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Cruisers in the Cold War - 1945-1990

When World War II ended in 1945, it appeared that air power had been the decisive element in achieving victory in both European and Pacific theaters. Strategic bombing, it was claimed, had weakened the German war machine to the point that the D-Day invasion could succeed, and in the Pacific, of course, the surrender of Japan resulted from the dropping of two nuclear bombs from high-flying heavy bombers. While traditional functions of sea power had also played a very important role in keeping lines of communication with Britain open in the Battle of the Atlantic, and in getting control of the Pacific from Japan, these activities were less dramatic and perhaps less obvious to the non-expert. The aircraft carrier had entirely displaced the battleship as the capital ship of major navies for sea control activities, although the latter still were favored for shore bombardment and antiaircraft screening of the carriers.

At the conclusion of World War II the United States had a large fleet that included light and heavy cruisers in commission with several more under construction. During the postwar period that followed, the United States had to transition from a war footing to a cold-war period of peace. Planners for the military budgets began to question the need for such a large navy. In response, U.S. Navy spokesmen pointed to the need to defend the homeland, to maintain the Monroe Doctrine, and to have the United States preserve the peace of the world. However, President Harry S. Truman wanted to cut deficit spending and ordered defense funding slashed, while relying on nuclear technology to keep the peace. Many ships were decommissioned and even those remaining in service were not always adequately manned.

Tensions with the Soviet Union led to new commitments overseas in the late 1940's. In the Mediterranean, traditionally dominated by the Royal Navy, the United States picked up the slack when Great Britain cut their forces there. Cruisers and other ships made numerous port visits, showing the flag and demonstrating U.S. support to local governments threatened by the Communists. This small initial force ultimately became the Sixth Fleet and was a major commitment for the Atlantic Fleet through the Cold War.

In the Far East, the mission of the pre-war Asiatic Fleet was continued by Naval Forces Far East, based in Japan, and the Seventh Fleet in the Philippines. These were both much smaller than the names imply and each had a single cruiser assigned as a flagship. With the outbreak of the Korean War, these cruisers, supplemented by Royal Navy cruisers based in the Far East, quickly began shore bombardment duties, supporting the lightly equipped troops ashore.

In this environment, it is ironic that in spite of budget cuts following the war, cruisers continued to be built, and some of them were intended for traditional cruiser missions. The reason for this was that during the war, the Bureau of Ships (BuShips, founded in 1940 from consolidation of the Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Engineering) continued designing improved cruisers incorporating the lessons learned through war experience. Freed from Treaty tonnage limits although still concerned about the rapid increase in ship size, BuShips designers attempted to improve main armament performance and survivability compared to the wartime "Tinclads." Experience in night battles in the Solomon Islands showed that the lower rate of fire of 8-inch guns made it difficult to hit a high speed, maneuvering target, while 6-inch guns were deficient in range.

In early 1952, as the U.S. Navy was beginning to convert the heavy cruisers Boston (CA-69) and Canberra (CA-70) to carry anti-aircraft guided missiles, it also began a new cruiser hull number series for this new type of warship. Since both retained some of their original eight-inch guns, they were redesignated guided missile heavy cruisers (CAG-1 and CAG-2). In 1957, six light cruisers were similarly redesignated as CLG-3 through CLG-8, though the first of these briefly retained her original number (as CLG-93). Similarly, the new construction nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Long Beach was initially designated CLGN-160, then CGN-160, before receiving her definitive designation (CGN-9) in mid-1957. The next three heavy cruiser conversions, which retained none of their original guns, became CG-10 through CG-12. Two more such conversions, CG-13 and CG-14, were cancelled.

The final number in the CL Light Cruiser series (CLGN-160) was briefly assigned to the new nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Long Beach during 1956-57, before she was laid down. No further ships have been built in the CL/CA series, and its few surviving members were in museum status, so the designation can be safely considered extinct.

U.S. cruisers in the Vietnam conflict repeated their Korean War mission of providing naval bombardment both in the South, firing in support of friendly forces as well as in the North where they sometimes had their fire returned by North Vietnamese shore batteries. In addition, CG's and DLG's were stationed as radar pickets between the carriers and the coastline, maintaining a PIRAZ (Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone) to maintain an air picture and guard against MIGs that might be attacking naval aircraft or the fleet. The DLG's in addition served as forward platforms for SAR helicopters. Since the end of World War II, the US Navy had gone its own way in naming its ship types. Once the CLK designator was deleted in 1951, and the DL and DLG designator introduced, US "frigates" became large, capable ships. US destroyer escorts (DE), introduced during the war, were a mass production ASW ship generally smaller, slower, and less capable than a destroyer, and US cruiser production (once that CLK designator was retired) gradually petered out. In other navies, different terminology was in use. No one used the DE designator. British "corvettes" were extremely austere escorts, even smaller than our DE's. Most European navies, including the RN, were calling their larger escorts "frigates." Both these terms were re-used in the 20th century from Age of Sail types of lighter craft, smaller than a ship of the line. By 1975, with US frigates growing bigger and bigger, the terminology seemed even more out of line with that of other navies. On June 30th 1975, much of this changed. All of the destroyer leader frigates (DL), except for the Coontz Class, consisting of the Virginia, California, Truxtun, Belknap, Bainbridge, and Leahy Classes were redesignated as guided missile cruisers (CG/CGN). The Coontz Class was redesignated as Guided Missile Destroyers (DDG). The ocean escorts (DE), consisting of the Perry, Brooke, Knox, Garcia, and Bronstein Classes, were redesignated as frigates (FF). The Navy's guided missile frigates (DLG) were all reclassified as either guided missile destroyers (DDG) or guided missile cruisers (CG). The latter, some of which were still under construction, retained their original DLG series numbers, becoming CG-16 through CGN-41. In the process, the hull number CG-15 was skipped. A short time later, construction of additional nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers was stopped, resulting in cancellation of the planned CGN-42.

In 1980 the new DDG-47 class guided missile destroyers were upgraded to guided missile cruisers, but retained their original numbers to become the CG-47 class. This reclassification also required skipping the intervening CG series numbers (CG-43 through CG-46). Subsequently, more than two dozen new CGs have been built and were still in service.

Because of modern high-performance aircraft and guided missiles, the cruisers in service were designed to carry guided missiles. By the 1970s the two basic types of cruisers were the guided-missile cruiser (CG) and guided-missile cruiser (nuclear propulsion) (CGN). Cruisers displaced from 10,000 to 21,500 tons. The CG carries guns as well as missiles. The CG-47 class is the first to employ vertical launch missile tubes and the shipboard integrated AAW combat weapons system (Aegis). CGNs are the same as the CGs except that their main engines are nuclear powered.

At one time cruisers were named after cities; but after the completion of the Long Beach (CGN-9), the names of cities were assigned to newly constructed auxiliary ships (AOEs/AORs/ AFSs). The names of cities are also given to attack submarines, beginning with the Los Angeles (SSN-688) class. Several active cruisers, formerly classified as guided-missile frigates and named after Navy and Marine Corps personnel and Secretaries of the Navy, retained their destroyer-type names. Other cruisers, beginning with the CGN-36, were named after states. The CG-47-class cruisers are named after revolutionary war battles.

During the late 1970's and through the 1980's several modifications were made to the former DLG/DLGNs to upgrade their ability to meet changing threats and add new capabilities. This illustrated the necessity for a cruiser design to have flexibility to evolve during its service life. The Soviet Navy had developed the SS-N-2 Styx missile late in the 1950's and deployed it aboard a small missile patrol boat of the Komar class in 1961. With a 1,000 kilogram shaped charge and a speed of Mach 0.9, the Soviets believed that two of these missiles could sink a destroyer. An important development in warship design came during the Six-Day War in 1967 with the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat by three Egyptian Styx missiles, the first warship to be destroyed in this manner. This event had a great impact on the U.S. Navy as it illustrated the vulnerability of large surface ships to a relatively cheap weapon. This lesson was reinforced by the British experience in 1982 in the Falklands against the Exocet missile. As a counter to the cruise missile threat, the existing cruisers were fitted with several systems to provide a point defense capability. One was the Phalanx Close-InWeapons-System (CIWS) which provided a hardkill capability and was a modern day counterpart of the 20mm and 40mm guns used in WWII.

Electronic warfare systems were also upgraded with the installation of SRBOC chaff launchers and the SLQ-32(V)3 system with active jamming capability. Some classes also received selective armoring against fragmentation threats to avoid a "cheap kill" as happened to the USS Worden (DLG 18) off Vietnam (ironically from an accidentally fired US Shrike missile). All the cruisers were provided with dual quad launchers for the Harpoon cruise missile, giving them a capability against surface targets beyond gun range. These were normally installed in place of the existing 3-inch guns. In addition, several of the CG 26 class and the CGN's had a signal exploitation capability added with the Classic Outboard system.

Finally, the New Threat Upgrade (NTU) program provided additional capability beyond the original Terrier and Tarter missile fire control systems in two ways. Targets could be engaged at longer range due to the use of the autopilot in the SM-2 missile which could be updated during flight via a data link (similar to Aegis) and fly a more energy efficient interception path. Also, with NTU (similar to Aegis) the illuminators were only required for the terminal phase of missile flight (instead of during the entire flight time), allowing a greater number of targets to be engaged simultaneously.

The Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter or DASH was developed starting in the late 1950's to deliver an anti-submarine torpedo or a nuclear depth charge out to a range that matched the expected ranges from the new sonars being developed and which was further than ASROC was capable of. Although primarily assigned to smaller ships, the DLG 26 class was also intended to operate DASH. DASH had a poor reputation in service and suffered a high crash rate. In retrospect, some of the reasons seem to be lack of redundancy in the control systems (intended to reduce cost), rapid turnover in maintenance and operations personnel and being a system operated by the surface community but depending on support from the aviation community. Before being retired in 1970 however, some of the drones were modified to carry a television camera and a telemetry system. These "Snoopy" drones were used to spot naval gunfire in Vietnam and were an early version of today's VTUAV's. DASH was replaced in the early 1970's by the SH-2 Seasprite LAMPS I manned helicopter which were converted from existing airframes. LAMPS provided additional capabilities and could accomplish additional missions beyond DASH. These capabilities were extended further with the purpose built and larger SH-60 LAMPS III which became part of the CG 47 outfit.

By the 1980s, with the advent of the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers, the distinction between a cruiser and destroyer was blurred. According to the US Navy, a cruiser was focused on anti-air warfare [AAW], and was focused on providing air defense to an aircraft carrier. The destroyer was focused on anti-surface and anti-submarine duties, while also having a substantial anti-air capability.

From the very first studies, the DDG was given two contradictory roles: 1) to be a smaller force-number-builder and 2) fix things that were perceived to be wrong with the CG 47. Specifically, it was felt that a ship armed with Tomahawk, unlike a carrier escort, could fight while hurt. Even if the ship were slowed and had lost a combat system capability in one or more areas, if it could receive Tomahawk targeting data and launch, the self-guiding missile would be fully functional. Thus the DDG received a steel superstructure, increased blast overpressure resistance, more armor, a collective protection system and radar cross section reduction measures. Thus there is a historically anomalous situation of the destroyer being a more survivable ship than the cruiser.

A question that has continually come up is "what if a new cruiser, with weapons the same as the CG 47 class, were designed starting with the DDG and expanding into the cruiser mission?" In order to have a math model of such a ship for future technology studies, Navy Preliminary design created the Cruiser Baseline (CGBL). The study also included weapons systems modularity and increased service life reserves. The resulting ship had a waterline length of 600 feet, a beam of 69 feet, a displacement of about 13,500 tons plus a 30+ knot speed.

Another cruiser alternative studied in the late 1980s was variously entitled a Mission Essential Unit (MEU) or CG V/STOL. In a return to the thoughts of the independent operations cruiser-carriers of the 1930s and the Russian Kiev class, the ship was fitted with a hangar, elevators and a flight deck. The mission systems were Aegis, SQS-53 sonar, 12 SV-22 ASW aircraft and 200 VLS cells. The resulting ship had a waterline length of 700 feet, a waterline beam of 97 feet, and a displacement of about 25,000 tons.

By the end of the Cold War, only the navies of America and Russia deployed cruisers.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:43:02 ZULU