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A Look at the Evolution of the U.S. Navy Destroyer

By Annalisa Underwood and Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

Greyhounds of the Sea. From the first U.S. destroyer commissioned in 1902 to the famous ships of World War II to the Arleigh Burke-class, the U.S. Navy’s destroyers have evolved from small, fast, close-in surface combatants to multi-mission offensive and defensive warships that can operate independently or as part of strike groups. These warships have similar guided-missile capabilities to cruisers and partake in a wide range of missions, making them a lethal force in our fleet. From their original function as torpedo-boat destroyers to the respect they’ve earned as anti-submarine warfare vessels, modern-day destroyers have evolved into multi-mission surface combatants tailored for land attack and littoral dominance. We know that each class of destroyer is unique in its own right, but to list them all in a single blog post would take so long that a new class would be created by the time we were done. So instead, we’re going to highlight just a handful of destroyer classes and leave the others up to you, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable followers, to tell us what classes weren’t mentioned here and why they, too, are legendary surface warriors!

Bainbridge Class

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Destroyer # 1) Fitting out at the Neafie & Levy Ship & Engine Building Company shipyard, circa June-November 1902. USS Denver (Cruiser # 14) is at right, also fitting out. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives

 

During the Spanish-American War, it became apparent that a ship was needed to defend against torpedo boats. Along came the first version of the “destroyer.” Bainbridge (Torpedo-boat Destroyer No. 1) was the lead ship of this class, though the first ship to be commissioned in this class was Decatur II (DD 5) in May 1902. This was the U.S. Navy’s first class of a new type of small warship—the torpedo-boat destroyer. In the 1880s, the game-changing self-propelled torpedo was invented, forcing the world’s navies to find a defense for fleets approaching hostile coasts defended by torpedo boats. One answer was a small gun-armed ship, larger than the torpedo boat itself and capable of limited operations with a fleet on the high seas. Thus, the torpedo-boat destroyer was born. The larger, more versatile, later versions were known simply as destroyers. Technological advances, notably the triple-expansion steam engine, allowed the larger ship type to be designed and built for both missions. There were 13 ships of the Bainbridge Class, some of which served in the Philippines until 1917, in the Mediterranean during World War I, in the Atlantic as part of the Coast Squadron, and as guards in the Panama Canal.

Wickes Class

Destroyer development was taking off pretty well up to this point, but a 1915 report by Adm. William S. Sims noted that the current trend in war games called for faster vessels with longer range. Thus, the size of the U.S. destroyer classes began to increase to a displacement of more than 1,000 tons by the time the 111 destroyers of the Wickes Class were built beginning in 1917. Some Wickes destroyers were completed by World War I, but most of them served during World War II. Paul H. Silverstone noted in his book, “U.S. Warships of World War II” that to increase range and accommodate more crew, many destroyers in service at that time had only half of their usual boilers and one or more stacks removed. The absence of the forecastle seen in previous destroyers constituted the signature “flush deck” design of the Wickes class destroyers, allowing for greater hull strength. These ships had the typical armament of the preceding Caldwell Class destroyers, but their torpedo capacity was much greater than before and anti-submarine armament was added during World War I. While Congress had authorized 50 Wickes Class destroyers to be built as part of the Naval Appropriation Act of 1916, more than double that number were actually produced as a result of the threatening German U-boat campaign.

Sims Class

This class of destroyers was the last to be completed before the U.S. entered World War II. According to Norman Friedman in his book “U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History (Revised Edition),” the Sims class was the first to use the advanced Mark 37 Gun Fire Control System. This system enabled remote and automatic targeting of guns against surface ships, aircraft, and shore targets. An interesting design note for the Sims class ships is that they were the last one-stack destroyers. This was because their larger boilers required the boiler rooms to be built adjacent forward and the engine rooms adjacent aft. Operationally, all 12 destroyers of the Sims Class saw much action during World War II. Unfortunately, five ships were lost: USS Sims (DD 409) in the Battle of Coral Sea; USS Hammann (DD 412) in the Battle of Midway; USS Walke (DD 416) in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal; USS O’Brien (DD 415) while en route to Pearl Harbor for repairs after being torpedoed by Japanese Submarine I-19 more than a month earlier; and USS Buck (DD 420) off Salerno, Italy by German Submarine U-616.

Fletcher Class

Fletcher Class destroyers were built during World War II and commissioned 175 ships—the most of any class of destroyers. They became the quintessential foundation for future destroyers due largely in part to a successful and efficient design: fast, powerful, enduring, and adaptable. With a main armament of five 5-inch guns, ten 21-inch torpedo tubes, six depth charge projectors, and two depth charge tracks, these destroyers were dependable in anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, and surface warfare. Armament requirements started to change as World War II progressed, and because Fletcher Class ships were not as top-heavy as previous destroyers, adaptations to armament could be easily made. Ships of this class also had a longer range, which made them ideal for service in the Pacific during the war. Though these ships were strong, dependable performers, 19 ships of the Fletcher Class were lost during World War II. 

Forrest Sherman Class

Forrest Sherman Class destroyers were the first ones to be built after World War II. At 418 feet long, they were the largest destroyers yet. The lead ship, Forrest Sherman (DD 931) commissioned in 1955 and was armed with three 5-inch and four 3-inch guns, four 21-inch torpedo tubes, and one depth charge track. As the class evolved so did her weaponry. By the 1970s, the four 3-inch guns were removed from all ships and the torpedo tubes were replaced with two triple 12.75-inch Mark 32 torpedo tube mounts. On eight of the ships, the No. 2 5-inch gun was replaced with an eight-cell antisubmarine rocket launcher to improve their anti-submarine warfare capabilities. A variable-depth sonar system was also added. Those eight ships eventually became the Barry Class. John Paul Jones (DD 932), Decatur (DD 936), Somers (DD 947), and Parsons (DD 949) were converted to guided-missile destroyers. The Forrest Sherman Class was the foundation for the Charles F. Adams Class destroyers.

Charles F. Adams Class

The Charles F. Adams-Class was the first class designed specifically as a guided missile destroyer. Her design was similar to the Forrest Sherman-class destroyers and had a length of 437 feet, a displacement of roughly 4,500 tons and could reach speeds of 30 knots. The 23 commissioned ships were the last U.S. Navy destroyers to use a steam turbine power plant. These ships most notably served during Vietnam and during the quarantine of Cuba in 1962. Though the ship incorporated some of the latest technologies of the time it was evident later that the class could not fully deal with the advances in surface-to-air and guided missile technology. The ships received the developed New Threat Upgrade (NTU) along with other combat, weapon, sensor and communication system add-ons to increase the ships’ capability and survivability. In the 1980s, with the shift in focus to the development of the Ticonderoga Class cruisers and Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, only a few of the Adams Class ships would receive minor upgrades as the Navy waited for the Arleigh Burke Class to become operational and ready for service. On April 29, 1993, USS Goldsborough (DDG 20) wasthe last of the Adams-class to be decommissioned.

Spruance Class

Operating alongside and defending aircraft carriers has long been a mission for destroyers. With advancements in undersea warfare, the U.S. Navy needed a surface ship that was capable of hunting and protecting the carrier from submarines, and the Spruance Class destroyer was that ship. This class was specifically designed for anti-submarine warfare and included some of the most state-of-the-art undersea detection technology. However, the class also had the ability to counter aviation threats. The lead ship in the class, USS Spruance (DD 963), was commissioned Sept. 20, 1975. It was the first class of destroyer to incorporate gas turbine engines. One of the largest of the destroyers, she was 563 feet in length and weighed 4,500 tons (fully loaded). The ships were able to reach speeds in excess of 31 knots. The standard crew totaled 250 Sailors. Her armaments varied depending on the ship itself. The modular design and easy installation allowed for the ship’s armament to be upgraded. Generally armament included an Mk-11or Mk-13 twin-arm missile launcher, while earlier ships had the RIM-24 Tartar SAM. Later ships of the class were armed with the RIM-66 Standard MR SAM and RGM-84 Harpoon SSM, Mk-16 launcher for RUR-5 ASROC anti-submarine rockets, an Mk-45 5-inch 54 caliber gun, and Mk-32 triple torpedo tubes for Mk-46 torpedoes. Additionally, an enclosed hangar and large flight deck supported aviation operations by an SH-60 Seahawk equipped with sonobuoy and other anti-submarine interpretation and detection systems. 

Kidd Class

With its lead ship commissioned in March 1981, the four Kidd Class guided missile destroyers were based on the design of their predecessor the Spruance Class and were the multi-purpose ship for the Navy. Their advanced air-intake and filtration systems were able to handle dust and sand that were common in the Arabian Gulf area of operations. Originally built for Iran, they were acquired by the U.S. after their delivery was canceled in 1979 as the Iranian revolution heated up. Each ship in the class was named after a U.S. Navy Admiral who died in the Pacific during World War II. The lead ship of the class, USS Kidd (DDG 993), was named for Rear Adm. Isaac C. Kidd who was aboard USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor and was the first American flag officer to die in World War II. USS Callaghan (DDG 994) was named after Rear Adm. Daniel Callaghan who was killed in action aboard the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA 38) during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. USS Scott (DDG 995) was named after Rear Adm. Norman Scott who was killed during surface action in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. USS Chandler (DDG 996) was named after Rear Adm. Theodore Chandler, who was killed when his flagship, Louisville (CA-28), came under multiple kamikaze attacks near Manila Bay. The ships served as advanced multipurpose platforms that were vital in providing anti-submarine warfare, and adding considerably enhanced anti-aircraft capabilities. The class also served as a testing platform for the Aegis Weapons System (AWS). The last ship of the class was decommissioned in 1999. However, this didn’t conclude these ships’ active service. In April 2001, President George W. Bush approved arms sales to Taiwan and beginning in 2005, four Kidd Class DDGs were commissioned as the Kee Lung Class. 

Arleigh Burke Class

With more than 60 ships currently in service, the Arleigh Burke Class of guided missile destroyers is the workhorse of the Navy’s fleet. This 505-foot ship is the first destroyer in the world equipped with the Aegis Weapons Systems. The lead ship, USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), was commissioned July 4, 1991. In fact, retired Adm. Burke was present at the ceremony. The Burke Class is the Navy’s first ship designed to incorporate shaping techniques to reduce radar cross-section and detectability, improving the likelihood of not being targeted by enemy weapons and sensors. Originally designed to defend against Soviet aircraft, cruise missiles, and nuclear attack submarines, this higher capability ship is used in high-threat areas to conduct anti-aircraft, anti-submarine, anti-surface, and strike operations. She is capable of engaging in air, surface and subsurface battles simultaneously using a myriad of offensive and defensive weapons designed to support maritime warfare. The ships are powered by four General Electric LM 2500 gas turbine engines producing an estimated 30 knots and allowing for a range of more than 4,000 miles. The Burke Class packs a punch with its ever advancing armaments using the Standard Missile (SM-2MR), vertical launch anti-submarine rocket (VLA) missiles, Tomahawk, Mk-46 torpedoes (from two triple tube mounts), Close-in Weapon System (CIWS), 5-inch Mk 45 gun, and the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). Recently, DDGs received a critical upgrade that incorporated technology improvements to reduce workload and operational costs. The fully integrated bridge, improved machinery and damage control systems, wireless communications and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computing equipment add to the ship’s operational effectiveness. Anti-Submarine Undersea Warfare Systems integrated Multi-Function Towed Array (MFTA) that lends to superior capabilities in underwater fire control, on-board training, a highly-evolved display subsystem and integration with the Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) helicopter. As a platform, the Arleigh Burke Class’ built-in flexibility allows it to use its technology to maintain the Navy’s maritime dominance. 

Zumwalt Class

151207-N-ZZ999-435 ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 7, 2015) The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is underway for the first time conducting at-sea tests and trials in the Atlantic Ocean Dec. 7, 2015. The multimission ship will provide independent forward presence and deterrence, support special operations forces, and operate as an integral part of joint and combined expeditionary forces.  (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works/Released)
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ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 7, 2015) The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is underway for the first time conducting at-sea tests and trials in the Atlantic Ocean Dec. 7, 2015. The multimission ship will provide independent forward presence and deterrence, support special operations forces, and operate as an integral part of joint and combined expeditionary forces. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works/Released)

 

The USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is the lead ship of the Navy’s newest destroyer class, designed for littoral operations and land attack. The class is named for Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, 19th Chief of Naval Operations. DDG 1000 incorporates 50-fold radar cross-section reduction from our current surface combatants. For power and propulsion the ship uses an integrated power system that’s designed with a 78-megawatt system. Another major difference from past ships is this ship is specifically designed for less crew. This allows for the ship to actually have staterooms for all of its crew. These staterooms are designed to house one to four Sailors. With less crew requirements, the ship’s multiple sensors throughout assist the crew in monitoring the equipment, fluid levels, and environmental boundaries within the ship for multiple purposes. These sensors are integrated into the control system of the ship, allowing the crew to have information at their fingertips. The all-electric power plant makes it the first combatant to introduce a Low Voltage Power System that features a highly survivable Integrated Fight Through Power (IFTP) system, which relies on new-to-the-Navy solid state Power Conversion Modules to achieve user-specific power demands. The ship’s launching systems are uniquely different and allow the ship’s platforms to adapt to longer, heavier, and wider missiles of the future. Adding to the ship’s defenses and its operational reach, she can house two helicopters at a time, primarily H-60s. However, its 150-foot flight deck is almost double the size of the flight deck on current destroyers and can land a wide variety of helicopters. Zumwalt can also support three Vertical Take-off Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (VTUAVs) or Fire Scouts at a time. It has a capture system for the VTUAVs on the flight deck.

As you can see, the development of the U.S. Navy’s destroyers make them important players in maintaining freedom of the seas. They remain, and continue to be, essential warships capable of projecting power and supporting battle groups over sea, land, and air while remaining capable of sustained independent operations. With an outstanding reputation for credible service in our nation’s most challenging operational environments, these lethal vessels, destroyers, will be a strong presence in our Navy for years to come.

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