The Fleet's Ambiguous, Versatile Warships

By Norman Friedman

The early U.S. Navy’s only option against its likeliest enemy, the Royal Navy, was to prey on British commerce. The American service therefore concentrated on building fast, unusually powerful frigates that could overcome the British frigates used as convoy escorts. Cruiser warfare returned during the Civil War, most notably in the form of the Confederate commerce raider Alabama . The U.S. Navy program of the time included a series of unusually fast steam frigates, led by the Wampanoag , that were designed specifically to run down Confederate raiders. Completed only after the war, they helped inspire the British cruiser program.

Through about the 1880s, the role of the cruiser was well defined as primarily defending or attacking shipping. Therefore, when the U.S. Navy began its revival in 1883, the service’s initial strategic concept was to deal with a British threat by attacking that country’s merchant shipping with cruisers. Although the concept shifted toward a battle fleet and sea control after 1889, the U.S. Navy continued to build cruisers designed specifically to attack merchant shipping, most notably the 413-foot sisters Columbia and Minneapolis . They, and some foreign counterparts, were characterized by unusually large coal capacity, hence their long steaming endurance. That was vital because the most likely times for a raider to be caught was while entering port to coal or leaving after coaling.

Scouting for the Fleet

The ocean is so broad that two opposing fleets steaming at sea were never likely to meet. Classic sea battles were fought near geographic features or locations ashore. In the case of the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, the Russian Baltic Fleet had to pass through a narrow strait to reach its destination, Vladivostok. Victorious Japanese Admiral Heihachiro Togo placed scouts near the crucial strait to inform him by radio of the Russians’ approach.

More frequently a battle would be fought outside a port or bay in which a fleet had been bottled up. In such cases the point of scouting was to alert the besieging fleet commander that the enemy fleet was preparing to sortie. For example, in 1898 a U.S. fleet destroyed a Spanish fleet at the Battle of Santiago. Although the U.S. Navy had commissioned several fast liners as strategic scouts, they were not able to locate the Spanish warships as they crossed the Atlantic to reach Cuba, and in fact the residents of some East Coast cities feared that the Spanish fleet would suddenly show up and shell them. Once the Americans located the enemy ships in Santiago Bay, the U.S. fleet concentrated nearby. Later, American warships serving as scouts near the mouth of the bay alerted the rest of the U.S. fleet that the Spanish were sortieing.

Beginning in the late 1870s, torpedo boats greatly complicated the notion of bottling up an enemy fleet. These craft could make the area immediately off an enemy port or bay much too hot for a battle fleet. Now scouting mattered much more. A few scouts could watch for a sortie and keep touch with the emerging enemy fleet, relaying enough information back to the fleet commander for him to intercept the enemy fleet well out to sea, where the torpedo boats were not so effective. At Santiago, for example, the Spanish fleet included two destroyers functioning as ocean-going torpedo boats. For its part the U.S. fleet stationed small ships, including some small cruisers, off the mouth of the bay specifically to attack the Spanish destroyers. That in turn made it possible for the heavier U.S. ships to engage the large Spanish ships. In this case the American fleet was able to operate almost within sight of the mouth of the bay, but it had to be assumed that in wartime few fleets would be able to do so.

Armored Cruisers and Small Scouts

Meanwhile, the development of lightweight steel armor in the 1890s (first by Hayward A. Harvey in the United States, then by Krupp Arms Works in Germany) made it possible to build large warships with adequate protection that traded firepower for speed. While armored cruisers did not have battleship armor, they were often seen as second-rate battleships, viable both as battle-fleet scouts and as a fast wing of a battle fleet. They were also, of course, viable commerce raiders. The first such ships were of the British Cressy class, built around the turn of the century. Their designer, Director of Naval Construction William White, sold the cruisers to the Admiralty Board precisely as a fast wing for the British battle fleet, capable of fighting second-class battleships.

The rapidly expanding early 20th-century U.S. Navy built ten such armored cruisers—nicknamed the “Big Ten”—which, like battleships, were given state names. Four of the vessels, the 14,500-ton Tennessee class, were armed with 10-inch guns and so similar to fast battleships that they inspired an internal British study of the relative virtues of battleship speed and firepower. Unfortunately for the Navy, these impressive cruisers were completed just as the advent of turbine power raised the speeds of warships, making them obsolete in their intended roles.

The growing U.S. Navy badly needed scouts that could enable an American fleet commander to contact and engage an enemy fleet. Early in the 20th century, there was no question of building a new generation of big fast cruisers, but the Navy also managed to convince Congress to authorize three small fast scouts at the other end of the cruiser scale, the 3,750-ton Chester class, the first ships the service would classify as light cruisers.

Although successive secretaries of the Navy kept asking for more cruisers, Congress preferred to buy battleships. It was, however, willing to purchase destroyers, which in other navies primarily were oceangoing torpedo boats. U.S. destroyers built during the decade before World War I were much larger than those of foreign navies because they were also expected to fill the cruiser role of fleet scouting, albeit not very effectively because they were still much smaller than cruisers.

The U.S. Navy of that era did include another type of cruiser, whose existence attests to just how broad that category was. Conceived specifically to support U.S. interests in the Caribbean—not to support or scout for a battle fleet—the 309-foot Denver -class “peace cruisers” were actually gunboats and after 1922 were redesignated as such. It is not clear why they were ever classified as cruisers.

Between Battleship and Cruiser

The roles conceived for big armored cruisers survived the advent of faster battleships. It was still vital for a fleet commander to know where the opposing fleet was and what it was doing. As his own fleet closed with the enemy, the commander had to know the opposing fleet’s formation, course, and speed. If it tried to disengage, a fast division of heavy ships still offered the possibility of catching up and slowing the enemy enough for the main fleet to arrive. Once a battle began, the same fast ships could concentrate on part of the enemy fleet, or turn its battle line.

The need to fulfill all of these roles led to the creation of the fast, big battle cruiser, beginning with the Royal Navy’s Invincible and her two sisters, the Inflexible and Indomitable . Led by First Sea Lord Admiral John “Jacky” Fisher, the British traded protection for firepower. (Their rivals the Germans made the opposite choice.) After German shell fire led to three British battle cruisers, including the Invincible , blowing up at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the trade-off was widely denounced. Writers such as Admiral Reginald Hugh Bacon invented a rather bizarre explanation for the ships’ advent.

In his 1929 biography of Fisher, Bacon wrote that the battle cruiser had been conceived to meet a particular threat, that of the fast armed liner. However, internal British documentation of the period before 1905, when the battle cruiser was introduced, explains the desperate need for big armored cruisers entirely in terms of enemy armored cruiser forces; merchant ships were not mentioned in any way except as potential targets of enemy forces. Given that the battle-cruiser idea was largely discredited at Jutland, Bacon likely was attempting to defend his hero, Fisher.

Despite the losses at that battle, the Royal Navy continued to consider battle cruisers—albeit with better protection—essential fleet units through World War I and the interwar period. An Admiralty investigation indicated that the adoption of particularly dangerous magazine practices, not lack of armor, led to the battle-cruiser losses at Jutland. When the United States entered World War I, the British passed to their new ally the relevant information, which now can be found in American records.

Before World War I, the U.S. Navy seriously considered building battle cruisers because they offered a solution to its great strategic problem. At the time, the main future-war scenario American naval planners envisioned was a German descent on the Caribbean to seize a colony as a base for further expansion in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. (Strangely enough, the German navy actually had such a war plan.) The U.S. fleet would need to rush to the region from its normal base at Norfolk and set up its own operating base. Fast capital ships were likely to be particularly valuable in such a race.

By 1912 the Naval War College was comparing alternative battle-cruiser designs. There was only limited interest in what might be called conventional cruisers. But lightly protected battle cruisers and “battle scouts”—smaller ships armed with a few heavy guns, much like the contemporary British “large light cruisers” Courageous and Glorious —were considered. Finally in 1916 Congress approved a massive building program that included six huge battle cruisers (the Lexington class) and ten more conventional scout cruisers (the Omahas ).

All of these ships were designed to fight in a fleet-on-fleet battle. At this time, the U.S. Navy had only the most limited interest in wartime trade protection, which ironically would be a major theme in both world wars. Nor was it much interested in attacking enemy trade, a traditional cruiser role that had figured prominently in American thinking at the beginning of the naval revival in 1883. The unhappy British experience at Jutland had no impact on the U.S. battle-cruiser program, although the design for the warships was dramatically altered to incorporate sloped side armor after American officers attached to the British during World War I encountered the much superior design of HMS Hood .

Interwar Roles and Limitations

With the end of World War I, U.S. naval policy turned again, from concentration on Europe to concentration on the Far East and Japan. Even so, supporters of continued U.S. naval construction exploited widespread anti-British feeling in the United States by suggesting there was a U.S.-British naval rivalry. This was despite the fact that the United States and Great Britain were given naval parity in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty while the far more likely enemy, Japan, was given the short end of the 5:5:3 capital-ship tonnage ratio. The U.S. Navy adopted a politically inspired policy of demanding parity in cruiser strength, even though the U.S. and Royal navies had radically different cruiser requirements. For the U.S. Navy, cruisers were almost exclusively part of the battle fleet. For the British, they were insurance against future commerce raiding as well as members of the battle fleet.

That demand extracted a large cruiser program from Congress and eventually led to a drastic reduction in British cruiser strength. In retrospect, both navies apparently found their supposed rivalry a valuable way of ensuring a degree of superiority over Japan. But the Depression led to cuts in U.S. and British naval spending, and Japan pulled ahead of its intended naval ratio.

As envisaged during the interwar years, cruisers had several roles in a fight between fleets. As before, some served as scouts that would make the engagement possible in the first place. Other cruisers working directly with the fleet would beat off enemy destroyers trying to fire torpedoes at the capital ships. Yet others might support their fleet’s own destroyers against the enemy’s protective cruisers. All of these ships would contribute to the fleet’s antiaircraft firepower, but by the late 1930s the U.S. Navy had concluded that fleet air defense would depend mostly on fighters, not surface ships.

Cruisers were also essential to attacks on enemy trade. Even though the World War I German U-boat campaign had proven extremely effective, it seemed unlikely that the U.S. Navy would conduct a similar campaign against Japan. The fear was that, just as the indiscriminate deaths of Americans and sinking of American ships during U-boat attacks had brought the United States into the Great War, a U.S. submarine campaign against Japan might similarly draw Britain, Tokyo’s one-time ally and the greatest shipping power in the world, into a war. That left the classic type of trade warfare, in which cruisers stopped individual merchant ships and seized or sank those belonging to the enemy or carrying contraband. In such a campaign, numbers mattered.

Perhaps the most important effect of the horror of World War I was to encourage postwar attempts to limit naval armaments. The first wave of limitations, in the form of the Washington Naval Treaty, killed the U.S. battle-cruiser program, leaving only Britain and Japan with these type ships. An attempt to limit total cruiser numbers failed, but the treaty did restrict future cruisers to 10,000 tons and 8-inch guns.

The U.S. Navy saw such large, or heavy, cruisers as the closest it could get to battle cruisers and as one of several ways the service could accomplish long-range scouting in the western Pacific. For example, scouts could spot a deploying Japanese battle fleet in time to cue a U.S. fleet to engage. The Navy considered this mission so important it also pursued using large submarines and rigid airships as scouts. It might be argued that the slow-firing 8-inch gun was hardly best suited to the cruiser role inside the battle fleet, but the weapon offered sufficient range to perhaps enable a lightly armored scout to beat off Japanese battle cruisers.

Through the 1920s the British rebuffed the U.S. government’s attempts to convince them to accept parity in cruisers with the argument that the Royal Navy needed many more such ships to protect the empire’s global trade against the threat of various kinds of raiders, including converted merchant ships. By 1929 Great Britain’s finances were sufficiently strained that agreement was possible, partly because the British realized they could never build as many cruisers as they thought they needed. They extracted an agreement—the 1930 London Naval Treaty—drastically limiting construction of cruisers with 8-inch guns, their theory being that any rational navy would build smaller and much more affordable 6-inch gun cruisers. (They favored the 7,000-ton Leander design.)

The United States signed the treaty but went on to build 10,000-ton ships armed with 6-inch guns (the Brooklyn class of light cruisers), much to the horror of the British. The Brooklyns were envisaged in the anti-destroyer role, their very high rate of fire being particularly attractive. The 8-inch heavy cruisers served prewar as fleet scouts, in concentrated formations. Strategic scouting in the western Pacific became a role for submarines and, it was hoped, would become one for airships.

Planning for War

Most of the American cruisers remembered from World War II were built under programs framed in 1939 to 1941, before the United States entered the conflict. They were conceived with the interwar ideas of fleet battle and trade warfare in mind, not the lessons of Guadalcanal or the big carrier battles. The fact that aircraft carriers offered decisive advantages in terms of mobile firepower was already understood, though observers probably had not yet accepted carrier planes’ ability to sink battleships at sea.

Whether carriers should be integrated with battleships was not clear. The great argument against integration was based on the premise that carriers were fragile. Whichever side found the enemy’s carriers first would destroy them—as at Midway. The battle line was relatively easy to find from the air, hence any nearby carriers would be located quickly. Yet carriers could not operate without surface escorts because enemy battleships finding carriers could quickly sink them, just as the German Scharnhorst and Gniesenau had done to HMS Glorious in 1940. Before fast battleships joined the U.S. fleet, fast cruisers were the only available carrier escorts. Moreover, if the battle line was to play a major role, any fast battleships might best be used as its fast wing, not assigned to completely different duty.

Prewar U.S. strategy against Japan envisaged a campaign culminating in a decisive fleet battle, after which a blockade would be mounted to squeeze the enemy into surrender. Prior to the battle, cruisers could conduct antishipping sweeps, both to force the enemy to dissipate its own energies and to run down its merchant fleet. Cruisers were essential in this role because they could operate independently. Not surprisingly, the building programs included large numbers of cruisers armed with 6-inch guns (the Clevelands ) and smaller numbers of larger cruisers armed with 8-inch guns.

These programs also included two outliers, the small Atlantas and the huge Alaskas . The former were conceived in 1937 to support destroyers attacking an enemy battle line, a role previously avoided because it had lower priority than either strategic scouting or protecting against Japanese torpedo attacks. That is why the Atlantas had 5-inch/38-caliber destroyer guns and torpedo tubes.

Japanese heavy cruisers posed a serious threat to an American campaign across the western Pacific. The U.S. fleet’s lines of communications would need to be protected from raids and its carriers screened. Consequently, the Alaskas were conceived as heavy-cruiser killers. Armed with 12-inch guns, these huge cruisers were often described as battle cruisers or light battleships.

The Antiaircraft Role

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically changed the U.S. concept of naval battle, and, therefore, of cruiser roles. Until 7 December 1941, the U.S. carrier force was an essential support to the battle fleet. Afterward, with the Japanese having sunk or damaged seven battleships, the carrier force—backed up by cruisers— was the fleet. The major threat to the carriers turned out to be other carriers’ aircraft, so the major role of the Pacific Fleet’s cruisers, and later of its fast battleships, was to help the carriers beat off air attacks. In this context, all of the dual-purpose 5-inch guns on board an Atlanta made her an antiaircraft cruiser (CLAA).

U.S. cruisers did wage a surface war, generally at night, off Guadalcanal in 1942–43, the main lessons of which were that the ships should be much more survivable and must be able to fire much faster. The result was the huge 717-foot Des Moines (CA-134), which did not enter service until well after the war, when it was unlikely that any such combat would recur. Her most notable feature was a main battery of nine rapid-fire 8-inch guns.

The Pacific war transformed the U.S. fleet into a carrier-centered force, and it has remained so ever since. Carriers offered a combination of reach and firepower that no other warships (except perhaps strategic submarines) could match. Fast surface combatants such as cruisers came to be valued, as during the war, for their ability to beat off the major threat to fast carriers—enemy aircraft. It quickly must have been clear that the main value of heavy naval guns was for shore bombardment in support of Marines. That seems to be why the numerous light cruisers, with 6-inch guns, retained immediately after World War II were retired in 1949, whereas many 8-inch cruisers remained in commission. Some of the retired cruisers were recommissioned in the 1950s because they were the only U.S. surface warships that could be converted economically to fire new long-range antiaircraft missiles, particularly Talos. The idea of the cruiser as an independent strike unit lapsed.

The large cruisers had big crews, but manpower was a constant problem for the post-1945 Navy. The last of the gun cruisers, the Newport News (CA-148), was decommissioned in 1975. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had built 14 large, conventional Sverdlov -class cruisers in the 1950s, the fruits of a program that seems to have been anachronistic from its beginnings.

By the mid-1970s, small Soviet cruisers helped give rise to a perceived “cruiser gap.” The Soviet navy and the U.S. Navy classified cruisers differently, the former including ships much smaller than American cruisers, making it appear that the Soviets had many more of the ships than their Cold War foes. The U.S. solution was simple. Ships previously classified as large missile destroyers (DLGs) were redesignated missile cruisers (CG or CGN) with the same hull numbers they had previously borne.

The closest the post-1945 U.S. Navy came to returning to a classic cruiser was the abortive strike cruiser (CSGN). In the mid-1970s it seemed that the new Aegis combat system offered a degree of immunity to air and missile attack that would permit a ship equipped with it to operate independently, just as earlier cruisers had done. Given the limited number of carriers the Navy could deploy, adding cruisers with such a capability might well be worthwhile. To fulfill the independent operations role, the strike cruiser concept included nuclear power, surface-to-surface armament in the form of an 8-inch gun, and substantial armor. But in the late 1970s, the whole package was considered unaffordable, and the CSGN died in favor of the Aegis program actually carried out.

The present-day U.S. Navy includes 22 ships classified as cruisers—all of which are Ticonderogas . But the reality is that, aside from reduced command facilities, many ships otherwise described—specifically the fleet’s Arleigh Burke –class destroyers—are not very different. The cruiser designation was always rather malleable, and that is still the case.

For further reading see Dr. Friedman’s books U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History (1984); Naval Firepower: Battleship Guns and Gunnery in the Dreadnought Era (2008); British Cruisers: Two World Wars and After (2011); and British Cruisers of the Victorian Era (2012)—all published by the Naval Institute Press.



Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2018-10-05

Maritime Security DialogueNaval Aviation: Readiness Recovery for Combat A discussion with VADM DeWolfe Miller, USNCommander,...

The New China Challenge

An Evening of Naval History

View All

From the Press

22 September - Annual Symposium

Sat, 2018-09-22

22 September - Annual Symposium

Sat, 2018-09-22

John B. Lundstrom

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership