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The U.S. Navy Is Building Cruisers—It’s Just Not Calling Them That

David Axe Forbes Staff

There is, at first glance, a stark difference between the world’s leading navies when it comes to building cruisers—the biggest, most heavily armed surface warships now that battleships are long gone.

In just three years starting in mid-2017, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy launched eight new Type 055 cruisers. Each Type 055 displaces 12,000 tons and packs 112 vertical-launch cells for anti-air, anti-ship and land-attack missiles.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy hasn’t launched a ship it calls a cruiser since 1992, when the last Ticonderoga-class vessel slid into the water. And over the decades, several attempts by the Americans to sustain a new cruiser program have foundered.

U.S. naval leaders insist they’ll follow through on their latest effort to develop a large surface combatant—the long-delayed DDG(X) program—and finally, belatedly, deploy a direct replacement for its aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers.

But from a certain point of view, the fleet already is replacing the old cruisers. It’s just not saying so. It’s a matter of nomenclature. The way the Navy describes and classifies its ships has a tendency to obscure how big and powerful many of these ships are—and what roles they perform.

rom a certain point of view, the latest Flight III variant of the U.S. fleet’s workhorse Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, or DDG, could—and should—qualify as a cruiser. If naval leaders and lawmakers started thinking of the latest Burkes as cruisers, it might help to clarify naval planning and ease the transition from the Ticos to the large surface combatants that come next.

The U.S. fleet has 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The 9,800-ton Ticos aren’t the biggest surface combatants in the fleet—that honorific belongs to the three 15,900-ton Zumwalt-class destroyers. But the Ticoare the most missile-heavy.

Each Tico boasts 122 vertical cells for launching anti-air missiles and cruise missiles. The Zumwalts have only 80 missile cells. The current Flight IIA Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, each displacing around 9,500 tons, boast 96 cells apiece.

Perhaps more importantly, the Ticos have a full suite of radars in the L, S and X bands, plus the space and communications equipment they need to function as “air-defense commander” ships for aircraft carrier battle groups.

The ADC ship is special. It coordinates air-defense for the carrier group, which might include as many as five cruisers and destroyers in addition to the flattop.

Its skipper usually is an experienced officer holding the rank of captain. Its staff receives additional training. Where the other surface warships in a carrier group might leave the group for days or weeks at a time to conduct their own, independent missions—the ADC ship never leaves the carrier.

Because the ADC vessel is the flattop’s last line of defense, the Navy assigns only its most heavily-armed ships to the role. For a quarter-century, the Ticos have been the obvious choice for ADC. Of all the Navy’s roughly 100 surface combatants, they have the most missiles, the best sensors and the most space for a captain and their staff.

Indeed, over time the term “cruiser” more or less have become synonymous with the air-defense commander role. In the Navy, for as long as almost anyone in the fleet can remember, cruisers do ADC and the ADC job goes to cruisers.

The Navy’s failure over the years to replace the Ticos with new ships it calls cruisers means the ADC role is going to have to shift to ships the fleet doesn’t call cruisers.

After all, the Navy expect to decommission the first 11 Ticos between 2022 and 2026. The balance of the class will leave the fleet shortly thereafter. The new DDG(X), a de facto cruiser, can’t possibly join the fleet before the mid-2030s.

We already know how this is likely to play out. “The Flight III DDGs will replace the cruisers at least initially, and then the DDG(X) will take over as the primary ‘large surface combatant’ class,” explained Bryan McGrath, director of the FerryBridge Group naval consultancy in Maryland.

Congress so far has paid for 14 Flight IIIs. The first Flight III, the future USS Jack H. Lucas, could commission in 2023. A Flight III Burke has the same number of missile cells as a Flight IIA—96—but the variant comes with a brand-new main sensor, the powerful SPY-6(V)1 Air and Missile Defense Radar.

The new DDG(X) likely will borrow the Flight III’s radar and other combat systems, McGrath pointed out. So a Flight III is roughly the same displacement as a Tico and has 26 fewer missiles than the cruiser does, but has better sensors—the same sensors that should wind up in the DDG(X).

Can, then, a Flight III perform the ADC role? And if so, why not call it a cruiser?

The answer to the former question is yes, according to a 2014 testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee by Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, then commander of the Navy’s surface fleet. Turning a Flight III into an ADC ship mostly is a matter of manpower and training, Rowden said. “If the role falls of the air-defense commander to a guided-missile destroyer, we would have to increase the amount of training that we have and perhaps start to increase the level of expertise on those guided-missile destroyers in order to be able to get the capability into those ships in order to be able to ensure that we are executing the air-defense commander job properly.”

So why not call the Flight III Burke a cruiser, since it’s roughly equal to a cruiser in terms of size and capability and probably will spend a decade or more doing the things cruisers do?

No one in the Navy has answered that question. But it’s worth noting that the nomenclature problem isn’t new or limited to the Flight IIIs. Nick Childs, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, wondered why the DDG(X) officially is a destroyer, even though it’s a direct replacement for a class of cruisers.

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