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In military terminology, a cruiser is a large warship capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously. Historically they were generally considered the smallest ships capable of independent operations — destroyers usually requiring outside support such as tenders — but in modern parlance this difference has disappeared.
The term "cruiser" was a mid 19th century invention. During the age of sail, frigates were small, fast, long range, lightly armed (single gun-deck) ships used for scouting and carrying dispatches. The majority of the fleet would be made up of much larger and slower ships of the line, which were expected to deal with fleet combat that the frigates would avoid. The first ironclads also had only a single gun-deck because of the weight of armor, even though they were bigger ships with bigger guns. They were nevertheless referred to as frigates although they were used as ships of the line. Thus the definition of a frigate changed, the smaller ships originally using this term were now referred to as "cruising ships", which was rapidly abbreviated to cruiser.
For many years cruisers filled a sweet spot between very light craft such as the torpedo boat, and the ships intended to take part in fleet combat, later generally referred to as battleships. Cruisers were large enough to fend off attacks from smaller surface ships and self-sufficient enough to roam far from their home bases. Battleships were more powerful in combat, but so slow and (after the introduction of engine power), so fuel hungry that long-range operations were difficult. 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.
Cruisers were also attached to the main battlefleet and used for reconnaissance, sweeping ahead of the fleet looking for the enemy.
The evolution of the cruiser follows that of their larger cousins, generally growing in size and capability. The conversion from sail to steam resulted in the armored cruiser, essentially a small and faster battleship. This occurred so rapidly during the late nineteenth century battleships only a few years old could be outperformed by cruisers of the next building run. The US's Great White Fleet was rendered obsolete in this fashion only a few years after it sailed. During this time it was not uncommon for fleets to contain the very latest of an older generation as well as the latest designs, which were generally much larger.
For this reason the terms heavy cruiser and light cruiser started to be used. After World War I these terms were codified during the various naval arms limitation treaties, light cruisers were armed with 6.1" (155 mm) guns or less, heavy cruisers with larger calibers, 8" (203 mm) being particularly common. 8" was the largest treaty-allowed gun on heavy cruisers of the major treaty signatory nations, and became the de facto international standard for heavy cruisers; only five cruisers would be eventually built with larger guns: three German "pocket battleships" Deutschland-class and two US Navy's World War II-era Alaska-class large cruisers.
From around 1880 until 1910 smaller ships with considerably less capability were built as protected cruisers. Because they carried less armor, it was distributed as a shaped deck inside the vessel rather than covering the sides.
An even more limited type was the auxiliary cruiser, merchant ships 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 who didn't realise what they were. Some large liners were armed in the same way, and known as AMCs, or Armed Merchant Cruisers. The British, Germans and French used them in World War I as raiders because of their high speed (around 30kts), and they were used again as raiders in World War II by the Germans, Japanese, and in the early part of the war, as convoy escorts by the British.
One rule of thumb for warship design was that they should be able to withstand hits from guns of a similar ship. Just prior to World War I, a significant deviation from this rule was tried. The intention was to create a ship which was both faster than a cruiser and with much more powerful guns, so that it could hunt down and destroy enemy cruisers.
This battlecruiser role was achieved by building a vessel which had the size and firepower of a battleship but only the armor protection of a cruiser; the weight saving used to provide it with more powerful propulsion. The result was a ship that could outfight any surface ship up to cruiser size, but outrun anything that posed a real threat.
The concept was successful where battlecruisers were employed in their designed role at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. However the ships proved disastrously vulnerable when they engaged enemy battlecruisers or battleships in a fleet action, as at Jutland where three British battlecruisers exploded as a result of German heavy gunfire. The Royal Navy quickly scrapped most of theirs after the war, and upgraded the armor on the rest to the limited extent that was possible.
The weakness of the battle cruiser concept was further demonstrated in the Second World War, during the 2 day hunt for the German battleship Bismarck by the British fleet. The battlecruiser HMS Hood was the pride of the British fleet, known as "The Mighty Hood". Armed with 8 15-inch guns, it presented equal firepower to that of Bismarck. However, its weak deck armour meant that when it engaged Bismarck at long range, the Bismarcks plunging fire penetrated Hoods deck armour and it blew up with only 3 men surviving from its crew of 1419.
The rise of air power during World War II dramatically changed the nature of naval combat. Even the fastest cruisers could not outrun an airplane, which were increasingly able to attack at longer distances over the ocean. 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.
In the Soviet fleet, cruisers formed the basis of their 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. The most recent ships of this type, the 4 Kirovs, were built in the 1970s and 80s, and are in very poor repair today. The last operational Kirov class unit, Petr Velikiy, was recalled to port in March 2004 with severe reactor problems.
The US fleet has centered on the aircraft carrier since WWII. The current Aegis cruisers 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 "mis-named" 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 the Ticonderoga the class has received a number of upgrades that have dramatically improved their capabilities for anti-submarine and land attack (using the Tomahawk missile), and today the name is not mis-applied at all. Like their Soviet counterparts, the modern Ticonderogas can also be used as the basis for an entire battle group.
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 - USS Long Beach (CGN-9) - were converted from World War II Baltimore, Oregon City and Cleveland class cruisers. "Frigates" under this scheme were heavy destroyers almost as large as the cruisers optimized for anti-air warfare (AAW), although they were capable anti-surface warfare (ASuW) 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 USS Midway (CV-41) and USS Coral Sea (CV-43) never embarked antisubmarine 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 (DLG 9 USS Coontz 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 (PFG-109 Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate) were redesignated into the FFG line as the FFG-7 class. 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.
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