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U.S. Navy celebrates the centennial of its destroyer force

Sea Power magazine

Navy League of the United States

September 2002

From Bainbridge to Arleigh Burke–A Century of Destroyers


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, USN (Ret.), is a communications director for Anteon Corporation's Center for Security, Strategies, and Operations. A surface warfare officer and public affairs specialist during his Navy career, he served aboard the destroyer USS Cochrane.

Sailors are on watch today aboard U.S. Navy destroyers underway on the oceans of the world, just as they have been for the last century.

The destroyer is the ship that a present-day John Paul Jones would appreciate when he wants to go into “harm's way”–fast, agile, lethal, and versatile. All U.S. Navy destroyers have shared these characteristics since the first of its type, the USS Bainbridge (DD 1), led the way 100 years ago. Necessity was again the mother of invention–the Navy needed a ship able to destroy the deadly steam-powered torpedo boats which, at the beginning of the 20th century, posed a major threat to their much larger contemporaries in the surface navies of the world.

Destroyers have been involved in nearly every naval conflict during the past century. They have been designed for a wide variety of warfare missions, and have served in virtually every navy of consequence. The capable multimission destroyer continues to serve with distinction around the world.

It is not just the destroyer's sleek hull form–crowded with weapons and other instruments of naval warfare–but also the men and women who crew them that have made the ship so unique. Destroyer Sailors are a special breed, quick to learn new tasks, self-reliant, adaptable to almost any situation, and–judging from the Navy's battle histories, ready for action when “general quarters” is ordered.

Sailors, authors, and pundits would eventually devise their own shorthand descriptions and pet names for the destroyers as they captured the public's imagination: Tin cans. Small boys. Greyhounds of the sea.

Over the decades, destroyers have been taking the fight to submarines, surface ships, aircraft, missiles, and targets ashore. Smaller variants fought as early warning “pickets” when Japanese kamikazes infested the skies of the Pacific Ocean during World War II; they also served as fast amphibious troop transports, and countered mines at sea.

The destroyer is truly a multimission surface combatant, although some purpose-built classes have been more expert at certain missions than at others. But perhaps their greatest value to fleet commanders through the years has been the fact that there have been so many of them–i.e., because of their relatively small size (and, therefore, relatively low cost) they can be, and usually have been, built in large numbers. “Quantity,” Josef Stalin once said, “has a quality all its own.”

U.S. shipyards turned out destroyers by the hundreds to meet the German U-boat threat during World War I, and industry again mass-produced destroyers and destroyer escorts during World War II. Today's modern Spruance-class destroyers and Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided-missile destroyers possess formidable warfighting capabilities unimaginable to Sailors of those eras.

Purpose-Built Ships

Commissioned in 1902, the Bainbridge was designed to counter the growing threat posed by the swarms of steam-powered torpedo boats that, taking advantage of their small size and high speed, were able to streak suddenly toward larger capital ships in coastal waters and wreak havoc with their torpedoes. The Bainbridge and her eight sister ships were built as torpedo boat destroyers. The first several classes of destroyers, in fact, resembled larger versions of the torpedo boats that they were designed to sink.

The Bainbridge displaced approximately 450 tons and was about 250 feet long. She was designed to be seaworthy and fast–the steam generated by her four coal-fired boilers turned three screws to move her through the water at a speed in excess of 20 knots. She was armed with two 3-inch guns, two rapid-fire six-pounders, and a pair of 18-inch torpedo tubes. (Torpedoes were the weapon of choice at that time for attacking enemy capital ships.)

The success of the first destroyers led to a call for follow-on ships. As would happen in every subsequent class of destroyers, naval architects had to balance many competing design factors and performance requirements–the right mix of weapons, size, speed, range, and crew size.

By 1910, destroyers were being used to protect the more heavily armored battle fleet from attack. Shifting from coal to fuel oil increased their endurance, 4-inch guns replaced the 3-inch guns, and 21-inch torpedoes replaced the earlier 18-inch torpedoes. (Torpedoes were still considered the destroyer's principal armament for their primary mission.)

These early destroyers proved their value as a scouting force during the days before the advent of sea-based aviation, striking the right balance between defensive and offensive capabilities. When World War I began, the U.S. Navy was building destroyers designed to attain speeds of 30 knots or more while carrying a full weapons load and fueled to capacity. Their relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated design allowed a large number of ships to be built quickly in what later would be known as “series construction.” Destroyers became the most effective escort for open-ocean convoys carrying much-needed supplies to U.S. allies in Europe.

The Great War

When the United States entered World War I, it faced a severe shortage of smaller ships suitable for antisubmarine warfare (ASW). The Navy ordered 111 “four-stack” destroyers of the Wickes class and 156 ships of the Clemson class to protect its convoys from German U-boats. These “flushdeck” 1,100-ton destroyers were built with several variations in armament, fuel capacity, propulsion, and hull form. Many of the destroyers ordered or laid down during World War I were not finished by the armistice of 11 November 1918. Some were completed after war's end, but not all. In any event, almost all of the 1,100-tonners soon found themselves in “mothballs” after the conflict.

New motor torpedo boats continued to evolve in speed, and in combat capabilities, during the years prior to World War II. However, enemy submarines and long-range aircraft were by that time emerging as much greater threats to warships and merchant ships alike. Following the fall of France in July 1940, the United States faced the grim prospect that Nazi Germany might also soon defeat Great Britain as well and, partly for that reason, transferred 50 of its then-obsolete World War I-era flushdeck destroyers to the Royal Navy in exchange for 99-year leases of several British bases in the Western Hemisphere.

These “four-pipers,” as they also were called, were rugged seaworthy vessels, and they were in plentiful supply. Many were recommissioned into the U.S. Navy for coastal patrol or Atlantic convoy escort duty–most of them fitted with such weapons and then-transformational “high-tech” systems as new 3-inch/50-caliber guns, sonar, high-frequency radio-detection gear, and depth-charge racks and “Y-gun” depth-charge throwers. Dozens of other World War I destroyers saw service during World War II after being converted to serve as light minelayers, high-speed minesweepers, seaplane tenders, and high-speed transports.

A Two-Ocean War

Despite the severe funding restrictions of the Depression era, the Navy had not been standing still–but had, in fact, developed several new classes of destroyers significantly more capable than their predecessors. Months before Germany's declaration of war on the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, these ships were already hard at work escorting Atlantic convoys bound for Great Britain as part of the greatly increased Anglo-American military cooperation developed by two “former naval persons”–U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill. When the United States entered the war, the Navy was poised to begin construction of even more capable destroyers–much larger and more heavily armed than their World War I and prewar predecessors.

The destroyer USS Fletcher (DD 445), commissioned in June 1942, displaced 2,700 tons when combat-loaded, and was fitted with a four-boiler propulsion plant that developed 60,000 shaft horsepower and delivered 36.5 knots. The Fletcher-class ships mounted five 5-inch/38-caliber guns in single mounts that could be used against shore, air, or surface targets, three twin 40mm Bofors heavy antiaircraft (AA) gun mounts, and a varying mix of 20mm Oerlikon automatic AA guns.

True to their destroyer heritage, the Fletchers also were equipped with two banks of five 21-inch torpedo tubes. Where ships of the Wickes and Clemson classes were manned by crews numbering about 100 officers and men, though, the 365-foot Fletcher-class ships had a complement of 365 men. These much bigger destroyers were well suited for combat in the great ocean expanses of the Pacific War and the long-range
island-hopping campaign that would prove the key to victory over Imperial Japan.

U.S. wartime construction included the mass production of 175 Fletcher-class ships, as well as 70 Allen M. Sumner-class and 93 Gearing-class destroyers.

Yet, for a Navy fighting a two-ocean war, the versatile destroyers were still in short supply–a repetition of the Navy's experience during World War I. More antisubmarine escorts were needed, a problem that led to the design of the destroyer escort–the ubiquitous “DE”: a smaller, slower, and more specialized ship that, like the original destroyers, could be built both quickly and in large numbers. Because they were not intended to steam in company with the fleet's fast carriers or modern battleships, the DEs were fitted with smaller and less powerful engineering plants and carried fewer weapons. They also required only about half the crew of a Fletcher-class destroyer–183 officers and men.

The U.S. industrial capacity to produce steam-turbine engines and associated reduction gears was committed primarily to larger ships, so most DEs were equipped with diesel engines and turboelectric plants; the somewhat similar frigates, or PFs, built during the war (to a British design) were fitted with reciprocating steam plants. The Navy had to look beyond traditional U.S. shipyards to build the DEs and for that reason turned to other, smaller shipyards, including several on the Great Lakes and along the nation's inland waterways.

In addition to their indispensable service as convoy escorts, destroyers joined new hunter-killer teams composed of land-based aircraft, escort carriers, and surface warships organized to seek out and destroy German U-boats in the North and South Atlantic. In the Pacific, the destroyers and their smaller cousins slugged it out ship to ship with their Japanese foes in a protracted campaign that culminated with the epic naval battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.

Antiair protection, important at the outbreak of World War II, became a paramount combat capability as the war progressed, especially when Japanese pilots became desperate to the point of suicide. Destroyers and escorts were fitted with additional 40-mm and 20-mm guns as fast as they could be produced and installed. The furious and concentrated barrage of impact- and proximity-fuzed shells that a surface formation could put in the sky exacted a heavy toll of attackers; nevertheless, the kamikaze pilots often overwhelmed defending U.S. ships and aircraft–with devastating results.

Naval gunfire support for U.S. Army and Marine Corps amphibious landings–which ranged across the globe from North Africa to Sicily, Anzio, and Normandy in Europe to Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa in the Pacific–often spelled the difference between life and death for U.S. and allied ground forces. For many imperiled soldiers and Marines, the sight of a destroyer pulling to within a few hundred yards of a contested beach to add its firepower to the fight was one that would last a lifetime.

Destroyers again proved their worth during the Korean War–and on the numerous other occasions when the Cold War flashed hot.

In addition to the destroyer force's new weapons for traditional missions, there were new sensors, particularly advanced sonar and radar systems, which made destroyers the indispensable eyes and ears of the fleet. These innovations would shape the next generation of destroyer designs.

The postwar threats posed by high-speed aircraft, missiles, and fast submarines called for new tactics, systems, and weapons–and new ships specifically designed to carry those systems and weapons and employ them with maximum effectiveness.

The Missile Age

New carrier task forces, formed into so-called hunter-killer (HUK) groups, continued to evolve, capitalizing on their earlier successes in the U-boat war. Destroyers armed with new longer-range sonars, more effective and more lethal ASW torpedoes, and forward-throwing depth-charge projectors soon became integral components of the HUKs–specially outfitted to find and attack enemy submarines. To attack an enemy submarine from standoff range required launching a torpedo into the water far from the prey. The antisubmarine rocket, or ASROC, could boost a torpedo (or nuclear-armed depth bomb) to a range of five miles, about the maximum range of the new SQS-23 sonars then entering service with the fleet. A Drone Antisubmarine Helicopter (DASH) also was developed to carry a torpedo to even greater ranges.

The Navy experimented with the concept of a destroyer leader (DL) to serve as a flagship for HUK groups. The first was the USS Norfolk (DL 1), based on a light-cruiser hull and the first to mount the ASROC system. Ships of the Mitscher (DL 2) class that followed were slated to receive two new weapons–the “Weapon Able” (later Alpha) ASW launcher and the 3-inch/70-caliber gun–to counter the threat from diesel submarines and subsonic aircraft. As the Navy worked to perfect these new systems, enemy threats evolved, and so did the weapons to counter them. The Mitscher-class ships eventually were fitted with the 3-inch/50-caliber and 5-inch/54-caliber guns that became fleet standards.

The Forrest Sherman class of ASW destroyers joined the fleet in the mid-1950s, built with weight-saving aluminum superstructures. They eventually received ASW upgrades or guided-missile conversions and served into the 1980s, when the last 18 ships in the class were decommissioned.

To shoot down enemy aircraft, the Navy developed three new antiair warfare (AAW) missile systems during the Cold War: Talos, Terrier, and Tartar. The Talos and Terrier were too large to be carried by destroyers. However, the Navy found that the Tartar (direct predecessor of the modern medium-range Standard missile) system was a good fit for the ship and began building new guided-
missile destroyers (DDGs) that were fast enough to keep up with the carrier task forces. The result was the 23 ships of the Charles F. Adams (DDG 2) class.

Missile systems require large magazines and air-search radars, as well as more capable fire-control systems. The Charles F. Adams-class DDGs, fitted with a pair of 5-inch/54-caliber guns and a Tartar missile system, were built to counter the air threat. Other destroyer defensive systems also were developed, including the Basic Point Defense Missile System (BPDMS), the NATO Sea Sparrow AAW missile, and the rapid-fire Vulcan Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS).

Faced with continuing reliability problems with its Terrier missile system during the 1960s, the Navy took the first steps toward the development of the potent Aegis weapon system and its Standard missile.

The nuclear-powered guided-missile destroyer leader USS Bainbridge (DLGN 25), commissioned in 1962 and reclassified in 1975 as a guided-missile cruiser (CGN 25), was the first–and only–nuclear-powered destroyer. She served for nearly 34 years, and posed a truly formidable threat to enemy targets–namely, the 80 Terrier (later Standard) missiles she carried. She also was armed with four twin-mount 3-inch/50-caliber guns, Harpoon antiship cruise missiles, ASROC, and antisubmarine

Postwar destroyer escorts (all DEs were reclassified as frigates in 1975) began with ships of the USS Dealey (DE-1006) class. These ASW escorts were suitable for convoy duty, but lacked the speed needed for fleet operations. The still-numerous World War II destroyers, upgraded through the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) program, were better suited for ASW work.

Cold War building programs saw the design and construction of numerous destroyer and related classes. Two ships of the Bronstein (DE 1037) class, the smallest ships built with the large SQS-26 bow-mounted sonar, also carried ASROC, a twin 3-inch/50-caliber gun mount forward, and a DASH deck and hangar aft.

Their successor was the Garcia (DE 1040) class, planned to be more than 60 ships. In fact, just 10 were built. The
Garcia-class ships were fitted with two 5-inch/38-caliber guns, ASROC, torpedoes, and a DASH deck. Six additional Garcia-class ships were built with a missile launcher in place of the after 5-inch/38-caliber mount and were classified as the USS Brooke (DEG-1) class–they were the Navy's first guided-missile escort ships.

An additional Garcia-class derivative, the USS Glover (AGDE-1, later FF-1098), was built with an experimental propulsion system and was used as a test ship for advanced ASW procedures and tactics. All of the Garcia-class ships were equipped with pressure-fired boilers, designed to produce more horsepower for the weight and volume of their engineering plants.

The first of an eventual 46 ships of the Knox-class (FF 1052) frigates entered service in 1969. These 4,200-ton ships–powered by a 1,200-pound steam plant, with two boilers and one screw–could attain 28 knots, fast enough for operations with a carrier task force (if barely, at times). The ships were valued for their ASW capabilities in the screen. The Knox-class ships could support convoys and amphibious task forces, and were among the first ships in the destroyer force to deploy with helicopters embarked–the Kaman SH-2D “Seasprite,” built as part of a new program aimed at providing the Navy's surface combatants with a multimission aviation platform.

Called LAMPS, for Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System, the upgraded Seasprites soon proved their worth conducting ASW, antisurface warfare, and utility missions. Sikorsky-built SH-60 Seahawk helicopters continue to perform the same roles today from the destroyer's small flight deck.

Just as the destroyer's weapons and sensors continued to be improved as the Cold War progressed, engineers turned to new propulsion systems, notably the gas-turbine engine. “Marinized” jet aircraft engines proved to be reliable, powerful, and responsive. Four GE-built LM2500 gas turbines powered the USS Spruance (DD 963), commissioned in 1975–the first of the Navy's gas-
turbine-powered destroyer-type ships. Gas turbines also power ships of the Ticonderoga (CG 47), Kidd (DDG 993), and Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) classes.

The Spruance-class destroyer was designed with “room for growth” so that new sensors, systems, and weapons could readily be added at a later date; the Department of Defense now sees fit to call this concept “spiral development.” The four guided-missile destroyers of the Kidd class, built for Iran (but never delivered), were formidably upgraded with high-performance AAW systems, including Mk26 twin-rail launchers for Standard missiles fore and aft, the new Mk45 5-inch/54-caliber gun forward and aft, and a hangar for two SH-60B Seahawk helicopters.

Some ships of the Spruance class were later fitted with Tomahawk cruise-missile launchers; other hulls were fitted with vertical launch systems (VLSs) that give them a massive strike capability for power-projection missions. Many of the Spruances performed ably in this capacity during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm strikes against Iraq–and, later, in 1999, against NATO targets in Serbia and Kosovo. Geopolitical discussions of “Tomahawk diplomacy” soon came into vogue–signaling the surface Navy's ability to strike targets quickly, and with unprecedented precision, hundreds of miles from the sea.

The development of the Aegis combat system, with its large phased-array radar, brought a new dimension to the destroyer's ability to track and engage multiple aircraft and missile targets. Instead of designing a new cruiser hull for Aegis, the Navy built the Ticonderoga-class CGs upon the proven Spruance hull form. USS Ticonderoga, the name ship of the class, is the same length as the Spruance, but has a greater displacement and requires a larger crew.

The first of the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG 7) class of guided-missile frigates entered service in 1977. The last–USS Ingraham (FFG 61)–was commissioned in 1989. Although the Perry-class frigates possess only half the overall propulsion capability of contemporary destroyers, their LM2500 gas turbines deliver enough power for them to operate with carrier battle groups. They carry both a Standard missile system and a 76mm gun. There are 35 FFGs in the fleet today, including eight in the Naval Reserve Force. As Navy shipbuilding funds continue to fall, the FFG 7s are being phased out of the fleet, and no new frigate design is currently proposed as a replacement.

The post-Cold War destroyer force performed yeoman service in the many new missions that came its way with the end of the Soviet Union's challenge at sea–maritime intercept operations (MIOs) in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, counterdrug operations, and strike and air-defense missions performed during national and coalition military operations in the war against international terrorism.

It is noteworthy that the Aegis weapons system–developed at the height of the Cold War–continues to set impressive standards of performance as the Navy pursues new capabilities in its sea-based ballistic-missile defense program. On 25 January 2002, the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie launched a Standard missile-3 (equipped with a kinetic warhead) that intercepted an Aries target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Test Range; the ship scored a similar success in a second intercept on 13 June. In each test, the Standard missile acquired, tracked, and diverted toward the target missile to destroy it in the exoatmosphere.

Destroyers for Today–And Tomorrow

The Navy's new class of front-line guided-missile destroyers, the Arleigh Burke DDG 51, is named for the famed World War II destroyerman who later became chief of naval operations (and was the only CNO to serve in that post for six years). The warfighting capabilities of the class have continued to improve steadily, and impressively, since the lead ship was commissioned in 1991.

Today's “Flight IIA” Arleigh Burke-class ships, beginning with the Oscar Austin (DDG 79), represent a significant upgrade over the earlier Burkes with the addition of a pair of helicopter hangars, an improved VLS with 64 missile cells, a mine-avoidance system added to the ship's SQQ-89 sonar, blast-hardened bulkheads, and a fiber-optic data multiplex system. Other improvements are planned to enable the ships of this versatile class to take advantage of new weapons and command-and-control systems. As older Spruance-class hulls are decommissioned, the potent and technologically advanced Arleigh Burke-class DDGs will serve as the mainstay of the Navy's destroyer force well into the early decades of the 21st century.

It is instructive to note that the Navy is turning the pages of history back to retrieve a lesson from the destroyer's creation 100 years ago. With the next -generation DD(X) destroyer program now paving the way for a family of multimission destroyers and cruisers for the 21st century, conceptual work is underway to design a new class of ship with a narrowly focused mission–the littoral combat ship (LCS). The LCS, configured with tailored mission modules, will be able to counter enemy small boats, diesel submarines, and mines in coastal waters while protected by the capacious defensive umbrella of the larger multimission destroyers and cruisers that form the larger elements of the DD(X) “family of ships.”

The evolution of the U.S. Navy's destroyer has in a sense, therefore, come full circle during the past 100 years. From its narrowly focused mission of 1902, today's sophisticated ships offer multimission combat capabilities that would likely defy the imaginations of the “Tin-Can” Sailors of yesteryear.

There is no question that tomorrow's destroyer force will be equipped with even more potent technological marvels. What will always continue to really define the destroyer Navy, however, are the Sailors who crew these greyhounds of the sea–those predominantly young men and women who, like John Paul Jones, are ready to take their ships into harm's way, to fight, and to win. *

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