The ‘Cruiser Slaughter,’ or why the Clinton administration hated steam warships

In the late 1950s, the U.S. Navy commissioned two classes of what were termed at the time, Destroyer Leaders, a type of “super destroyer” larger than the late-WWII designed Gearing-class tin cans (3,500-tons, 390-feet, 36.8kts on 60,000 shp worth of GE steam turbines and 4 boilers, 3 twin 5″/38s) and an offshoot of the testbed Mitscher-class destroyers (4,855-tons, 490-feet, experimental steam plants, 2×5-inch singles).

They were beautiful, rakish ships.

An artist's concept of the guided missile cruiser USS LEAHY (CG 16).

An artist’s concept of the guided-missile cruiser USS LEAHY (CG 16).

Almost cruiser-like you could say:

USS LEAHY underway in the Pacific, National Archives K-112673

These two new Destroyer Leaders classes, the 9-ship Leahy and 9-ship Belknap classes, were much larger (7,800-8,000 tons, 547-feet) and, though they packed 85,000shp as a benefit of their four 1200psi boilers, were slower at 32-34kts. However, they did carry giant twin-rail RIM-2 Terrier Mk 10 missile launchers in place of most of the guns carried by their predecessors.

Mk-10 guided missile launching system (GMLS) with reload system aboard USS Worden (CG 18)

These 18 DLGs, augmented by two unique nuclear-plant vessels on similar hulls (Bainbridge and Truxtun) with pressurized-water D2G reactors were completed in just under eight years, with the first laid down 3 December 1959 and the last of the 20 ships commissioned 27 May 1967– surely a remarkable shipbuilding achievement when compared to FY2018, that’s for sure.

WORDEN (DLG 18) and DALE (DLG 19) at Bath Iron Works.

Painting of USS Bainbridge (DLGN 25)

Aerial photo of USS Horne (DLG-30) taken in March 1967. Photo likely was taken when she was on builders trials.

3 January 1989 – A port beam view of the nuclear-powered guided missile-cruiser USS Truxtun (CGN 35) underway steaming to her homeport of San Diego.
U.S. Navy photo #DN-SC-90-02332 by PH2 Petty.

To this were added two California-class nuclear DLGN’s in the early 1970s and a planned four-ship group of Virginia-class vessels. In all, 26 DLG/DLGNs.

As these 26 mega destroyers came online, the Navy also was rapidly moving away from their remaining WWII-era light and heavy cruiser fleet.

By 1974, the Navy had just eight cruisers in commission: Long Beach (CGN9), Little Rock (CL-92/CLG-4/CG-4), Oklahoma City (CL-91/CLG-5/CG-5), Springfield (CL-66/CLG-7/CG-7), Albany (CA-123/CG-10), Chicago (CA-136/CG-11), Columbus (CA-74/CG-12), and Newport News (CA–148). However, naval analysts were quick to point out that the Soviets had a whopping 40~ “cruisers” ranging from the dated 16,000-ton all-gun Sverdlovs and similar 14,000-ton Chapayevs to the smaller 7,000-ton Krestas and 9,000-ton Kara-class missile boats.

The solution to close the “cruiser gap”? Redesignate the 26 DLG/Ns to CG/CGNs and call it a day.

The 13,600-ton guided missile cruiser USS Columbus (CG-12) underway off San Diego, California (USA), 19 February 1965. The U.S. Ordered a year before Pearl Harbor, Columbus was built as a Baltimore-class heavy cruiser and converted to a missile slinger in 1959. THIS is what the Navy had in mind when someone said “cruiser” until 1975. Navy photo NH 82722-KN.

Thus, our super destroyers magically in 1975 became cruisers, which, when compared to the Karas and Krestas that Moscow called cruisers in their own right, they certainly were. So presto-chango, abracadabra, boom– 26 “new” cruisers.

An aerial bow view of six nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers underway in formation during Exercise READEX 1-81. The ships are, from left to right: USS TEXAS (CGN 39), USS CALIFORNIA (CGN 36), USS SOUTH CAROLINA (CGN 37), USS VIRGINIA (CGN 38), USS ARKANSAS (CGN 41) and USS MISSISSIPPI (CGN 40), background NARA # 6418325 Photo 26 Feb 1981

Leahy-class guided missile destroyer cruiser USS England (CG-22), Pacific Ocean, 10 January 1983. Note the retrofitted Harpoon anti-ship missiles aft

USS Virginia (CGN-38) anchored at Athens, Greece, 18 June 1983.

By the 1980s, the Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers (based on a destroyer hull– the Spruance) were being cranked out to add more missiles and battlespace management to the fleet. By Nov. 1992, some 27 Ticos were in commission (or at least launched) which, along with our 26 frocked DLG/Ns and the old Long Beach, gave the Navy a proud total of 54 cruisers of all sorts in service, which proved to be the high water mark of the post-1945 Navy.

A starboard bow view of the guided-missile destroyer USS FOX (CG-33) underway. DN-SC-93-01175

Further, the old DLGs had been slated for the New Threat Upgrade (NTU) which shelved old sensors like the AN/SPS-40 in place of the much more capable SPS-48E & 49(V)5, upgraded tracking and engagement systems and provided the ability to sling modern Standard missiles, making them more deadly than they had ever been.

Then, the Cold War thawed.

On Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. The Red Fleet soon became sidelined and within months the newly reformed Russian Navy began to wither.

The Peace Dividend was duly cashed in and the U.S. Navy’s surface assets were on the chopping block. Just as the Knox-class fast frigates were stacked up in mothballs due to their manpower intensive steam plants (when compared to gas turbine FFG7s), the Clinton administration put a hit out on the Navy’s non-carrier surface assets (psst, the nuclear cruisers) as well as the Leahy/Belknaps.

The first to go, the venerable Leahy herself, was decommissioned along with her sister Worden on 1 October 1993. By 30 July 1999 the last of the active batch of 26 ships envisioned to be DLG/Ns, USS South Carolina (CGN-37), was decommissioned although she had just had her reactor re-cored and was good for another 18 years of service!

USS South Carolina (CGN-37) cuts through the water of the Atlantic Ocean during transit to the Mediterranean Sea on 9 OCT 1997. Official U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate First Class Petty Officer Gregory Pinkley (971009-N-9975P-001).

Almost as soon as they were stricken these once fine flagships were scrapped, recycled or sunk as targets with the last vestiges erased by 2007.

On 31 May 2001, the guided-missile cruiser Reeves (CG-24) becomes a target for bombs dropped by Royal Australian Airforce F-111s, missiles from U.S. Naval warships and shells from Royal Australian Naval vessels as part of a SINKEX off the coast of Queensland, Australia.

The great cruiser slaughter took just under six years. To boot, by 2005 the first five Ticos– those armed with Mark-26s rather than VLS launchers– were mothballed. Just 22 of 54 cruisers remained.

Still, though they were retired with life left in them and miles left unsailed, they held the line during the Cold War and stood ready to weather a Red Storm that never rose.

Vale to the days of steam, twin-armed Mk.10s, and the iron cruisermen who sailed them.

Terrier Missile Shot Aft, USS Leahy, Painting, Oil on Canvas; by Walter W. Bollendonk; 1965; Framed Dimensions 29H x 40W Accession #: 88-161-DC

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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as, University of Guns, Outdoor Hub, Tac-44, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the U.S. federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

2 responses to “The ‘Cruiser Slaughter,’ or why the Clinton administration hated steam warships”

  1. Gary Spencer says :

    I served aboard the Leahy DLG16 from 4/70 to 10/73. She was the best ship in the fleet. It is a shame that the 16s and 26s are all gone. Would still be front line ships today and would go along way in making the Navy strong again.

  2. Tim McCann says :

    Bottom line is the AEGIS Navy didn’t want the competition. The same reason all the Spruance 963 class disappeared.

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