Are modern cruisers and destroyers modern-day battleships?


Certain bloggers insist that modern-day DDGs (guided missile destroyers) and CGs (guided missile cruisers) are modern-day equivalents to the battleships of the first half of the 20th century.

This is not just a question of nomenclature; the analogy implies that modern navies (especially the U.S. Navy) are too top-heavy. More specific critique is aimed at the USN that has few FFG (guided missile frigates) but many DDG/CG.
The claim that DDG/CG equal battleships helps to conjure an image of an almost all-battleship navy that lacks the many smaller combatants that were so common in earlier navies; cruisers and destroyers (or frigates and corvettes in the age of sail).

I have never bought into this assertion (but I'm no fan of big DDGs either).

Let's compare the ship categories and take some classic examples:

Let's take the HMS Dreadnought, the first modern battleship of the 20th century.

It was revolutionary for its use of steam turbines for increased propulsion power/speed and the all big gun concept; doubled primary armament of 12" guns instead of a secondary armament (that was usually about 9-10" guns previously).

The other example would be USS Ticonderoga, the first AEGIS guided missile cruiser. This ship isn't in service any more, but later modified ships of the same class are.

The Dreadnought was meant for hitting and being hit by heavy calibre shells in a naval battle. Torpedo boats, torpedo boat destroyers and as reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance cruisers would participate in such battles as well, but the punching and staying power of battleships was meant to decide the naval battle.
Its slightly better speed than usual was meant to ease the change of formation and the pursuit/interception of an enemy who wants to evade the Royal Navy's power.

The Dreadnought experienced technological and tactical revolutions after being commissioned. Radio communication became practical, aircraft heavier than air were used for reconnaissance (and in fact first aerial attacks on ships), submarines became more practical and dangerous even at high seas (HMS Dreadnought was the only battleship ever to sink one - by ramming), oil firing augmented coal firing, primary gun calibres rose to 15" (and accordingly armour became thicker as well) and central firing as well as other fire control improvements increased effective ranges greatly - thus increasing the relevance of deck armour vice belt armour.

In the end, it was still the heavily armoured and gun-armed anti-ship platform that it was meant to be from the beginning. The destruction of targets other than battleships or armoured cruisers was rather accidental in comparison to this primary job.

Battleships of WW2 had a different job profile; the European theatre lacked the great battleship fleets of the First World War (except during the Normany invasion) and the dominance of air power reduced battleships often to coastal bombardment ship and in the Pacific they were often extra-heavy anti-air escorts for aircraft carriers.

Now let's look at (CG-47) USS Ticonderoga:

This ship was meant from its conception to provide a large aircraft carrier with strong air defence in face of saturation attacks by Soviet missile-armed submarines and heavy bombers. The defining AEGIS system (radars and control center) and the modified guidance of its long-range ship-to-air missile SM-2 were its raison d'être.
Its anti-submarine capabilities were good as well, but not improved much over the Spruance class of dedicated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyers. The Ticonderoga class was based on the Spruance class' hull design. (Funnily, USS Spruance remained in service after USS Ticonderoga was decommissioned.)
The USS Ticonderoga was thus a heavy escort meant for anti-air defence and relatively good at anti-submarine defence. It was relatively weak for its size in surface actions and aerial reconnaissance.

Maybe the DDG/CG = battleship idea came from the use of both for air defence for carriers.
That mission wasn't a monopoly of battleships in WW2, though. Destroyers, light cruisers, heavy cruisers, battlecruisers and dedicated anti-air cruisers were also employed in this role.

One Japanese destroyer class (Akizuki) lost surface action capability in favour of anti-air firepower (100mm guns). Other classes of destroyers (especially American ones with their 5" L/38 dual turrets) had reduced surface action capability in favour of increased heavy anti-air firepower as well.

My favourites for CG-47 USS Ticonderoga analogy are other ships, though: the anti-air cruisers.
The British had the Dido class and the Americans had the Atlanta class:

The Atlanta class used anti-air-capable destroyer gun turrets (5" calibre, high rate of fire, quick training and elevation) instead of normal cruiser gun turrets (6" calibre). They were inefficient in surface actions, but good anti-air escorts. Their size even closely matches modern CGs and DDGs.

My impression isn't that the USN has dozens of modern-day battleships; it has none. Instead, it has a battle fleet of about a dozen super-sized aircraft carriers escorted by several dozen dual-purpose AAW/ASW heavy escorts that are being called destroyers and cruisers.

The classic battleship's role of destruction of powerful enemy surface combatants has been taken over by combat aviation and submarines.

The USN may be too top-heavy and may be in need of good frigates, but the 'battleship navy' argument is a dud in my opinion.



  1. great post but you fail to mention the magazines filled with cruise missiles, the anti-ballistic missile missiles and the traditional anit sub helos these ships carry. in that light they are modern day battle ships. one DDG-51 class destroyer can level a city with its cruise missiles (or at least its downtown area)....knock out communications for a nation if used in an anti-satellite role and can hunt down and destroy subs in the area....

  2. Cruise missiles - very few onboard usually, and not comparable to the barrage fire capability that battleships had.
    These cruise missiles (never more than a dozen per ship as far as I know) have the effect of some large WW2 bombs (no nuclear cruise missiles are used by today's CG/DDG afaik). That's not very much firepower, it's barely comparable to two or three F/A-18 sorties.

    ABM - not comparable to anything the battleships had, it's rather entirely new and doesn't help to ID the roots.

    ASW helicopter: cruisers and battleships had float planes in WW2, even some smaller ships (especially offshore patrol ships for arctic use and large submarines) had aircraft as well. That was no BB exclusive feature.
    The helicopter of a CG/DDG is an essential part of their ASW capability and has very limited anti-ship capabilities (a handful of Penguin missiles against ill-defended ship targets only). It doesn't re-create that "main killing force" aspect that battleships had before carriers took over in '42.

    I consider the "battleship" reference to be misleading at best.

    1. There are a heck of a lot more than a dozen cruise missiles on the typical AEGIS class cruiser. During Kosovo my cruiser launched 24 cruise missiles at targets. And we were not depleted of those missiles. Simply the military action for using them was complete at that point. I was an AEGIS computer tech.

  3. i was going by wikkipedia...

    1 × 29 cell, 1 × 61 cell Mk 41 vertical launch systems with 90 × RIM-66 SM-2, BGM-109 Tomahawk or RUM-139 VL-Asroc missiles
    1 × Mark 45 5/54 in (127/54 mm)
    2 × 25 mm chain gun
    4 × .50 caliber (12.7 mm) guns
    2 × 20 mm Phalanx CIWS
    2 × Mk 32 triple torpedo tubes

    depending on configuration (land attack..) you can have 90 cruise missiles hitting a target. i don't know what their standard load out is but if they're assigned to an Expeditionary Strike Group (now Amphibious Ready Group), flight iia will have an updated 5in gun capable of hitting targets 63 miles inland. the helo can carry penguin and hellfire missiles. the US Navy itself declares it to be the most powerful surface combatant ever put to sea.

    the tomahawk payload is 1000 pounds of explosives or cluster munitions.

  4. Most cells have SM-2; Tomahawks and Asroc are relatively few.
    ESSM will be loaded in the future, too.

    It's not even for sure that all cells on all ships at sea are loaded at all.

    About the Navy's claim; the Russians might dispute that a USN CG would succeed in a 1on1 battle with one of their SSNs, their battlecruisers, SSNs or even SSKs.

    It's an air defence platform with ASW capabilities. Its OTH anti-ship missile firepower is pretty much at FAC level.

  5. I favor that former. It is illogical to compare two types of warships that are fitted to different roles. Gunboats (battleships with naval guns) vs Missile cruisers is no match to be made. Granting, I do have a certain bias towards Battleships.

    To put it simply, the battleship was designed for 1, and then later for 2 purposes. Firstly, it was designed and built to annihilate other warships. It is an offensive vessel, made to attack and destroy. Heavy armor on its sides ensured staying-power in a battle. Heavy guns ensured devastating retaliation. The main strength of a battleship (with its massive 15-inch, 16-inch, and all the way to the staggering 18-inch naval guns) is its ability to deliver a hail of ordinance, to beat an opponent into submission with broadside after broadside. This ties into its second purpose, off-shore artillery bombardment. Designed to blanket an area with shells, hardly accurate but still devastating. A battleship does not need a full battle group around it to cause damage, a good example would be the German battleship Bismarck, which along with its 2 other sister ships, prowled the sea lanes in the Atlantic, virtually on their own.

    The missile cruiser is altogether a different creature. It is designed primarily as, in all bluntness, a defensive vessel. To protect battle groups. And it has weapons to do that; CIWS defense systems, ASW & AAW systems. HELO choppers equipped with penguin and hellfire missiles, as well as 2 5-inch guns. They don't rely on the passive defense of heavy-armor-plating. But instead have active CIWS systems that destroy incoming offensive weapons before they reach the ship. What does that tell us? It says that CGs and DDGs are not designed to take a hit, to sustain heavy damage and keep on fighting. Its size and design allow for speed and maneuverability, which by implication also reduces armor protection for weight purposes. Although it is a flexible ship for many roles, in an offensive situation the CGs and the DDGs are "Tactical" warships. They do not "beat" an opponent into submission with ordinance, instead they kill targets with pinpoint precision guided warheads. True, that is more efficient in a stand-off, but I wouldn't rate it much against a fire-fight. Even if those (90) missiles packed 1000-3000lb warheads. Big 16-inch guns sported 1,900 pound HC (High Capacity) shore bombardment projectiles, as well as 2,700 pound AP (Armor Piercing) shells. We're talking 3 16-inch guns on THREE turrets delivering those shells, and battleships carried nothing but ammo (excluding crew supplies and fuel, which is a factor in the CGs and DDGs as well). The difference in firepower is a mile apart.

    Not to mention, those very expensive missiles do run out, and they run out faster than gun ammo. They also can be shot down by other CIWS & AAW systems while as incoming artillery shells cannot. Plus those cute 5-inch guns won't dent anything larger than a fellow destroyer. Which exemplifies the reason why they are merely designated "Cruisers" and "Destroyers", by definition are small warships.

    In infantry terms, the DDGs and CGs are Snipers with 50-cal berrets, while battleships are grunt assault troops with M4s and M249 machineguns. Two warriors/warships with completely different purposes.

    So, yea, Missile boats are not Battleships. And, I was saddened to hear that day, that the last battleship (USS Missouri) was decommissioned back in 1992. It was the end of an age.

  6. Very good article. It's the maximum surviveability concept of modern warships. Have you looked at the capability of using ASW weaponry such as torpedoes for ASuW?

  7. 324 mm torpedoes are so short-ranged that their use against surface warship can only have the character of (multiple) death blow(s) against already knocked-out ships.

  8. Good article, and good response from J Wasawas. Indeed, the fact that USS Missouri was commissioned until 1992 shows that US Navy appreciated the extra ability of battleships.

    Remarkable to think that by the 70's Britain's Royal Navy was producing frigates with no heavy guns at all - a decision reversed during the Falklands conflict when ships had to double up to provide air cover alongside shore bombardment.

  9. In my opinion, what really matters is role. The true modern equivalent of the battleship is the aircraft carrier. It's true that a carrier would be helpless against even a small frigate if caught in a surface action, but it's role that matters most. A carrier is designed to control the sea with its aircraft and to find, engage, and destroy enemy ships before they get close enough to engage it. The battleship, likewise, was designed to engage and destroy enemy fleets as the primary striking force of its navy.

    Modern DDG's and CG's are indeed powerful surface combatants, but their true raison d'etre is protecting the big carriers. They are escort ships first and foremost. They can perform a lot of other roles (just like battleships could) and even do some of those secondary roles very well (just like battleships did), but at the end of the day they are still escort ships first and everything else second.

    Carriers today may carry relatively weak on-board armament, but their air wing gives them the power to control the ocean in ways that even the most powerful battleships never could, and also to project power inland far beyond the reach of a battleship's guns. It's that sea control and power projection capability that makes the carrier the true successor to the battleship today.

  10. Great comments J Wasawas, sorry to be 'that' guy, but there were only 2 Bismarck class battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz.

  11. Battleships did have a shore bombardment role and in that role they have been superseded by the aircraft carrier. But the number one function of the battleship was to sink enemy battle fleets. In that role, the true successor to the battleship is not the aircraft carrier, nor even the guided missile cruiser. It's the submarine. Submarines are the weapon of choice for sinking other ships. No coincidence that the next ship to bear the name HMS Dreadnought was the RN's first nuclear powered submarine.

    1. Ship killing is almost everything that a sub can do, but this doesn't mean it's the best platform for it.

      Air power is a much better ship killer unless the other side has air superiority.

    2. Long range anti ship missiles are the best (cost effective) surface destroying weapons if available in good quality.