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110 years of Tin Cans

Winter 2014 - Navy

A heritage of warfighting excellence

Compiled from the Naval History and Heritage Command Reports

From the “Greyhounds of the Fleet” to the “Workhorse,” the destroyer continues to prove its worth as a multipurpose warship tailored to meet the threat-of-the-moment, whether it is antisubmarine, antiaircraft or provide support for amphibious landings. The Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), embraces innovation and new technology and sports the stealthy silhouette of other recent ships commissioned in the Navy, such as both littoral combat ships and San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships. Its particular mission is less deep-water driven to providing support and coverage for another evolution in the Navy’s inventory, the littoral combat patrol fleet.

Yet even now, as the Navy shifts its focus from Southwest Asia to the Pacific, it will prepare again for a possible deep-water threat and continue to upgrade its proven destroyers of today, the Arleigh Burke-class.

“As these ships are commissioned, they will continue to serve as the fleet’s workhorses, as they improve on or retain all the warfighting capability of previous Arleigh Burke destroyers, including advances in antisubmarine warfare, command and control and antisurface warfare,” said Captain Mark Vandroff, USN, DDG 51 program officer, Program Executive Office, Ships, in a Navy Live blog. “The Navy is relying on a stable and mature infrastructure while increasing the ship’s air and missile defense capabilities through spiral upgrades to the weapons and sensor suites. These ships continue to be delivered at the highest quality while serial production has reduced costs and increased capabilities.”

Built to stop the torpedo boat threat

Torpedo boat destroyers were created to fight off a new threat: fast torpedo boats and submersibles maneuvering past escorts and targeting battleships in the late 1890s. Then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt wrote torpedo boats were the “only real menace” to the U.S. fleet during the Spanish-American War. So, Congress authorized 16 torpedo boat destroyers on 4 May 1898. Fast and agile, the scouts of the fleet would take on initial attackers, as they escorted larger ships to their destination, or in battle.

The Bainbridge-class, with 13 ships, was the first, with the three-ship Truxtun-class completing the first order for 16 in 1903. USS Bainbridge (DD 1) was powered by 400-ton coal burners with steam engines and armed with two torpedo tubes and two three-inch guns that gave ships both speed and rapid-firing capabilities.

The next 26 ships were nicknamed “flivvers,” due to their light weight at 740 short tons. The last was commissioned in 1912.

Destroyers then underwent a design change that may seem familiar today. Beginning with the Cassin-class in 1913, and including the classes of Alwyns, O’Brians, Tuckers and Sampsons, the destroyers were known as “broken deckers” for their high forecastles. They were the first to weigh 1,000 tons. These “one tonners” switched from coal to oil-fired steam turbine engines and boasted eight torpedo tubes with four four-inch .50-caliber gun mounts.

From 1915 through 1922, the U.S. dramatically expanded the number of destroyers in commission, producing 273 Caldwell, Wickes and Clemson-class destroyers. The destroyers, beginning with the six-ship Caldwell-class, featured a “flush deck” with no raised forecastle. They also had four separated stacks, giving them the nickname of “four pipers.” But there were the exceptions: Three had only three stacks. They also increased in size yet again to 1,190 tons. These “flush-deckers” sported 12 mounted torpedo tubes, four four-inch guns, one three-inch antiaircraft gun and some light machine guns.

With the passage of the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916, destroyers were mass-produced across 11 shipyards between 1915 and 1922. On 16 April 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels directed six destroyers to immediately join the antisubmarine war effort in European waters. Those that saw action were used to search out German U-Boats as they escorted merchant ships and troop transport ships to and from Great Britain.

By 1922, all 267 of the Wickes-Clemson classes had been built. During peacetime, many were converted to minesweepers, mothballed or sold to other nations.

The 1922 Washington Naval Treaty among the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan attempted to regulate the size and armament of major navies. The 1930 London Naval Treaty among the same countries regulated “surface vessels of war” that weighed less than 1,850 tons with “guns not above 5.1-inches (130 mm),” according to Ship’s Data for U.S. Naval Vessels.

By 1932, the Navy redesigned the destroyer again into the 1,500-ton Farragut-class, back to a raised forecastle with two stacks. After the sparse flush-deckers of World War I, the Farraguts seemed extravagant, which coined a term for the new class as “gold-platers” that extended past the Farragut-class through the Sims-class, built in 1937.

Although initially built with five five-inch guns, one mount was removed to improve stability. The first Farragut was commissioned in 1935, followed by 60 others through the Benham-class, which would be the last of the 1,500 tonners.

The Sims-class, with 12 ships at 1,570 tons, was similar in design to the Farragut-class. Construction began in 1937. The Gleaves-class, consisting of 66 ships, included a split-powerhouse configuration, with just minor changes for the 30-ship Benson-class. Those 96 ships were built and commissioned between 1938 and 1943.

Even with a relatively young fleet of destroyers when the United States entered World War II, none had torpedoes that could match Japan’s Long Lance torpedoes with 1,000-pound warheads carried by the five-to-eight gun-wielding Fubuki-class destroyers.

But having anticipated the threat coming from Japan, the Navy authorized 175 of 2,100-ton Fletcher-class (and her two derivatives, Allen M. Sumner and Gearing) destroyers with its enlarged hull through the 1941-42 Shipbuilding Program. They were commissioned between 3 March 1941 and 22 February 1945.

Capable of speeds up to 38 knots, the Fletcher-class also boasted 10 21-inch torpedoes in twin quintuple centerline mounts and was armed with five five-inch single-mount guns. The multi-mission ship was capable of every task required of it during both the European and Pacific campaigns. Originally built with the World War I-era “flush deck,” later Fletcher-class variants moved to the “step deck” with a slightly raised forecastle and replaced a torpedo mount with antiaircraft weaponry.

With its destroyers far more capable of hunting at night, thanks to surface and air radar, the U.S. Navy enjoyed decisive victories against Japanese forces in both the 1943 battles of Vella Gulf and Cape St. George in the Solomons. Between those two battles, seven out of nine Japanese destroyers were sunk without a single loss of an American destroyer. The advantage the Japanese had with night combat training and long-range torpedoes dissipated almost as quickly as their fleet of destroyers was being sunk.

Commissioned in October 1943, the Halsey Powell was decommissioned in 1968 and sold to South Korea, where it served as the ROK Seoul until scrapped in 1982, after nearly 40 years of service.

Cold War

With the Fletcher-class going strong into the Korean War, other designs were developed, with the Mitscher-class beginning in 1949, followed by the 18-ship Forrest Sherman-class.

Shaking off its “gold-plate” status from its earlier round, the 10-ship Farragut-class, also known as the Coontz-class, was built between 1956-61.

The Charles F. Adams-class was a 23-ship guidedmissile derivative of the Forrest Sherman-class, the last of which was commissioned in 1964. Then came the gas turbine class of destroyers: Spruance (31), built from 1972 to 1980. The last one was decommissioned in 2005.

The Arleigh Burke-class, the leader ship that was commissioned in 1991, is a third longer and heavier than any destroyer commanded by its namesake, former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke, USN (Ret.), who commanded DESRON 23 to victory during the Battle of Cape St. George on 25 November 1943.

Touted as the most powerful warship ever built, it featured the Aegis Combat System and SPY-1D multi-function phased array radar.

As the ship was built through its four Flights (I, II, IIA and III), it gained tonnage, from 8,315 to 9,800 tons, but scaled back its length from the 563-foot Spruance-class to between 504-509 feet. The ship’s hull has a wide flare to cut through water for top speeds in high sea states.

It also returned to all-steel construction after the aluminum superstructures used in other ship classes became vulnerable to cracking and were less fire-resistant.

More cost-effective to build, still relevant

For more than 110 years, destroyers have been the workhorses of the fleet, adapting and adjusting to new threats and warfare from torpedo boats to aircraft missiles. And destroyers continue to evolve.

“No other nation possesses the warfighting capability and capacity of our Navy,” wrote Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, USN, Director of Surface Warfare Division (OPNAV N96), in “Building the Surface Fleet for Tomorrow,” an article published in the January 2014 Proceedings. He mentioned the Zumwalt’s state-of-the-art capabilities of electric drive propulsion through the integrated power system, advance gun system firing long-range land attack projectiles, the peripheral vertical launching system and the SPY-3 multi-function radar, adding it “has set the stage for an exciting era of ship construction and development in the future.”

But the sunrise on the Zumwalt-class is by no means the sunset on the venerable Arleigh Burkes, which will “remain the workhorses of the fleet,” Rowden said.

Its value to the fleet is evident after a contract was approved in June 2013 for an additional 10 Arleigh Burke-class Flight III variant that will be introduced into the Fleet over the next 20 years, Rowden said.

Significant upgrades may include shipboard lasers once they reach operational maturity, he said.

And like the Fletcher-class did for World War II Veterans and beyond, the Arleigh Burkes may be the destroyers that shape a generation of Sailors.

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