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

Jan. 12, 2016 | By Annalisa Underwood and Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
Cruisers, like destroyers and frigates, are often called the "support vessels" of a battle group, but they are certainly capable of operating on their own. This multi-mission warships can not only protect fleets against aircraft, but with their sophisticated guided-missile and gunnery systems, they can take out virtually any target in the air, on and under the sea, or ashore. From their original functions in blockade enforcement, commerce raiding, scouting, and sea-denial to their current role as carrier strike group offense and protection, we highlight some of the more notable classes of cruisers to show how the evolution of these warships made them the powerful force they are today.

As with any list like this, it's impossible to capture all classes of cruisers to have served in the U.S. Navy. Tell us which classes we left off and why they were great too!
Atlanta II  
As the ships of the world's navies evolved, sail propulsion and wooden hulls were being phased out and steel ships were being phased in. With this in mind, the 1884 Navy Appropriation Act authorized construction of the cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago. These protected cruisers were the first steel warships of the "New Navy" of the 1880s. They were also the first equipped with modern breechloading guns. The construction of these cruisers marked the beginning of the transition from wood and sail to steel and steam. Atlanta II, in particular, was 288 feet in length and could travel at a speed of 16.33 knots. She was armed with two 8-inch 30 caliber guns, six 6-inch 30 caliber guns, two 6-pounder guns, two 3-pounder cannons, two 1-pounder cannons, and two .45 caliber Gatling guns. These protected cruisers, also known as "second class" cruisers, had less armor and were generally smaller than the later armored cruisers.

Newark Class
With its lead ship commissioned in 1891, the Newark Class ships were the first modern cruisers in the U.S. Navy. Ships in this class included Newark (C 1); Charleston (C 2), Baltimore (C 3), Philadelphia (C 4), San Francisco (C 5), and Olympia (C 6). Olympia is the last surviving ship of this class and is part of the Historic Naval Ships Association. Like the ships of the Atlanta Class, ships of the Newark Class were protected cruisers. According to Sean Walsh, lead author of NAVSEA report, "A Historical Review of Cruiser Characteristics, Roles, and Missions" protected cruisers were faster than armored cruisers but did not have as much endurance. "They were more suitable for the sea denial and counter-sea denial missions that required high speed and long range gunfire, where a protective deck might help more than a waterline belt," writes Walsh.

Pennsylvania Class
Pennsylvania Class ships were a group of six armored cruisers built between 1901 and 1908. Ships of the Pennsylvania Class included Pennsylvania (ACR 4), later renamed Pittsburgh; West Virginia (ACR 5), later renamed Huntington; California (ACR 6), later renamed San Diego; Colorado (ACR 7), later renamed Pueblo; Maryland (ACR 8), later renamed Frederick; and South Dakota (ACR 9), later renamed Huron. According to Walsh, the creation of the "first class" or armored cruiser came from the need for a larger ship with substantial armor, like a battleship but faster and with more endurance. The armor of these cruisers was thinner than battleship armor but still protected their vital areas. They had a scaled-down version of battleship-type armament, and could "theoretically run away from an encounter with a battleship," Walsh adds.

Northampton Class
Originally classified as a light cruiser, the design of Northampton Class ships was heavily influenced by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, an agreement between the five naval powers of the world at that time: United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan. The treaty limited U.S. cruiser design to a maximum displacement of 10,000 long tons, with armament no larger than an 8 inch gun. With this, Northampton and the preceding Pensacola class cruisers became known as the first generation "treaty cruisers."

Northampton Class cruisers were an improvement in both weight and cost compared to Pensacola Class cruisers. It was believed too much was sacrificed in the design of Pensacola Class cruiser Salt Lake City (CA 25) just to mount the maximum battery (ten 8-inch guns). According to Walsh, "Reducing the armament to nine guns had a big effect on weight, armor area, and volume because this battery could be mounted in three triple turrets, rather than requiring four turrets of two different designs." Moreover, the Northampton cruisers were lighter than Pensacola cruisers and nearly 1,000 tons below treaty limitations. Northampton cruisers saw much of their action during World War II, with USS Northampton (CA 26), USS Chicago (CA 29), and USS Houston (CA 30) being lost in the war.

Cleveland Class
With its lead ship USS Cleveland (CL 55) being commissioned in 1942, these WWII light cruisers were basically improvements of the Brooklyn Class light cruisers whose designs were restricted due to the 1930 London Naval Treaty. By the start of World War II all treaty restrictions were no longer in place, thus Cleveland Class ships were built with twelve 6-inch/47 caliber, four triple turrets (two forward, two aft), and twelve 5-inch/38 caliber twin mounts (one each on the center line fore and aft and two each on either side of the ship). Of the 52 ships planned for this class, only 27 were commissioned. Nine of the ships were reordered as light aircraft carriers for the Independence Class. Two were redesigned and became Fargo class light cruisers.

Baltimore Class
The Baltimore Class cruisers were the first of a new class of heavy cruisers built after the Second London Naval Treaty had ended in 1939. These cruisers were a bigger version of the Wichita Class and had three triple 8-inch/55 turrets (two forward and one aft) and six twin 5-inch/38 mounts (one each on the centerline fore and aft, and two on each side). The ship's onboard flight system could support four aircraft and consisted of two catapults on the aft deck, one or two cranes, and a hatch to an onboard hangar. Baltimore Class ships served in Word War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Long Beach Class
As the Forrestal Class supercarriers were being introduced beginning in 1955, aircraft carriers began to run so efficiently that their escorts could not keep up. Thus came along USS Long Beach (CG(N) 9), the only ship of its class. Long Beach was the first nuclear powered surface combatant and nuclear powered guided missile cruiser. In 1963, she sailed with attack carrier USS Enterprise (CVA(N)65) and guided-missile frigate USS Bainbridge (DLG(N) 25) in the formation of the first all nuclear-powered task group. Though Long Beach was a technical success, Walsh notes that she was "too big, too slow, and too expensive" to continue making. The follow-on nuclear cruisers USS Bainbridge (CGN 25), USS Truxtun (CGN 35), USS California (CGN 36), and USS South Carolina (CGN 37) were designed with more endurance so as not to limit the range of the aircraft carriers they were escorting.

Leahy Class
Leahy Class ships were originally designated as Destroyer Leaders (DLG) but were reclassified as guided missile cruisers. They were the first double-ended guided-missile-launching surface ships in the U.S. Navy. According to Walsh, "One of the principal missions of these ships, like their predecessors, the Farragut Class (DLG 6), was to form part of the anti-air and antisubmarine screen for carrier task forces." Other notable characteristics of Leahy Class cruisers were the absence of 5-inch guns on board and the introduction of the "Mack" which combined the stack and mast where the radars were mounted in an effort to avoid smoke interference. USS Bainbridge (DLGN 25/CGN 25) was a nuclear-powered guided missile Leahy Class cruiser. Walsh also notes, "The Leahy class were the first close escorts of the Midway (CVA 41) and Forrestal(CVA 59) carriers. Compared to the earlier Farragut Class, the increased endurance improved their ability to stay with these carriers and provide the air and submarine defenses that these ships required."

Belknap Class Like the Leahy Class ships, Belknap Class ships were also originally designated as DLG frigates and were later reclassified as guided missile cruisers. During this time, electronics and guided-missile systems were prominent characteristics of DLGs. Because critics of the Leahy class argued that ships of her class lacked a sufficient gun armament, a 5-inch/54 caliber gun was added in place of the aft Terrier. However, Walsh notes, "if the forward missile launcher malfunctioned or was damaged, the entire antiaircraft and antisubmarine capability of these ships would be lost." Of note, USS Belknap (CG 26) collided with USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) in 1975 and, according to Walsh, was extensively rebuilt to serve as a numbered fleet flagship for the 6th Fleet with additions such as a war room, improved communications, an office and reception area for a fleet commander, and an expansion of the helicopter landing area aft to receive the SH-3 Sea King helicopter.

Ticonderoga Class
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZY259-3450

The launching of USS Ticonderoga (CG 47) in 1981 meant that the Aegis Era had begun in earnest. Walsh notes that Ticonderoga was not, however, the first ship to be fitted with the Aegis system and that distinction actually belongs to USS Norton Sound, a WWII era seaplane tender converted to a guided missile test ship. To date, the Aegis Combat system is the Navy's most modern surface combat system. Because the missile launching element, computer programs, radar, and displays work together, it is the first fully integrated combat system built to defend against advanced air and surface threats.

According to the U.S. Navy Fact File, technological advances in the Standard Missile coupled with the Aegis combat system in Ticonderoga class cruisers have increased the Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) capability of surface combatants to pinpoint accuracy from wave-top to zenith. The lead ship of the class, USS Ticonderoga (CG 47), through USS Thomas S. Gates (CG 51) have been decommissioned. According to Walsh, starting with USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), the Mark 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) replaced the Mark 26 system on Ticonderoga class ships. "This had the immediate effect of increasing the missile load to 122 as well as increasing reliability," Walsh notes. With a projected 35-year service life, many Ticonderoga Class cruisers will undergo a modernization program. Updates will be made to the computing and display infrastructure, hull, mechanical and electrical (HM&E) systems, and weapons and sensor sets. Additionally, short range electro-optical systems will be added to the ships in order to upgrade their anti-submarine capabilities. USS Cowpens (CG 63) and USS Gettysburg (CG 64) began modernization in 2015. USS Vicksburg (CG 69) and USS Chosin (CG 65) will begin modernization in FY16.

While today's cruisers operate primarily in defense of, or in coordination with, carrier battle groups, they, like their predecessors, can also operate independently. In fact, the term cruiser describes ships with just that capability - to cruise independently of large fleets to protect vital national interests, deter aggression and maintain freedom of the seas. But as much as this blog is about the ships that have borne the classification "cruiser," it is really about the amazing group of mariners known as Cruiser Sailors who took those ships to sea and achieved legendary status as warriors in defense of freedom.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZY259-3741