Back Home

Europe and the future of cruisers

© U.S. Navy

Image credit: U.S. Navy

Definition of a Cruiser:

Oxford DictionaryA relatively fast warship larger than a destroyer and less heavily armed than a battleship.

1992 Washington Naval Treaty – a warship of up to 10,000 tons displacement carrying guns no larger than 8 inches in caliber.

These two definitions of Cruisers are both illuminating, mainly because they are so wide and encompassing; traditionally a Cruiser had not been a class of ship, but a designation for ships which were below the Rate system of fleet ships. They were used for peacetime and wartime commerce protection, fleet scouting, inshore work, commerce raiding and (for want of a better phrase) ‘showing the flag’ or ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’. This meant in practice that the term ‘Cruisers’ referred to Frigates, Sloops, Brigs and all the other small ships. Cruisers were in reality first defined by the naval treaties of the 1920s; but with the growth of modern warships these no longer have any real meaning. For example, the Zumwalt class Destroyers that the United States Navy (USN) laid the keels down for in 2010 displace 14,798tons – well over the 1922 limit for Cruisers. However, despite this watering down the titles, Cruiser, Destroyer and Frigate still seem to have influence; hence the current debate taking place in America.

The vocal procurement conflict that is raging in the American halls of power over the future of Cruisers, their numbers, their role in air defence of task forces and protection of high value capital ships, casts in sharp relief to the relative lack of debate, let alone such vessels, being carried out within or owned by European nations. Such a contrast would seem to raise a question: Are European nations missing something or is the US focusing on ‘the issues of ship titles/class classification and equipment rather than capability and actual requirement or necessity? To answer such a question the first place to start is with nations that operate Cruisers: well of course there is America with its twenty-two Ticonderoga class vessels; Russia with its one Kirov class vessel (three more are in overhaul), three Slava class and a Kara class. Finally the third and final operators of a Cruiser, surprisingly enough is not China, Japan, the United Kingdom, France or even Brazil; it is Peru, operating an upgraded Dutch origin De Zeven Provinciën class Cruiser, the BAP Almirante Grau.

Now we must leave aside the BAP Almirante Grau, which is a lovely ship, but it is an upgraded gun Cruiser (the last such vessel still in service), so it does not really fit the parameters for this enquiry. The result is that two nations remain, both of which are using upgraded Cold War designs. For Russia with only a single aircraft carrier, the Cruisers are obviously not focused on protecting that; there is also the fact that the 28,000 ton Pyotr Velikiy, the only operational representative of the Kirov Class (a class which played a key role according to some in the USN re-commissioning the Iowa class battleships), is arguably itself a big enough presence that it arguably does not need aircraft carrier support outside of warfighting: in fact it is so big that some experts classify it as a ‘battlecruiser’. Furthermore, if the single Kara class vessel is discounted (the Russian’s call them a Large Anti-Submarine Warfare ship), then the armament of the Russian Cruisers would show them as clearly being focused on the ship killing mission (arguably the traditional mission of Cruisers), with their extensive anti-air capabilities being a product of the requirements of carrying out that mission in the face of projected hostile air threats. This all means that it is a reasonable argument that the only navy which attests that it operates Cruisers in the primary air defence role, is the USN; the question is why?

Prior to the introduction of specialist Anti-Air vessels during World War Two, Cruisers were always conceived as general purpose ships which had significant peace time roles as well as crucial war time roles. Cruisers were general purpose vessels, not because they had limited purpose, but because their role of ‘cruising the seas to intercept and destroy threats to trade or fleets’ meant they would inevitably have to fight everything, meaning they had to be prepared to fight anything. In fact, the 9,800 ton Ticonderoga class are proud successors to this tradition, with their two 61 cell MK 41 Vertical Launch System allowing a wide range of missiles to be used enabling this ship to carry out land attack, anti-submarine, anti-satellite missions as well as the anti-air role. So therefore to classify these ships as simply anti-air vessels undermines their true capability. However, while the Ticonderoga class is capable, in reality it is not providing that much more capability than the cheaper to operate, 9,200 ton Arleigh Burke Flight IIA class Destroyers with their 96 MK 41 VLS cells. So the question is what sets them apart, the USN argues it is their command and control abilities – being able to act as a hub for task force air defence due to their greater command space/number of control consoles/personnel. With all this in mind it seems even more surprising that Britain and France do not operate Cruisers: Britain especially, when considering the practically unique Task Force battle experience provided to the RN by the 1982 Falklands War (where the RN sank the Argentinian Cruiser, the Belgrano, on May 2nd).

Instead, rather than Cruisers, Britain operates Destroyers, which have been designed with command space; the French, the Dutch, the Danish, and the Italians all operate Frigate classes designed with that command space. The capabilities a ship has is of course a product of its design and the weighting of priorities during the process that goes on behind that; this is proved by the Ticonderoga class Cruisers themselves, as their design is based on a modification of hulls of the Spruance class Destroyer. So if the command and control capability is a function of design, then the question is why is the USN, or at least the US Congress, so keen on retaining Cruisers, when they could simply design it into the Flight III Arleigh Burkes which are yet to begin construction? Perhaps therefore there is another reason for America’s being wedded to them, perhaps a reason which has been with Cruisers since the beginning – their status.

A nation with a navy that operates Cruisers is the equivalent to being a member of a very select club; the Russian Kirov Cruisers are of course the supreme example of using these vessels as status symbols – for all their extensive combat potential, the real world capabilities of the ships pale in comparison to what they represent. If this is the real reason why America retains Cruisers, it is necessarily not a bad reason; especially not for a nation with interests as wide and as exposed as theirs are. However, if that is the case, then perhaps America needs to take a look at Russia; and build fewer, but bigger more powerful vessels – true statements of America’s might (just as they do when designing their Aircraft Carriers), rather than adopting an almost mealy mouthed approach; and leave air defence command to suitably designed, but cheaper and consequently more numerous, Destroyers.

For European nations, especially those without Aircraft Carriers to lead their fleets, carry their nation’s standing around the world and provide convincing long range strike capability, Cruisers, could also be of service to them. Yes, the cost of such those vessels in relation to necessity of their procurement would without doubt be a complicated debate, but for some nations, especially those with wider interests beyond their home continent, Cruisers could be worth every penny (or cent) of investment. This would be because they would have multi-purpose high capability ships of status, within the range of their ability to provide the technological support and absorb the financial cost, which would increase their options for exerting influence of events without having to recourse to conflict. In other words provide those nations with the ability to deploy a ‘greater presence’ in order to illustrate their commitment, with the aim of impressing upon the involved parties the benefit of a non-violent resolution. Although, in all honesty, those nations might get similar benefit from just building more of the classes of escort (Destroyers and Frigates) they are already building. The point is though, the construction of ships should be as much about their peacetime presence and their nation’s security needs as it is to do with that nation’s wartime battle force strength.

Vol. 6, No. 75 (2014)

© It is not possible to republish this article without the express permission of European Geostrategy.