Why Doesn't The Navy Have Battle Cruisers?
by U.S. Navy Kelley Stirling
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division
July 22, 2018
If the battle cruiser has all the best elements of a battleship and a cruiser, why doesn’t the Navy have a fleet of them?
James Harrison, division director for the Expeditionary Warfare Ships Division at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA 05D3), set out to explain why some ships just didn’t make it in to the Navy fleet, during his history presentation May 9, 2018 at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division in West Bethesda, Maryland.
“Not Even Once!” was about ships or ship programs that were initially supported by Navy leadership, but were ultimately cancelled before being built or launched, and the battle cruiser was in that lineup.
“Battle cruisers have the fighting power of a battleship with the speed of a cruiser,” Harrison said in his eighth talk at Carderock.
The Navy did make an attempt to build its own battle cruiser in response to the Soviet nuclear battle cruiser of the 1970s. Harrison said the Soviet battle cruiser was considered a ship killer, and the U.S. Navy had nothing like it. So, the Navy initiated a model test program of a nuclear-powered strike cruiser in 1976. By 1977, Congress didn’t authorize the Navy’s request for funding for this strike cruiser and instead funded the new version of the Virginia-class nuclear guided-missile cruiser, CGN 42, which ironically, also didn’t get built.
“You can’t just build cool stuff. You have to build military equipment that supports your overall national strategy,” said Capt. Mark Vandroff, Carderock’s commanding officer. It was Vandroff who invited Harrison more than a year ago to give these somewhat humorous historical presentations at Carderock.
USS Virginia (CGN 38) was built, and there were four of that class of ship built with state-of-the-art combat systems. However, newer combat systems were quickly changing what “state-of-the-art” was, specifically the AEGIS weapon system and vertical launching systems. According to Harrison, the also-planned DDG 47, or what was at the time to be the Spruance-class destroyers, was cheaper and more modular, meaning it could retrofit newer systems as they became available, unlike the cruiser.
The 20 new CGN 42-classes of cruisers were scrapped to make way for 27 new DDG 47-class of destroyers, which also didn’t get built. Well, they were built, but not as destroyers. Harrison said Congress was concerned because cancelling the CGN 42 meant the Navy would have no cruisers being built at all.
“So, a simple solution was found for that. They took DDG 47 and rebranded it as CG 47, and voila, you don’t have 27 new destroyers, you have 27 new cruisers,” Harrison said.
While the CGN 42 program was halted in the late 1970s in favor of the Ticonderoga-class cruiser (CG 47), it was brought back in the 1980s in support of the buildup of the 600-ship Navy, but again halted before one was built.
Back to battle cruisers. The Navy’s first attempt at a battle cruiser was actually in 1920. USS Lexington (CC-1) didn’t have quite the fighting power of a battleship at the time, but was going to be a lot faster at 34 knots. The Navy’s plan was to build six of them at the same time in four different shipyards. Keels were laid in 1920 and by March 1922, all work stopped, very short of completion, as a result of the Washington Naval Treaty.
“After World War I, there was a lot of angst in the U.S. about all the money being spent to build the fleet,” Harrison said. “The world powers got together in 1922 and decided to place limits on the size of their navies and stopped building further battleships.”
But Lexington and Saratoga (CC-3) did survive in a different form. The battle cruisers were redesigned to be aircraft carriers on the same keel. So, USS Lexington became CV 2 and USS Saratoga became CV 3.
Ultimately, aircraft carriers really became the U.S. Navy’s answer to the battle cruiser.
“Since WWII, the Navy has not used ships to kill capital ships,” Harrison said, defining capital ships as key assets of any navy. “We use carriers, we use aircraft, which fly out hundreds of miles and kill your capital ships way out there, not letting you get close enough where you can shoot at our key asset.”
But the Navy almost lost even its ability to build carriers. At the end of World War II, the Navy wanted to build USS United States (CV 58), which was a carrier designed with the mission of delivering nuclear-armed bombers. The design had no island to make room for these bombers, as well as fighters. A model was even built and tested for seakeeping at Carderock’s David Taylor Model Basin in 1947.
Preliminary design model of USS United States (CV 58) undergoing seakeeping tests at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division’s David Taylor Model Basin in West Bethesda, Maryland, circa 1947. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
“The idea was the fighters would protect the carrier to get in close enough to launch the bombers that were thought to be needed to carry the heavy nuclear weapons to deliver a nuclear strike against your adversary,” Harrison said.
The Navy was pretty serious about building it, even laying the keel April 18, 1949, at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. Then, on April 23, 1949, the secretary of defense cancelled the program, sparking the secretary of the Navy to resign. Harrison said the secretary of defense’s actions against the U.S. Navy at the time ultimately led to what’s called the “Revolt of the Admirals.”
President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson decided on a defense strategy that basically eliminated the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps, believing that all wars of the future would be solved with nuclear weapons, which the Air Force’s bombers could deliver. The secretary of the Navy and several other admirals went behind Johnson’s back to Congress to ask for funding and this led to the CNO’s resignation.
“In 1949 the ship gets cancelled,” Harrison said. “Then in 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea.”
When Truman wanted to blockade North Korea, the Navy said they didn’t have the ships and the naval forces necessary to conduct a blockade of a nation so large as North Korea. Also in 1950, the Navy demonstrated it could use smaller aircraft to deliver nuclear weapons using a Midway-class carrier.
“There was a sea change and a realization that not every war was going to be nuclear exchange, that we were going to need forces across the full range of options,” Harrison said. “So, in 1951, USS Forrestal, CV 49, the first of our super carriers, was ordered and delivered in 1959.”