Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Death of the Cruiser

It seems evident the United States will be building no more warships called cruisers, and, as the U.S. Navy is about the only one building many large surface combatants of any kind, it seems likely that the cruiser, as a class of warship, will be joining the battleship as a relic of an earlier age.

There's been no formal announcement that the Navy won't have any more cruiser, but applying a little analysis to the current state of Navy ship-building leads to the conclusion that there won't be any more cruisers, ever.

The difference between "cruisers' and "destroyers" has been eroding for close to 50 years, as destroyer classes have continued to grow and destroyers have evolved from special-purpose escorts into general-purpose surface combatants, which used to be the role of cruisers. The re designations of "frigates" "destroyers" "destroyer leaders" and "cruisers" over the years has been evidence of this process. The last large class of cruisers built for the U.S. Navy, the Ticonderoga class, was built on the same hull as the large Spruance class destroyers. And the Arliegh Burke class destroyers are about the same size as the Spruances and Ticonderogas.

The newest, Zumwalt-class destroyers, are slated to displace about 14,000 tons, which makes them larger than all but the largest classes of World War II-era heavy cruisers and larger than the vast majority of post-war cruisers. In fact, I think only the nuclear cruiser USS Long Beach had a larger displacement among U.S. Navy cruisers built since 1950.

It's been politically expedient for quite a while to build "destroyers" instead of cruisers because destroyers sound like smaller, cheaper warships than cruisers to ignorant congressmen and the public. This won't be the first time the Navy pulled a fast one on Congress with semantics. (The Nineteenth Century Navy got more than one new warship by persuading Congress to pay for "repairing" an old one.)

But, with destroyers weighing at 14,000 tons or more in there's simply no longer any room for a "cruiser" in the scheme of things. There are no larger surface combatant warships planned. Ships larger than 20,000 tons displacement are generally aviation ships such as attack carriers, amphibious ships or those new Japanese "destroyers" that look like small aircraft carriers.

The only navy to build a class of very large surface combatants was the Soviet Russian navy with its Kirov-class nuclear battle cruisers. While impressive looking, the actual utility of such vessels is unclear and there have been no similar vessels built by anyone.

So logic dictates that there will be no more cruisers. The term "destroyer" no longer means an agile, small and expendable escort vessel. Those are "frigates" and "corvettes" now. Today a destroyer is a large, multi-purpose major surface combatant. Tactically there's no difference in role between a Ticonderoga-class Aegis "cruiser" and the Arleigh Burke-class Aegis "destroyer."

No comments:

Slate - Encyclopedia Baracktannica