Sailing frigates acted as scouts for the main fleet or acted independently by providing a cheap, plentiful, and reasonably powerful presence intended to keep/enforce the peace, secure trade routes, provide security from pirates and opportunistic foreign ships, provide a means of communication (if not particularly rapid communications), escort convoys, and generally patrol an area while upholding and reinforcing the parent country’s territorial claims and interests.
The English Navy’s famed frigates and captains, such as HMS Indefatigable and Edward Pellew, set the standard that would, ultimately, lead to modern cruisers.
Similarly, the United States’ sailing ship USS Constitution might be considered a prototype cruiser. It was well armed and strong enough to defeat all existing frigates and even some larger ships and fast enough to run from any ship of the line that it couldn’t defeat.
When the age of sail gave way to steam and steel, the vastness of oceans and empires gave rise to the first modern cruisers such as the USS Olympia, Commodore Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War. In keeping with the sailing frigates, cruisers were seen as ocean-ranging commerce raiders, scouts, and, often, the backbone of small surface groups. Cruisers often were designed with great speed to enable them to operate with destroyers and to cover large areas quickly in the scouting role. For example, the American Chester class ‘scout cruiser’, built beginning in 1905, was designed with high speed but light armor and armament. Thus, cruisers of this era were used as ubiquitous global ‘presence’ ships while the battle line generally stayed in home waters.
The advent of aircraft further emphasized the cruiser’s role as a scout as the cruisers now had the means to greatly extend their ‘sensor’ range. The Brooklyn class light cruiser of the mid-1930’s, for example, carried 4 floatplanes and 2 catapults.
|USS Brooklyn CL-40|
In more modern times, the definition of a cruiser was a ship that was bigger than a destroyer and smaller than a battleship. This was more a description than a definition, however. Still, prior to the advent of WWII, the scouting role was still emphasized and cruisers were often used as scouts for the battle line.
WWII saw the development of a wide range of cruisers from light anti-aircraft cruisers such as the Atlanta class which was armed with 5” guns to the near-battleship Alaska class cruisers with a main battery of nine 12” guns and heavy armor. The range of designs reflected the range of missions that cruisers were used for. The missions included,
- Scouting (early war)
- Anti-air escort
- Land bombardment
- Independent surface group core
Thus, the WWII cruiser was, in a sense, a ship type that didn’t have a clearly defined role. As an overall group of ships, cruisers could be considered multi-function ships in an era of single function design. However, on closer examination, the multiple functions were filled not by one design type but by several designs, each specialized and optimized for the intended role. Thus, the Atlanta class anti-air cruiser had numerous 5” anti-air guns while the Alaska class heavy gun cruiser was optimized for anti-surface and land attack. So, while the overall classification of cruiser performed many roles, the roles were actually filled by purpose designed, single function classes.
|Atlanta Class Anti-Aircraft Cruiser|
The last true US cruisers were the California and Virginia classes – ‘true’ in the sense that they had a nice balance of speed, firepower, size, flag facilities, and some armor. Their replacement, the Ticonderoga class, which the Navy labeled a cruiser, was just a modification of the Spruance class destroyer intended to fill the anti-air role and had none of the physical or operational characteristics of a cruiser.
This brings us to consider the question, what is a modern cruiser and what is its role?
The modern cruiser is represented by the American Ticonderoga class, the Chinese Type 055, and the SKorean Sejong the Great. The common attribute among these is that all are focused on anti-air warfare. Thus, they are defensive escorts rather than the scouts or independent sailors of earlier times.
|Sejong the Great Class|
Further, the distinction between cruiser and destroyer has been so badly blurred that the designations are now meaningless. The designation ‘cruiser’ is now bestowed, or not, on a ship class for reasons of prestige, public relations, Congressional oversight, etc. rather than because the ships meet any particular historical or functional definition of a cruiser.
We might almost go so far as to say that modern cruisers no longer exist in the sense that there are no ships that fill the traditional roles of a cruiser. Aviation has taken over the scouting role, AAW-focused ‘destroyers’ have taken over the escort role, and there are no ships performing the independent operations role.
The Soviet Union Kirov class cruiser is an interesting case. It came very close to the traditional attributes of fairly heavy firepower, moderate armor, decent speed, and high endurance. In terms of roles, it was used for strike operations, scouting, in a sense (hunting US carriers), and independent surface operations as the core of a surface group. On the other hand, by modern standards, the Kirovs were so far beyond other countries’ ‘cruisers’ that they could easily be classed as modern battleships, lacking only heavy armor. It is also interesting that no country has attempted to build a vessel equivalent to the Kirov.
As stated, from a functional aspect, cruisers no longer exist and current discussions about ‘cruisers’ are merely semantic debates. Interestingly, though, this blog has called for true cruisers to fill the traditional roles and lend some much needed firepower and presence in an alternative form to carrier groups (see, “Independent Cruiser”).
Thus, the cruiser is no more. Naval strategists have dropped all the traditional cruiser roles or distributed them out among other platforms. This seems unwise as the need for an ocean-ranging presence (meaning with firepower) has never changed and, when we find that our vaunted UAVs are nowhere near the omniscient and invulnerable assets that we assume them to be, we may well regret the disappearance of a far ranging scout capable of defending itself.
The trans-oceanic presence role of a cruiser is worthy of some additional consideration. Once upon a time, cruisers were invested with significant authority and power by their parent countries to enforce national intent. It was expected that they would, occasionally, exert their influence (again, firepower) for the betterment of their country. Ship Captains wielded great autonomy and power. Today, we have removed all such authority and power from ship Captains and have adopted a policy of appeasement instead of enforcement and might. That being the case, there is no need for a cruiser – some might say there is no need for a navy if appeasement is the policy. However, history strongly suggests that these changes have led to a worsening of international behavior, not an improvement. For example, we now have third rate countries dictating policy in the Middle East, seizing ships of all nations, threatening international shipping lanes, etc. Once upon a time, such Barbary Pirate behavior was terminated by the actions of Decatur and Bainbridge and the young American Navy. There is still a need for forceful presence around the world. Of course, that requires a modicum of courage and resolve by our civilian leaders and a willingness to invest ship Captains with autonomy and authority.
In short, while the world navies have abandoned cruisers, the traditional roles of the cruiser have not vanished which makes the abandonment all the more curious. We could use a couple dozen modern cruisers far more than a couple dozen frigates.