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A cruiser is a large type of warship, which had its prime period from the late 19th century to the end of the Cold War. The first cruisers were intended for individual raiding and protection missions on the seas. Over the years, the nature and role of the cruiser has changed considerably, and today the cruiser has largely been replaced by destroyers in its roles.

Historically a cruiser was not a type of ship but a warship role. Cruisers were ships—often frigates or smaller vessels—which were assigned a role largely independent from the fleet. Typically this might involve missions such as raiding enemy merchant shipping. In the late 19th century the term 'cruiser' came to mean ships designed to fulfill such a role, and from the 1890s to the 1950s a 'cruiser' was a warship larger than a destroyer but smaller than a battleship. For much of 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the cruiser was a navy's long-range "force projection" weapon, while the larger ships stayed nearer to home. Their main role was to attack enemy merchant vessels, so much so that this task came to be called cruiser warfare. Other roles included reconnaissance, and cruisers were often attached to the battle fleet. In the later 20th century, the decline of the battleship left the cruiser as the largest and most powerful surface combatant. However, the role of the cruiser increasingly became one of providing air defence for a fleet, rather than independent cruiser warfare. At the beginning of the 21st century, cruisers were the heaviest surface combatant ships in use, with only five nations (the United States, Russia, France, Italy and Peru) operating them. Following the Italian Navy's 2003 decommissioning of , only four nations currently operate cruisers.

Early history

The term "cruiser" or "cruizer" was first commonly used in the 17th century to refer to an independent warship. "Cruiser" meant the purpose or mission of a ship, rather than a category of vessel. However, the term was nonetheless used to mean a smaller, faster warship suitable for such a role. In the 17th century, the ship of the line was generally too large, inflexible and expensive to be dispatched on long-range missions (for instance, to the Americas), and too strategically important to be put at risk of fouling and foundering by continual patrol duties. The Dutch navy was noted for its cruisers in the 17th century, while the British and later French and Spanish later caught up in terms of their numbers and deployment. The British Cruiser and Convoy Acts were an attempt by mercantile interests in Parliament to focus the Navy on commerce defence and raiding with cruisers, rather than the more scarce and expensive ships of the line. During the 18th century the frigate became the preeminent type of cruiser. A frigate was a small, fast, long range, lightly armed (single gun-deck) ship used for scouting, carrying dispatches, and disrupting enemy trade. The other principal type of cruiser was the sloop, but many other miscellaneous types of ship were used as well.

Steam cruisers

During the 19th century, as steam propulsion became the norm, fleets started to use the term 'cruiser' more descriptively to refer to some ironclad warships as well as a miscellany of unarmored frigates, sloops, and corvettes, most of which had mixed steam and sail propulsion.

The first ironclads were, because of their single gun decks, still referred to as "frigates", even though they were more powerful than existing ships of the line. The French constructed a number of smaller ironclads for overseas cruising duties, starting with the , commissioned 1865. These were the first armored cruisers.By the 1870s, many other nations had produced ironclads specifically for fast, independent, raiding and patrol. These vessels were referred to as armored cruisers. Until the 1890s armored cruisers were still built with masts for a full sailing rig, to enable them to operate far from friendly coaling stations.

Unarmored cruising warships, built out of wood, iron, steel or a combination of those materials, remained popular until towards the end of the 19th century. The ironclad's armor often meant that they were limited to short range under steam, and many ironclads were unsuited to long-range missions or for work in distant colonies. The unarmored cruiser - often a screw sloop or screw frigate - could continue in this role. Even though mid- or late-19th century cruisers typically carried up-to-date guns firing explosive shells, they were unable to face ironclads in combat. This was evidenced by the clash between , a modern British cruiser, and the Peruvianmarker monitor Huáscarmarker. Even though the Peruvian vessel was obsolescent by the time of the encounter, it stood up well to roughly 50 hits from British shells.

Steel cruisers

In the 1880s naval architects began to use steel as a material for construction and armament. A steel cruiser could be lighter and faster than one built of iron or wood. The Jeune Ecole school of naval doctrine suggested that a fleet of fast unprotected steel cruisers were ideal for commerce raiding, while the torpedo boat would be able to destroy an enemy battleship fleet.

Steel also offered the cruiser a way of acquiring the protection needed to survive in combat. Steel armor was considerably stronger, for the same weight, than iron. By putting a relatively thin layer of steel armor above the vital parts of the ship, and by placing the coal bunkers where they might stop shellfire, a useful degree of protection could be achieved without slowing the ship too much.

The first protected cruiser was the groundbreaking Chilean ship Esmeralda. Produced by a shipyard at Elswickmarker, in Britain, owned by Armstrong, she inspired a group of protected cruisers produced in the same yard and known as the "Elswick cruisers". Her forecastle, poop deck and the wooden board deck had been removed, replaced with an armored deck. Esmeralda's armament consisted of fore and aft 10-inch (25.4 cm) guns and 6-inch (15.2 cm) guns in the midships positions. It could reach a speed of , and was propelled by steam alone. It also had a displacement of less than 3,000 tons. During the two following decades, this cruiser type came to be the inspiration for combining heavy artillery, high speed and low displacement.

Torpedo cruisers

The torpedo cruiser was a smaller unarmored cruiser, which emerged in the 1880s-1890s. These ships could reach speed up to and were armed with medium to small calibre guns, as well as torpedoes. These ships were tasked with guard and reconnaissance duties, to repeat signals and all other duties of a fleet, which were suited for smaller vessels. These ships could also function as the flagship of a torpedo boat flotilla. After the 1900s, these ships were usually traded for faster ships with better sea going qualities.

Pre-dreadnought armored cruisers

Steel also had an impact on the construction and role of armored cruisers. Steel meant that new designs of battleship, later known as pre-dreadnought battleships, would be able to combine firepower and armor with better endurance and speed than ever before. The armored cruisers of the 1890s greatly resembled the battleships of the day; they tended to carry slightly smaller main armament ( rather than 12-inch) and have somewhat thinner armor in exchange for a faster speed (perhaps rather than 18). Because of their similarity, the lines between battleships and armored cruisers became blurred.

Cruisers from 1900 to 1914

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century there were difficult questions about the design of future cruisers. Modern armored cruisers, almost as powerful as battleships, were also fast enough to outrun older protected and unarmored cruisers. In the Royal Navy, Jackie Fisher cut back hugely on older vessels, including many cruisers of different sorts, calling them 'a miser's hoard of useless junk' that any modern cruiser would sweep from the seas.


HMS Repulse in 1919

The growing size and power of the armored cruiser resulted in the battlecruiser, larger than the armored cruiser with an armament similar to the revolutionary new dreadnought battleship, was the brainchild of British admiral Jackie Fisher. He believed that to ensure British naval dominance in its overseas colonial possessions, a fleet of large, fast, powerfully-armed vessels which would be able to hunt down and mop up enemy cruisers and armored cruisers with overwhelming fire superiority was needed. These vessels came to be known as the battlecruiser, and the first were commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1907. In spite of Fisher's lobbying, the concept never came to dominate naval warfare. However, Britain, Germany and eventually Japan all came to build squadrons of battlecruisers.

Light cruisers

At around the same time as the battlecruiser was developed, the distinction between the armored and the unarmored cruiser finally disappeared. By the British Town class cruiser , it was possible for a small, fast cruiser to carry both belt and deck armor, particularly when turbine engines were adopted. These 'light armored cruisers' began to occupy the traditional cruiser role once it became clear that the battlecruiser squadrons were required to operate with the battle fleet.

Flotilla leaders

Some light cruisers were built specifically to act as the leaders of flotillas of destroyers.

Auxiliary cruisers

The auxiliary cruiser was a merchant ship hastily armed with small guns on the outbreak of war. Auxiliary cruisers were used to fill gaps in their long-range lines or provide escort for other cargo ships, although they generally proved to be useless in this role because of their low speed, feeble firepower and lack of armor. In both world wars the Germans also used small merchant ships armed with cruiser guns to surprise Allied merchant ships. Some large liners were armed in the same way. In British service these were known as Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMC). The Germans and French used them in World War I as raiders because of their high speed (around 30 knots (56 km/h)), and they were used again as raiders in World War II by the Germans and Japanese. In both the First World War and in the early part of the Second, they were used as convoy escorts by the British.

World War I

Cruisers were one of the workhorse types of ship of World War I.

Cruisers from 1919-1945

Naval construction in the 1920s and 1930s was limited by international treaties designed to prevent the repetition of the Dreadnought arms race of the early 20th century. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 placed limits on the construction of ships with a displacement of 10,000 tons or more and an armament of greater than calibre. A number of navies commissioned classes of cruisers at the top end of this limit. The London Naval Treaty in 1930 then formalised the distinction between these 'heavy' cruisers and light cruisers: a 'heavy' cruiser was one with guns of 6.1in calibre or more. The Second London Naval Treaty attempted to reduce the tonnage of new cruisers to 8,000 or less, but this had little impact; Japan and Germany were not signatories, and navies had already begun to evade treaty limitations on warships.

Heavy cruisers

The heavy cruiser was a type of cruiser, a naval warship designed for long range, high speed and an armament of naval guns roughly 8in in calibre. The first heavy cruisers were built in 1915, although it only became a widespread classification following the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922. The heavy cruiser's immediate precursors were the light cruiser designs of the 1900s and 1910s. Heavy cruisers continued in use until after World War II.

The German pocket battleships

The German was a series of three Panzerschiffe ("armored ships"), a form of heavily armed cruiser, built by the German Reichsmarine in accordance with restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The class is named after the first ship of this class to be completed (the ). All three ships were launched between 1931 and 1934, and served with Germany's Kriegsmarine during World War II.

The Britishmarker began referring to the vessels as pocket battleships, in reference to the heavy firepower contained in the relatively small vessels; they were considerably smaller than battleships and battlecruisers, and although their displacement was that of a heavy cruiser, they were armed with guns larger than the heavy cruisers of other nations. Deutschland class ships continue to be called pocket battleships in some circles. The ships were actually two feet longer than the American - although the latter was unusually stubby for a modern battleship.

Deutschland class ships were initially classified as Panzerschiffe, but the Kriegsmarine reclassified them as heavy cruisers in February 1940.

Anti-aircraft cruisers

USS Atlanta (CL-51)
The development of the anti-aircraft cruiser began in 1935 when the Royal Navy re-armed and . Torpedo tubes and 6-inch (15 cm) low-angle guns were removed from these WWI light cruisers and replaced by ten 4-inch (10 cm) high-angle guns with appropriate fire-control equipment to provide larger warships with protection against high-altitude bombers.

A tactical shortcoming was recognized after completing six additional conversions of C class cruisers. Having sacrificed anti-ship weapons for anti-aircraft armament, the converted anti-aircraft cruisers might need protection themselves against surface units. New construction was undertaken to create cruisers of similar speed and displacement with dual-purpose guns. Dual-purpose guns offered good anti-aircraft protection with anti-surface capability for the traditional light cruiser role of defending capital ships from destroyers. The first purpose built anti-aircraft cruiser was the British , completed shortly before the beginning of WWII. The US Navy anti-aircraft cruisers (CLAA) were designed to match capabilities of the Royal Navy. Both Dido and Atlanta carried torpedo tubes.

The quick-firing dual-purpose gun anti-aircraft cruiser concept was embraced in several designs completed too late to see combat including and completed in 1948 and 1949, two s completed in 1953, De Grasse and Colbert completed in 1955 and 1959, and , and completed between 1959 and 1961.

Most post-WWII cruisers were tasked with air defense roles. In the early 1950s, advances in aviation technology forced the move from anti-aircraft artillery to anti-aircraft missiles. Therefore most cruisers of today are equipped with surface-to-air missiles as their main armament. The modern equivalent of the anti-aircraft cruiser is the guided missile cruiser (CAG/CLG/CG/CGN).

Russian Navy cruiser of the , .

The cruiser , firing a Tomahawk missile.

Later 20th century

The rise of air power during World War II dramatically changed the nature of naval combat. Even the fastest cruisers could not steer quickly enough to evade aerial attack, and aircraft now had torpedoes, allowing moderate-range standoff capabilities. This change led to the end of independent operations by single ships or very small task groups, and for the second half of the 20th century naval operations were based around very large fleets able to fend off all but the largest air attacks. This has led most navies to change to fleets designed around ships dedicated to a single role, anti-submarine or anti-aircraft typically, and the large "generalist" ship has disappeared from most forces. The United States Navy, the Russian Navy, and the Peruvian Navy are the only remaining navies which operate cruisers. France operates a single cruiser, , which in the NATO pennant number system is classified as an aircraft carrier, but for training purposes only.

In the Soviet Navy, cruisers formed the basis of combat groups. In the immediate post-war era they built a fleet of large-gun ships, but replaced these fairly quickly with very large ships carrying huge numbers of guided missiles and anti aircraft missiles. The most recent ships of this type, the four Kirovs, were built in the 1970s and 1980s, and, with the exception of the two newest in the class, and , are no longer in service today. Russia also operates one Kara-class and four Slava-class cruisers, plus one Kuznetsov-class carrier which is officially designated as a cruiser.

The United States Navy has centered on the aircraft carrier since WWII. The cruisers, built in the 1980s, were originally designed and designated as a class of destroyer, intended to provide a very powerful air-defense in these carrier-centered fleets. The ships were later redesignated largely as a public relations move, in order to highlight the capability of the Aegis combat system the ships were designed around. In the years since the launch of in 1981 the class has received a number of upgrades that have dramatically improved their capabilities for anti-submarine and land attack (using the Tomahawk missile). Like their Soviet counterparts, the modern Ticonderogas can also be used as the basis for an entire battle group. Their cruiser designation was almost certainly deserved when first built, as their sensors and combat management systems enable them to act as 'flagships' for a surface warship flotilla if no carrier is present, but newer ships rated as destroyers and also equipped with AEGIS approach them very closely in capability, and once more blur the line between the two classes.

Aircraft cruisers

From time to time, some navies have experimented with aircraft-carrying cruisers. One example is the Swedish HMS Gotland. Another variant is the helicopter cruiser. The last example in service was the Soviet Navy's , the last unit of which has been converted to a pure aircraft carrier and sold to Indiamarker. The Russian Navy's is nominally designated as an aviation cruiser but otherwise resembles a standard medium aircraft carrier, albeit with an SSM battery. The Royal Navy's aircraft-carrying vessels were originally designated 'through-deck cruisers', but have since been designated as small aircraft carriers.

Cruisers in service today

Few cruisers remain operational in the world navies. Those that do are:
  • United States Navy: 22 guided missile cruisers.
  • Russian Navy: Two large missile cruisers (sometimes referred to as battlecruisers due to their size) and three missile cruisers (further one under construction, transferred from Ukrainian Navy to Russian Navy) and two .
  • French Navy: The helicopter cruiser (now used as a training ship).
  • Peruvian Navy: The , a cruiser, was modernized as a guided-missile cruiser in the late eighties, is the world's last operational gun cruiser.

The US Navy's "cruiser gap"

Prior to the introduction of the Ticonderogas, the US Navy used odd naming conventions that left its fleet seemingly without many cruisers, although a number of their ships were cruisers in all but name. From the 1950s to the 1970s, US Navy "cruisers" were large vessels equipped with heavy offensive missiles (including the Regulus nuclear cruise missile) for wide-ranging combat against land-based and sea-based targets. All save one — — were converted from World War II Chicago, Baltimore and Cleveland class cruisers. "Frigates" under this scheme were almost as large as the cruisers and optimized for anti-aircraft warfare, although they were capable anti-surface warfare combatants as well. In the late 1960s, the US government perceived a "cruiser gap" — at the time, the US Navy possessed six ships designated as "cruisers", compared to 19 for the Soviet Union, even though the USN possessed at the time 21 "frigates" with equal or superior capabilities to the Soviet cruisers — because of this, in 1975 the Navy performed a massive redesignation of its forces:
  • CVA/CVAN were redesignated CV/CVN (although and never embarked anti-submarine squadrons).
  • DLG/DLGN (Frigate/Nuclear-powered Frigate) were redesignated CG/CGN (Guided Missile Cruiser/Nuclear-powered Guided Missile Cruiser).
  • Farragut-class guided missile frigates (DLG), being smaller and less capable than the others, were redesignated to DDGs ( was the first ship of this class to be re-numbered; because of this the class is sometimes called the Coontz class);
  • DE/DEG (Ocean Escort/Guided Missile Ocean Escort) were redesignated to FF/FFG (Guided Missile Frigates), bringing the US "Frigate" designation into line with the rest of the world.

Also, a series of Patrol Frigates of the , originally designated PFG, were redesignated into the FFG line. The cruiser-destroyer-frigate realignment and the deletion of the Ocean Escort type brought the US Navy's ship designations into line with the rest of the world's, eliminating confusion with foreign navies. In 1980, the Navy's then-building DDG-47 class destroyers were redesignated as cruisers (CG-47 Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser) to emphasize the additional capability provided by the ships' Aegis combat systems.

See also


  1. The alternative spelling could be found at least as late as 1900: Jackie Fisher wrote "We a require an increase.... in all classes of cruizer" in a letter dated 20th Feb 1900. Mackay, R. Fisher of Kilverstone, p.242
  2. Rodger, N. A. M.: The Command of the Ocean, A Naval History of Britain 1649–1815. Allen Lane, London, 2004. ISBN 0-7139-9411-8
  3. Hill, Richard: War at Sea in the Ironclad Age. Cassell, London, 2000. ISBN 0-304-35273-X
  4. Friedman, Norman "Anti-Aircraft Cruisers: The Life of a Class" United States Naval Institute Proceedings January 1965 p.86
  5. Friedman, Norman "Anti-Aircraft Cruisers: The Life of a Class" United States Naval Institute Proceedings January 1965 pp.96-97
  6. Naval Vessel Register

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