The most outstanding US scout cruiser was certainly the Omaha class. Once naval aviation began to provide float planes for use on cruisers and battleships, the scout cruiser's role declined in importance so that none were built after about 1925. US Navy cruiser design in the years leading up to 1920 was focused on two main types of new cruisers. The first was a class of scout cruisers which would eventually become the Omaha Class; the second was a new class of battle cruisers which was started, but never completed.
The Omaha class was a post-WWI design, and were the fastest US cruisers at the time of their commision. Built to be the eyes of a fleet of battleships, they featured a high speed for cooperation with destroyers, and 6-inch guns to fend off any destroyers the enemy might launch against them.
With four smokestacks, the Omahas looked remarkably like the old four-stacker destroyers which they were intended to lead. Their armament showed the slow change from casemate-mounted weapons to turret-mounted guns. They mounted twelve 6-inch guns, of which four were mounted in two twin turrets, one each firing fore and aft, and eight in casemates. The casemates were placed in the superstructure, not in the hull, as they had been on most previous classes, and were distributed with four guns firing forward and four firing aft. All casemates were also able to fire to the sides.
Maneuvers conducted in January 1915 made it clear that the US Atlatntic Fleet lacked the fast cruisers that were necessary to give information of the position of the enemy as well as to deny the enemy information of our position and to screen friendly forces. In department's strategical problem No. 1, played May 18-25, 1915; the lack of heavily armored fast vessels and light cruisers was especially felt. For seven days, from the start of the problem until it ended, the Blue commander in chief has no reliable information of the position or movements of the enemy, while the enemy, due to superior cruiser force, was well informed of Blue movements and dispositions at all times.
The winter's work made it evident that destroyers were quite unsuited for scouting except under very favorable circumstances. Their radio communication was reliable for short distances only. Their reliance for safety was based entirely on their speed and in moderately rough seas their speed was so much reduced as to render them a prey to fast enemy cruisers. Aside from the reduction of the speed there was a loss in efficiency of destroyer personnel subjected for several days to rough weather. Destroyers in no sense could be relied upon to take up the duties of fast cruisers.
During the First World War, but prior to America's entry, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1916 authorizing (but not appropriating funds for) a massive buildup of the fleet to create "a navy second to none" in the world. The new units for the navy to be begun within three years, including those authorized to be begun at once, were 10 battleships, 6 battle cruisers, 10 scout cruisers [the Omaha Class], 50 destroyers, 9 fleet submarines, 58 coast defense submarines, 1 special type submarine, 3 fuel ships, 1 repair ship, 1 transport, 1 hospital ship, 2 destroyer tenders, 1 fleet submarine tender, 2 ammunition ships, and 2 gunboats.
By 1916 Admiral Fletcher proposed acquiring 20 Scout Cruisers of 10,000 ton displacement, a number sufficient to escort a group of Battleships. This type of scout cruiser was simply an evolution in the line of scouts, and would be superior to any scouting vessels that foreign navies have. It is in the same line of development that has taken place in all other types of ships. The US, in the development of this scout cruiser, was approaching the battle cruiser - getting larger and larger and more habitable, with wider range of action.
In 1921, the Director of Naval Aviation, in a hearing before the Navy General Board, stated that the Langley would be good for the preliminary training in landing and taking off from the snip and they would gain great information from her. He further stated that in considering the subject of changing the 7,500-ton scout cruiser to airplane carriers that if he could be assured that they would build a carrier of the type that we have been discussing, the large 35,000-ton ship, he did not think it was necessary to change the scout cruisers.
The OMAHA represented the first successful cruiser design in over a decade. Fast, maneuverable and relatively powerful, it compared well with any other country's cruisers. The US Navy continued the pattern of deliberately designing cruisers with slightly increased performance over comparable foreign designs. Before WWI, the average cruiser in the world's navies displaced less than 5,000 tons and was armed with a few 6-inch guns in open shields. The Omaha Class design was greatly superior to such craft in battery, speed, and range. The Omaha Class was designed specifically in response to the British Centaur Class cruisers. Although from a modern viewpoint a conflict between the US and Great Britain seems implausible, US Navy planners during this time and up to the mid-30's considered Britain to be a formidable rival for power in the Atlantic, and the possibility of armed conflict between the two countries plausible enough to merit appropriate planning measures.
Originally designed with eight 6-inch guns, this number was increased to a total of twelve during construction to counter the seven 6-inch guns aboard the Centaur. At a design speed of 35 knots, the Omaha was the fastest ship in the world, a full 3 knots faster than its closest British rival.
Launched in 1920, the Omaha (designated C4 and later CL 4) had a displacement of just over 7,100 long tons. The cruisers emerged with a distinctly archaic appearance owing to their WWI-type stacked twin casemate-mount cannons and were among the last broadside cruisers designed anywhere.
As a result of the design changes placed on the ship mid-construction, the Omaha that entered the water in 1920 was a badly overloaded design that, even at the beginning, had been rather tight.v The ships were insufficiently insulated, too hot in the tropics and too cold in the north. Sacrifices in weight savings in the name of increased speed led to severe compromise in the habitability of the ship. While described as a good ship in a seaway, the low freeboard led to frequent green water ingestion over the bow and in the torpedo compartments. The lightly built hulls leaked, so that sustained high-speed steaming contaminated the oiltanks with sea water.
These drawbacks notwithstanding, the US Navy took a great deal of pride in the Omaha Class. The Omaha placed a high emphasis on underwater explosion protection from the threat of torpedoes. She was designed with improved compartmentation while her magazines were the first to be placed on centerline, below the waterline.
Originally designed to serve as a scout, they served throughout the interwar period as leaders of fleet flotillas, helping them resist enemy destroyer attack. Tactical scouting became the province of cruiser aircraft, and the distant scouting role was taken over by the new heavy cruisers spawned by the Washington Naval Treaty. Thus, the Omahas never performed their designed function. They were relegated to the fleet-screening role, where their high speed and great volume of fire were most appreciated.
Due to the large topweight lasting on these ships, compounded by the high-mounted catapults, the Navy removed two of the aft firing casemate-mounted guns in 1939. These were the oldest class of cruisers still in service with the Navy in 1941.
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