Cruisers, What Are They Now, and Why?

Note: I wrote this for CIMSEC which has a broader, largely non-Coast Guard readership. It is post there as well. What goes unsaid is that cutters are well equipped to assume those few cruiser functions that can still only be handled by surface vessels. 

Looking back at Corbett’s writings, he talks a great deal about the need for cruisers, but technology and terminology have moved on and the cruisers of Corbett’s days are not what we think of as cruisers today. Corbett’s “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy” was published in 1911. There were some truly large cruisers built in the years leading up to World War I, but Corbett decried these in that their cost was in conflict with the cruiser’s “essential attribute of numbers.”

A typical cruiser that came out of the thinking of the day was the Active Class (1912). 3,440 tons, 26 knots, and ten 4″ guns. Many of the cruisers of the day were even smaller, many under 3,000 tons.

File:HMS Fearless (1912).jpg

HMS Fearless, an Active class cruiser

Corbett often referred back to the Nelsonian period. His idea of a cruiser was the smallest warship that could undertake prolonged independent operations, frigates, sloops of war, and brigs, even schooners. Their missions were:

  • Protection of our own maritime commerce
  • Denial of the enemy’s commerce, including blockade and commerce raiding
  • Scouting (ISR in the current vocabulary)
  • Screening the battlefleet (both anti-scouting to deny the enemy knowledge of own battlefleet and protection for the swarm of flotilla craft with torpedoes.)
  • Communications

Of these he seemed to consider scouting for and screening the battlefleet, unfortunate, if necessary distractions from their primary duty of exercising control over maritime communications and commerce.

In the hundred plus years since Corbett’s writing, the number and types of naval platforms have proliferated and the roles once the exclusive domain of these relatively small surface ships have been assumed by other systems.

Radio replaced the dispatch carrying function of Nelson’s cruisers and improvements continually reduced the importance of the role for 20th century cruisers.

The torpedo boat destroyers first grew from what we would now call FACs into cruiser roles and cruiser size and now emerged as major strategic assets in their own right.

Submarines, which were little understood in Corbett’s time, quickly emerged as the premier commerce raider. Later they took on the role of countering their own kind, just as cruisers once did. They have scouted for and screened surface ships. They also grew into additional roles that make them in some respects inheritor of the battleship mantle as well as that of the cruiser.

Airplanes, also a recent innovation when Corbett wrote his classic, quickly became effective and essential scouts. They began to screen the fleet against the opposing “flotillas” including the enemies own planes. Flying from escort carriers or in the form of long range maritime patrol aircraft that took on the cruisers role of protecting commerce. During WWII they replaced the battleships’ guns.

More recently satellites also assume roles in scouting and communications.

Small surface ships can still do the missions Corbett identified, but it seems other systems may be able to do them as well or better. Are their still roles for the smallest warships that can undertake prolonged independent operations?

There are still some things only surface ships can do. What is enemy commerce is not always obvious. In many cases only a visit and search can determine if a vessel is innocent.

While aircraft and even submarines may protect our own commerce, when ships are attacked far from shore, only surface ships (and their embarked aircraft), can save the crews or bring damage control assistance.

These are certainly not jobs for Burke class destroyers, which are now, with BMD and land attack roles, essentially Capital Ships. We need some minimum number of ships to do these tasks which are essential to the exercise of sea control. Once we establish how many wee need, we can consider if the marginal cost of adding MCM, ASW, ASuW, and/or AAW capability is worthwhile. Frigates once filled this role, in addition to others, LCS are the only ships the Navy is currently building that might do these jobs. Some Coast Guard Cutters may also be appropriate. Somehow, I doubt we have enough, and I have doubts that they are adequately armed to deal with even medium sized merchant vessels without assistance.

Essentially we have a fleet of battleships of several types, CVNs, SSBNs, SSNS, DDGs, Amphibs. Simple and numerous “cruisers,” the smallest ships that can undertake prolonged independent operations, are almost non-existent.

“In no case can we exercise control by battleships alone. Their specialization has rendered them unfit for the work, and has made them too costly ever to be numerous enough. Even, therefore, if our enemy had no battle-fleet we could not make control effective with battleships alone. We should still require cruisers specialized for the work and in sufficient numbers to cover the necessary ground.”

Ref: “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy,” by Julian Stafford Corbett:

One thought on “Cruisers, What Are They Now, and Why?

  1. I’ve struggled over the last few years to come to grips with the modern Navy’s designation system for surface combatants.

    Of course, in the early to mid-20th century, it was relatively easy – gun caliber determined it all. 3-4″ were escorts, 5″ were DDs, 6″ were CLs, 8″ were CAs, 14″+ were BBs. A few didn’t fit exacly, or required some head-scratching, but ultimately sorted out OK, such as the CLAAs and CBs. In my opinion, you will never get >100 years of mindset to “shift gears” to looking at cruisers as anything equal to or smaller than a destroyer.

    The development and fielding of missile systems caused consternation and craziness in the 60s, which was finally sorted out with the “great redesignation/correction” in the mid-70s, which led to FF returning and ships being classified again by purpose: FFs were small/light escorts, primarily for ASW, though light AAW was added in the OHPs. DDs were medium-sized ASW and DDGs were medium-sized AAW. CGs combined BOTH AAW & ASW in one (marginally) larger platform.

    Of course with electronics miniaturizing and becoming cheaper, we have reached a place where every ocean-going size combatant can have capabilities in many/all mission areas. A modern FF (or the WMSLs, if you like), can have the full range of ASW, AAW, ASuW, helos, ECM/ESM, MCM, and Patrol/Presence, just as the CGs of yesteryear. Granted, weight, and therefore depth of the capabilities, will be a limiting factor on smaller displacement vessels, but, clearly mission or capability is no longer a valid method to define differences between classes. Indeed, the Flight IIA and later Arleigh Burkes have every bit the capability that the Ticonderoga cruisers do.

    I think it is coming down to a situation where the depth of capability is going to be the determinate factor of designation. This somewhat tracks with displacement (bigger the ship, the greater the potential depth of capability; however, a big ship with light depth, such as the WMSL, makes displacement alone a poor marker), but not 100%.

    I think the death knell of the cruiser is economics. No one, not the US, China or Russia, wants to spend the money to build a ship large enough to be worthy of the cruiser designation, based on significant depth of capability. (Although Russia does possess such ships, and is the only power to build them recently – specifically as a counter to our CVNs.) Not to mention the risk of vulnerability. If you lose a cruiser, you’ve lost a significant investment in manpower, cash, and fleet’s combat capability, whereas losing a FFG or DDG, while bad, does not have the cost across all those categories. Distributed risk… Considering the risk involved, in my opinion, the only role for such an expensive and large ship (bigger, greater firepower than the Burkes) is as the close escort for the other high-risk ships of the fleet: CVNs & AOEs. If we’re going to build high-risk ships (where the loss of even one is a major blow to the overall fleet), we should put them together so the firepower is amassed to the point where risk is mitigated.

    The Arleigh Burkes are probably the max size at a reasonable-cost with decent depth of capability (or firepower, if you prefer). In my mind, the LCS is under-sized and under-capable and should really be viewed as a large patrol ship, rather than a major combatant. That leaves a gap between the DDGs and the LCS, which could and should be filled with a light-depth, multi-role, light-displacement (~5000 tons) Frigate. This is where your concept of having a small and cheap-enough-to-build-in-numbers ship comes about. I guess I’m in the raft with the pro-FF/anti-LCS gang, mostly for the reasons you describe in your article.

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