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. Almost cruiser-like you could say:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.