:26 pm

    Solomon, if you won’t take my word for it, will you at least consider the writings of a master naval strategist, Julian Corbett, who said:

    “In no case can we exercise control by battleships alone. Their specialisation has rendered them unfit for the work, and has made them too costly ever to be numerous enough. Even, therefore, if our enemy had no battle-fleet we could not make control effective with battleships alone.”

  15. solomon permalink
    July 27, 2009 3:01 pm

    “Today missile firing warships bear no such distinctions, save in hull size or missile payload.”

    And that’s really the rub isn’t it. The Burke’s have such a massive payload of anti-air, land attack and anti-ballistic missiles onboard that they’ve blown out classification. Smaller ships just wouldn’t have the staying power OR the ability to fight off a swarm attack from either the air or sea. A Burke can stay in the fight and deal crippling losses to an enemy. Care to imagine an attack by a squadron of Chinese Naval aircraft on a surface action group led by Burke’s? It wouldn’t be pretty. The Chinese would be mauled and sent back to base in need of psychiatric care. Smaller ships could easily be overwhelmed and since they don’t have the excellent AEGIS available to them, the very opposite would occur to our Sailors that happen to make it back.


  1. The Impending Rebirth of the Flotilla Pt 1 « New Wars
  2. Meet the Sloop « New Wars
  3. Destiny of the Frigate Pt 2 « New Wars
  4. New Cruisers against the Pirates Pt 1 « New Wars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: