Skip to content

Evolutions of the Cruiser Pt 2

July 28, 2009
English Frigate circa 1790

English Frigate circa 1790

We continue our discussion on the history and future of the cruiser-type vessel.

Warfare at sea is constantly evolving, and naturally so does the design and construction of new classes of combat vessels. According to Corbett (Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, by Julian Stafford Corbett) there have been three types of warship classes dominating naval warfare throughout history–the battleship, cruiser, and the flotilla. The latter consisted generally of light craft, out of which was born present day escorts ships such as destroyers, frigates, submarines, and mineships.  As we noted yesterday the dominate warships of today were the flotilla ships up until World War 2, displacing the cruiser of that era, with only an handful of those historic vessels surviving in much altered forms (as aviation ships).

A strange fact of history is that the cruiser of today will eventually become tomorrow’s battleship or capital vessel. As evidence I offer the following examples:

  • The race-built galleons of the 16th Century which were the weapon of choice by English Sea Hawks such as Drake to decimate Spanish commerce, also fought the galleons of the Armada to a standstill. By the 17th Century these had morphed into the famed ship of the line.
  • The powerful steam frigates of the mid-19th Century armed with new rifled cannons and exploding shells were called battleships by the end of the century. Example was the French “armored frigate” La Gloire.
  • Admiral Fisher’s battlecruisers of World War 1, supposedly replacing the armored cruiser, had by the second World War become the aircraft carrier, the new capital ship.
  • Today the fleet screen missile escorts and the attack submarine, the latter with Harpoon and Tomahawk cruise missiles and the former with the same weapons plus the Aegis combat system, are vying for the aircraft carrier’s role as the modern capital ship. While the aircraft carrier has maintained its dependence on escort vessels, modern technology has allowed escorts to become increasingly independent.
A modern battleship is the giant Russian Kirov class cuiser Frunze.

A modern battleship is the giant Russian Kirov class cruiser Frunze.

The purpose of the battleship (as a type, not as a specific class) is to create a situation where a navy has command of the sea. The purpose of a cruiser is to ensure the maintenance and welfare of this command, as a direct link between the battlefleet and the “population of the sea” or commerce. Currently the new USN battleship, the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyer are being used in the cruiser role, where its abilities are wasted, because as we noted above, these are battle force vessels.

As a type, there are no real cruisers in the US Navy. What comes close are the aging Perry class frigates and the Cyclone class of Patrol ships. The Navy sees the new littoral combat ship returning a more effective commerce protection role to the fleet, but this controversial vessel and her faults make it doubtful she can achieve such results. Here is Raymond Pritchett discussing the new ship’ inadequacies:

Ultimately, I do not see the LCS as is capable of meeting the requirements the Navy is demanding from it. The LCS is too expensive to buy the number of littoral ships needed to dominate that battlespace. The LCS is too big to be risked in the littorals during wartime, not to mention having survivability problems if thought of or treated as a warship. The LCS is too small to deploy the number of unmanned vehicles necessary to be effective, and cannot repair those systems when they break. That does not make the LCS a poor addition to the flotilla, rather it would be a smart addition, if utilized in a way that supported a credible approach to littoral warfare. Ultimately, to deal with the challenges of both war and peace, a credible littoral solution will require numerous ships smaller than the LCS, but also smaller ships capable of delivering more offensive firepower.

Destroyer Leaders like the USS Norfolk (DL-1) are direct ancestors of the modern missile cruiser.

Destroyer Leaders like the USS Norfolk (DL-1) are direct ancestors of the modern missile cruiser.

I have written before that the submarine currently holds some disturbing advantages over the surface combatant. The surface ship has advantages as well, such as the ability to defend convoys and destroy aircraft, though these are mainly defensive roles and in few ways threatens the submarine. It will take a war, however, to settle the issue, for definitive proof on which warship holds the mantle of capital ship. Until then, we continue to ponder “where are the cruisers“, or in other words, where are the small ships not tied specifically to the battleline?

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 31, 2009 3:53 pm

    The SSK seems to get “lucky” alot on consistent occasions from the world wars to today! Still the greatest ship-killer in all history. Thats a good amount of luck!

  2. Heretic permalink
    July 31, 2009 9:45 am

    I didn’t say SSKs weren’t a problem. As I said, they may’ve missed it when clearing their transit route and the SSK got lucky.

    So … it’ll never happen again? EVER?
    In wartime?

    You willing to put that in writing?

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    July 30, 2009 5:21 pm


    I didn’t say SSKs weren’t a problem. As I said, they may’ve missed it when clearing their transit route and the SSK got lucky.

  4. Heretic permalink
    July 30, 2009 3:51 pm

    SSKs won’t necessarily “slip through the cracks” as much as a task force will miss them when it’s clearing an area for transit. At 4-12kts submerged, or 18-20kts at max speed, an SSK will have trouble just keeping up with a task force it’s hunting. It has to get lucky and be in the right place at the right time.

    And yet … a PLAN SSK managed to surface in the middle of a CVN battle group in 2006. Needless to say, this was a complete surprise to the CBG, since the PLAN SSK was not supposed to be there … and yet … it very undeniably, WAS THERE. Kinda hard to miss after they breached the surface of the ocean to deliberately reveal their presence (also known as the “if you can see me, you’re already sunk!” maneuver when no one is shooting).

    The year 2006 does not exactly sound like “ancient history” to me. How about you?

  5. B.Smitty permalink
    July 30, 2009 2:54 pm

    Mike, CVEs performed admirably in the ASW role during WWII.

    However I agree, given existing airborne approaches, carriers don’t make the best ASW platforms.

    I have thought about the possibility of using medium and heavy lift rotorcraft to rapidly deploy and recover UUVs and sensor grids. If this was feasible, the carrier could again become a primary ASW asset.

    Visby and Skjold certainly have a shorter radar detection ranges, but this will impact surface and airborne radars equally.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 30, 2009 2:31 pm

    Smitty, I don’t see the carriers doing sea control as you envisioned, especially not in wartime. During the war years, the large carrier attempting to hunt submarines always led to disaster. During the Dardanelles campaign in the First World War, Turkish mines took a terrible tole on British battleships. And lets not forget the USS tripoli in the Gulf. I know they can do this but they have no business in such waters.

    Concerning the aircraft being detected by airborne sensors, I wonder how the Nordic stealth boats like Visby would fare in such conditions?

    I also don’t see the d/e submarines typically hunting battle groups but would more likely go after a nation’s commerce. Most of the world’s merchant fleets of necessity pass through these littoral chokepoints where the conventional submarines sit and wait. Easy pickings IMHO!

  7. B.Smitty permalink
    July 30, 2009 11:00 am

    Submarines (specifically SSNs) may slip through the cracks, but small craft can still be detected by airborne sensors.

    SSKs won’t necessarily “slip through the cracks” as much as a task force will miss them when it’s clearing an area for transit. At 4-12kts submerged, or 18-20kts at max speed, an SSK will have trouble just keeping up with a task force it’s hunting. It has to get lucky and be in the right place at the right time.

    Mike, what exactly do you mean by “sea control”? VBSS?

    If you go by the traditional definition, “allowing use of the seas by friendly forces”, then aside from distant ASW and MIW, carriers aren’t less effective than cruisers. They do have different capabilities, though.

    Carriers are very effective at distant ISR, ASuW, AAW and land attack – far more effective than cruisers. Carriers are gaining MIW capabilities and can perform ASW (both through the use of helos), however the jury is still out as to the most effective means to perform these task.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 30, 2009 10:24 am

    The carrier does command of the sea like the old battleships, in that it create a condition for control (defeat of an enemy battlefleet or making it inoperable through blockade/containment), but it will be the cruisers that perform actual sea control. Small craft and submarines will always slip through the cracks. This is why i say the carriers are apart of the team, but far from the only part.

    But you are correct that the USN currently sees the carrier as performing sea control, along with their escorts, the giant Burke destroyers. This seems to me a very wasteful strategy with many holes in it.

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    July 30, 2009 9:59 am


    My point was, a billion dollar carrier can exercise a lot more “sea control” than a billion dollar surface combatant. Of course “sea control” means different things to different people.

    No, a single carrier can’t perform VBSS as effectively as multiple small vessels. But it sure can out-scout them, and it most certainly can concentrate forces and firepower faster and more effectively.

    A carrier does provide sustained presence. Constant CAPs and ISR sorties can be maintained at significant distances from the ship.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 30, 2009 9:38 am

    Smitty said “You can can control a lot more sea with aircraft and helicopters.”

    Aircraft, like any other weapon can enhance the abilities of ships, but in no way can it replace them in most roles, especially the sustained presence required from a cruiser. Problem is, the aircraft must have motherships. And with even small carriers breaching the billion dollar range, you can only afford a handful. This limits the amount of sea you can cover. And if the carrier is sunk or damaged, your aircraft are useless.

    Which brings me back to what I said in another post, quoting Corbett “In no case can we exercise control by battleships alone.”

    Hudson-I am not certain about these Navy tests you mentioned, but clearly they are living in the past if they think only manned naval air is required for sea control. The Air Forces and Land forces have consistently proved the abilities of precision missiles since 1991. These cheap but effective robot aircraft are revolutionizing warfare, and placing all our hopes in a few Big Ship will be the doom of us.

    Too bad the USN feels this way because spreading such capability (longbows at sea I call them!) in many small vessels around the fleet would be the answer to all their current budget and force structure woes.

  11. Defiant permalink
    July 30, 2009 7:08 am

    The problem with ship fired anti ship missiles is that the asm uses radar guidance for terminal targetting, so it will simply hit the ship with the biggest rcs in terminal mode, if it doesnt find anything, it misses, but it may as well find another civil ship and hit it. Darpa gave lockheed money to built a new asm for that cause. I’m afraid the polyphem got cancelled, a fibre optic guided missile with 50km range, it’s not enough to sink a ship but you can easily get a mission kill, have low rcs and the range is sufficient as radar horizon won’t allow for more(in ship versus ship).

  12. Hudson permalink
    July 30, 2009 12:44 am

    From what I have read, the Navy determined from tests years ago that ASMs fired from ships were unreliable. Half of the test missiles (Harpoons?) missed the target or hit a neutral vessel. This is why the Navy places Harpoons on relatively few ships, likely why it removed the missile arm from its remaining Perry class frigates, why it doesn’t build missile boats with ASMs, and why it will not build corvettes with ASMs.

    I wonder about this. Russian-built Styx missiles fired from an Egyptian missile boat sank an Israeli destroyer in the 1967 war, I believe. And most recently, A Russian ship sank a Georgian ship with a single large ASM. Can all of the world’s navies be wrong and the USN be right?

  13. B.Smitty permalink
    July 29, 2009 10:55 pm

    Byron said, “How to turn it into a sea control ship? Give it a good anti-ship missile.”

    No. Add a few tens of thousands of tons and give it a carrier air wing.

    You can can control a lot more sea with aircraft and helicopters.

  14. Bill permalink
    July 29, 2009 6:28 pm

    “If it’s onlly the ASM it is lacking to make the Burke’s a capital vessel, do you need a 10,000 ton ship to launch it?”

    Oh good grief. 260 ton 60-knot Skjolds carry 8 of the world’s most advanced ASM that exist, fer crying out loud. Why does this argument even carry any water?? Oh..and they also carry a 76mm auto-firing deck gun that would sink an LCS in what?..15 minutes?..half an hour tops? Hell..why waste a good missile agains t a ‘threat’ that is unarmed?..reminds me of the German subs surfacing to sink low-grade cargo vessels with their deck gun so they wouldn’t waste a good torpedo.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 29, 2009 2:32 pm

    “How to turn it into a sea control ship? Give it a good anti-ship missile.”

    If it’s onlly the ASM it is lacking to make the Burke’s a capital vessel, do you need a 10,000 ton ship to launch it? Couldn’t the same missile be fired from a frigate, corvette, or fast attack craft? Then it becomes about the weapon it fires more than the platform.

    This is why I think we have so many wasting assets. We could build up fleet numbers and save the wear-and-tear on our handful of ships and their over-worked crews, by taking advantage of this new technology deployed since the 1980s. So many small spartan ships with the new precision weapons can take the place of a few big ships, without any loss of capabilities. In fact, our capabilities will increase because we spread our amazing firepower out, also enhancing the fleet’s survivability.

    We think that only long-range and heavily armed battleships can survive this new environment, forgetting how we put so much hope in the marvels of their time 70 years ago, the dreadnoughts at Pearl Harbor. But then they were defeated by a small and agile foe, whose abilities were also much maligned, until it was almost too late.

  16. Byron permalink
    July 29, 2009 1:52 pm

    And you’re right. Our Navy was designed to work as integrated units. Rarely do the operate solo, unless it’s counter drug ops

  17. Byron permalink
    July 29, 2009 1:51 pm

    Just look at the weapons loadout.

    5″ gun: not much really, especially not for NGFS.
    A pair of VLSs that are mostly anti-air, but can (in a percentage of cells) load TLAM.
    Phalanx (on the older flights, none on the newer flights)
    Two LWT torpedo mounts.
    Two helos for ASW.

    Now that doesn’t give you a sea dominance platform. It gives you a carrier escort and a presence ship.

    How to turn it into a sea control ship? Give it a good anti-ship missile.

    And the small boys have since WW2 have been called frigates. They do escort work, they hunt subs, and do all the crap jobs big Navy doesn’t want. That’s a frigates life. A frigate should have teeth, and it should be able to have a reasonable self-defense, other than stealth and speed, neither of which will overcome the Mk.1 eyeball or a cannon round moving somewhere north of 1000 fps.

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 28, 2009 8:17 pm

    Byron, when calling the LCS a frigate, I suppose I mean the old-time ASW frigate, which the Perry class was among the last. You are correct though especially with the new European frigates, the LCS is no comparison.

    Not having a naval war in the past few years, I am not sure how certain you can be that the Burkes cannot dominate sea and land areas. It certainly has the firepower, with the Aegis system probably more effective than any land SAM system in existence, with Tomahawk giving it the land attack capability. Sure a carrier can do a better job as far as dominating a certain area, but consider it can’t do this alone, but must be heavily escorted and defended by the above mentioned Burkes and its naval kin.

    I don’t think any single warship could fit your definition of a battleship, since it is always a team effort.

  19. Byron permalink
    July 28, 2009 2:27 pm

    Mike, LCS is a lot of things, but it ain’t a frigate. Put it side by side with any other frigate from any other Navy, and the LCS would be blown out the water without making much of a show for itself.

    Kirov fits in the role of a battlecruiser; able to defend the carrier, able to perform the ASW role, able to conduct anti-ship missions. Kirove is a battle cruiser in the classical roll. To some extents, the CG-47 class matches up (but without the big freaking ASMs). The DDG-51 falls somewhere between a destroyer and a cruiser. By the classical definition of “battleship, the Burke does NOT fit the role; it cannot dominate the sea, nor can it dominate the land (within range). To an extent, Burke can force events ashore with TLAM, but not on the beach itself; TLAMs are more strategic/operational weapons, not to attack shore side bunkers. So, from that definition, Burke does not fit the “battleship” definition, no matter how much you want to make it so.

  20. Hudson permalink
    July 28, 2009 1:26 pm

    Mike, you have a friend in the chief of naval operations off the Horn, who has stated that he wished he had something less expensive than billion dollar ships to chase pirates with.

    Something else is at work in this assemblage of foreign ships that cooperate remarkably well in pursuit of their common goal (maybe a lesson here) — and that is fashion. Countries aren’t sending their clunkers or smallest ships capable of doing the job, but their top-of-the line beauties. They’re showing off. It might not make dollars and sense, but there you go.

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 28, 2009 11:49 am

    “ships performing in the cruiser role today are frigates”

    Note also that frigates are approaching the cost of destroyers, and often are as well armed. We need lots of frigates, but no one can afford sizable numbers of billion dollar warships. The LCS is a frigate, though a unique one.

    This is why I often insist we have to go back to basics in warships design and the 1000 ton corvette comes up. We can build these at a reasonable price, and by taking advantage of new technology such as precision missiles, and unmanned systems, these will be more than just patrol ships and gunboats. They will do this same mission we are sending our most expensive ships to do . Navies should take advantage of this and restore numbers to the fleet, without breaking the bank.

  22. Hudson permalink
    July 28, 2009 11:20 am

    I would say that all subs and any surface ship carrying long range weapons fit into the sea control category: carriers, cruisers, some destroyers, and arsenal ships like the Russian Kirov. Of course, there are missile boats that carry long range cruise missiles, as well.

    The ships performing in the cruiser role today are frigates, as you have noted. Every respectable navy has frigates; ours are old and enfeebled. Frigates are the main ship type patrolling off the Horn of Africa protecting commerce from pirates. Nor are they over specified in this role. Their choppers have been particularly useful in discouraging pirates. I read about a Spanish chopper that dumped paint or dye on pirates in their open skiff, discouraging them from further attack.

    Our CG(X) program remains in doubt. As you know, the DD(X) program was ended at three vessels because of their high price tag. The real distinguishing feature of these ships is their huge energy production, capable of producing the wattage to power high energy lasers, a real 21st Century weapon.

    In naval minds, battleships had big guns when they roamed the seven seas. Now they are gone like the dinosaurs. The Russians might gamely call their arsenal or sea control ship a battlecruiser. But most people will know better.

  23. Heretic permalink
    July 28, 2009 11:13 am

    Thread digression into LCS, but perhaps relevant to other matters:
    LCS 2 Trials Reveal Problems, But No Delays

    At least with LCS 2, the (inevitable) problems that are cropping up are more a matter of “teething trouble” rather than fundamental design flaws (see: LCS 1).


  1. Does America Need More Battleships? « New Wars
  2. Meet the Sloop « New Wars
  3. Morning Briefing – July 28, 2009 — Behind Blue Lines

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: