As aircraft range and speed and ship-mounted sensors' detection capabilities increased following World War II, coordinating the activity of a carrier group became more complicated. Better facilities were required to sort through the detection and intelligence data, with additional personnel to select targets and manage fleet ships and aircraft in defense and offense in a coordinated manner. If this facility was to stay with the carrier, it had to be on a high speed ship, and a rather large ship at that. While one might suppose that the development of computers could in principle reduce the manpower required for these command functions, the space required for computers and sensors continued to increase in this time period, leading to a cruiser size ship being needed to perform the command ship function. It is implicit in this description that the Admiral and his staff would be embarked on the command ship, which could act as the nerve center of the fleet.
In 1945, work had been stopped on the Oregon City class heavy cruiser Northampton, then some 54% complete. She was ordered completed as an AGC (amphibious group flagship) with fleet flagship capabilities. The ship was commissioned as CLC 1 in 1953. She had been totally transformed from the original design, with an additional deck, a much reduced armament (four 5-inch /54's in single mounts, plus 3-inch /70's and 20-mm secondary batteries), and an extensive suite of radars and radios. Although amphibious assaults also needed sophisticated coordination, a high speed hull was not required for this mission.
A subtext of the development of the command cruiser is the evolution of the aircraft carrier. These ships, as their airplanes became bigger and heavier, were becoming overloaded, even as BuShips policy discouraged them from increasing too much in size in order to avoid an expensive infrastructure investment such as new drydocks and harbor dredging. Also, in the immediate postwar period, before the adoption of angled decks, it appeared that islands would have to be reduced in size or possibly even eliminated, so that radars on carriers would have to be small or of limited number. While radars on the carriers themselves could do some of their own detection, Northampton carried a more elaborate array, including SPS-2 long range air search, SPS-3 zenith search, and SPS-8 height finder. This combination couldn"t fit on a carrier's island without interfering with each other. Radio antennas and transceivers on the command cruiser could communicate with not only ships and aircraft in the battle group, but from most parts of the world, directly with Washington. Therefore, the command cruiser was equipped not only as a tactical flagship for the battle group surrounding it, but also to be a fleet or larger scale force or theater flagship.
The third Northampton was laid down as CA-125, 31 August 1944 by the Fore River Yard, Bethlehem Steel Corp., Quincy, Mass. Work suspended between 11 August 1945 and 1 July 1948; she was launched as CLC-1, 27 January 1951; sponsored by Mrs. Edmond J. Lampron, and commissioned as CLC-1, 7 March 1953, Capt. William D. Irvin in command.
Following shakedown, Northampton reported for duty to Commander Operational Development Forces, Atlantic Fleet. For seven months she conducted extensive tests of her new equipment. Evaluation completed in September 1954, she reverted to the operational control of Commander Battleship-Cruiser Force, Atlantic Fleet. She next demonstrated her capabilities as a tactical Command Ship by serving as flagship, first for Commander Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet (October-November 1954) and then for Commander 6th Fleet (December 1954-March 1955). Between 1 September and 22 October she served as flagship for Commander Strike Force, Atlantic, a position she was to hold frequently over the next fifteen years.
On 24 February 1956, Northampton emerged from her first overhaul, at the Portsmouth, Va., Naval Shipyard, and after refresher training off Cuba, participated, as a unit of the Navy's first guided missile division afloat, CruDiv 6, in the first public demonstration of the Terrier missile. In April, she steamed east for 6 months with the 6th Fleet, and, during the summer of 1957, resumed midshipmen training cruises. But, between that time and 1961, she returned only infrequently to European waters. Deployed on those occasions for NATO and Fleet exercises and People to People visits the command ship was visited by high government officials of various European countries, including King Baudouin of the Belgians and King Olav V of Norway.
By 1960 the US Navy had five cruisers fully effective as flagships: one each for the two forward-deployed fleets, one relief for each fleet, and the Northampton…. The missile cruisers were integrated into their respective carrier task force, providing significant AAW defense capability, while Northampton provided sensor and processing ability only to any battle group she was in.
After 1960, Northampton was modified as a National Emergency Command Post Afloat (NECPA), with most armament removed and additional communications equipment. The NECPA function, today performed by Air Force One and several reserve aircraft, is a position where the President and a small military command staff could be evacuated in the event of an impending attack on the capital. From the NECPA, the entire war could theoretically be controlled for a substantial period of time. Whether this function was fully thought out is doubtful; however capable Northampton was of carrying out the C3I tasks required, an evacuation of VIPs from Washington in the amount of time after detection of missile launch by the Soviet Union and before those missiles hit their targets seems barely possible by air from Andrews. It does not seem possible to make a connection with a warship in the Atlantic during that rather short time period.
A second NECPA was converted from the Saipan-class light carrier Wright, and recommissioned in 1963; designations changed to reflect this function, with Northampton becoming CC 1 and Wright CC 2. Northampton was redesignated CC-1 on 15 April 1961, creating a designator confusion with the CC-1 Lexington class battle cruisers. It should be noted that Wright, while built as a carrier, was also a WWII cruiser-based design.
Northampton remained in the western Atlantic until decommissioning in February 1970. Her cruises ranged from Canadian to Panamanian waters as she extensively tested and evaluated new communications equipment and played host to visiting national and international dignitaries, including Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Today, the command cruiser appears to be obsolete. Northampton and Wright have been scrapped and were never replaced. With satellite communications becoming reliable, fairly secure, and associated equipment more compact, it no longer seems critical to have the fleet flagship with a battle group. AEGIS cruisers (and even destroyers) can provide the AAW detection and coordination functions for which Northampton was originally converted, because of a similar improvement in computer and radar equipment. Today, it is common for an amphibious command ship (LCC) to act as a numbered fleet flagship – and to spend most of its time in harbor, since its 20knot top speed would not be satisfactory for it to accompany the battle group. While there is still need for a special ship to carry out the command function, it does not seem that a ship as fast as a cruiser is required. Since the LCC's in commission today are already cruiser size ships, even with their more modest speed, any future CC would probably be over 20,000 tons.
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