The U.S. Navy’s crusiers are old but can put a lot of firepower on a target. Why is the Navy so willing to divest of these big warships? In April, the US Navy presented an ambitious plan to decommission all 22 of its Ticonderoga-class cruisers by 2027.
The move is not surprising. The Navy has tried to rid itself of its cruisers for years, but Congress has consistently rejected its proposals, largely out of concern that decommissioning them would take away a much-needed weapon as China’s naval force continues to grow.
With the retirement of the last battleships nearly 20 years ago, cruisers are the largest surface combatants — a category that generally doesn’t include aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships — in service.
Cruisers remain among the best armed and most powerful ships in the few navies that employ them, and decommissioning the Ticonderogas would take the US out of that small and very well-armed club.
Twenty-seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers were built between 1980 and 1994. They have an extensive service history, with high-profile operations all over the world. The 567-foot ships displace about 10,000 tons, and they are the US Navy’s most heavily armed surface combatants.
Two Mk 41 Vertical Launching Systems, each with 61 cells, can carry up to 122 missiles. Two Mk-141 missile launchers can carry up to eight more missiles. Ticonderogas are also equipped with two Mark 45 5-inch guns, two Phalanx close-in weapon systems, and two triple-tubed Mark 32 torpedo tubes.
They can be armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles, and vertical-launch anti-submarine missiles, as well as anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missiles.
Their large and diverse arsenal allows Ticonderoga-class to fill multiple rules, including air-defense, anti-ship anti-submarine warfare, and land-attack strikes. They primarily serve as air-defense escorts in carrier strike groups, as they have the most robust air-defense capability in the surface fleet.
They were also the first ships to be equipped with the Aegis Combat System, which uses computers and radars to track hostile forces and guide friendly fire toward incoming threats.
Because of the Ticonderogas’ status and armament, their stand-alone deployments are usually meant to convey a message, as with USS Port Royal’s transit of the Taiwan Strait in May.
The Kirovs and Slavas
The Russian Navy fields two types of cruisers. The most well-known and feared are the Kirov-class, four of which were built between 1974 and 1998.
Classified as “battlecruisers” because of their heavy armament, the Kirovs are 827 feet long and displace about 28,000 tons. Their nuclear propulsion gives them range limited only by the crew’s endurance and their supplies.
Designed to destroy American carrier groups, their primary armament are 20 P-700 supersonic anti-ship missiles, each capable of carrying a 1,600-pound high-explosive warhead or a nuclear one. Kirovs also carry 136 surface-to-air missiles and six close-in weapon systems, as well as one double-barreled 130mm gun, 10 torpedo tubes, and two anti-submarine rocket launchers.
Only two Kirov-class battlecruisers, Pyotr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov, remain in service. Pyotr Velikiy is the flagship of the powerful Northern Fleet, while Admiral Nakhimov has been undergoing modernization since 1999, though Russian officials say it will delivered this year.
Nakhimov’s upgrades will allow it to fire Kalibr and Onyx cruise missiles and new anti-submarine weapons, and carry Pantsir-M air-defense systems. Russian officials also claim Nakhimov will be armed with Zircon hypersonic missiles in the future.
In 1976, the Soviets laid down the first of three Slava-class guided-missile cruisers.
At 611 feet long and displacing about 11,000 tons, the Slavas are armed with 16 P-500 cruise missiles in eight distinctive dual launchers on either side of the ship. Each P-500 can carry a 2,000-pound conventional warhead or a nuclear one. Some Slavas have reportedly been armed with more modern P-1000 anti-ship missiles.
Slava-class cruisers also carry 96 surface-to-air missiles, a twin-barreled 130mm gun, six close-in weapon systems, two anti-submarine rocket launchers, and 10 torpedo tubes.
Only two Slava-class cruisers, Marshal Ustinov and Varyag, remain in active service. Marshal Ustinov is assigned to the Northern Fleet and Varyag is the Pacific Fleet flagship. Moskva, the lead ship of the class, was the Black Sea Fleet flagship until it was sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles in April.
Two countries field warships they designate as destroyers but the US and naval experts classify as cruisers because of their size, displacement, and armament.
China’s Type 055, known as the Renhai-class, is the most notable. The International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank has said it “may be the most capable multi-role surface combatant currently at sea.”
At 590 feet long and displacing over 12,000 tons, Type 055s are armed with 112 VLS cells capable of launching surface-to-air missiles, anti-submarine missiles, anti-ship missiles, and land-attack cruise missiles. They also carry a 130mm gun and a close-in weapons system.
Type 055s are equipped with Type-346A active electronically scanned array radars, a more modern and accurate radar than the passive phased-array radar aboard Ticonderoga-class ships.
Eight Type 055s have been built and launched since 2014. At least five have been commissioned and two more are believed to be under construction. Their deployment is already seen as a show of strength — they have been spotted near Japan and Alaska — and they may be a central part of China’s future carrier battlegroups.
South Korea’s Sejong the Great-class destroyers are also classified by others as cruisers. Three are in active service, each 544 feet long and displacing over 10,600 tons.
Each Sejong the Great-class ship has 128 VLS cells and 16 anti-ship missile launchers in four quad mounts. They are Aegis-equipped and provide early warning of incoming ballistic missiles.
South Korea plans to build three more Sejong the Great-class ships that will have only 88 VLS cells but will be equipped with SM-6 missiles that Seoul plans to buy, allowing them to intercept ballistic missiles.
‘Divest to invest’ – Why Ticonderoga-Class Must Die
The US Navy wants to shed the Ticonderogas — including USS Vicksburg, which is in the middle of a $200 million refit — as part of a broader “divest to invest” strategy to free up resources for newer and more advanced vessels.
While lawmakers and others worry that doing so will leave Navy shorthanded against China, Navy officials argue the cruisers, all of which are over 30 years old, are approaching the ends of their service lives, have outdated electronics, and will cost too much to maintain or refit. Some are even unsafe to operate, Navy officials say.
“They’re eating us alive in terms of our ability to get maintenance back on track,” Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said in March. “We are paying tens of millions of dollars beyond what we expected to because of growth work and new work on ships that are beyond their service life.”
The Navy proposed retiring five cruisers in 2023. In budget documents released this month, the House Armed Services Committee would only allow four retirements and block that of USS Vicksburg, which is one of the youngest of the five on the chopping block, a committee aide told reporters.
The 2023 budget is yet to be finalized, but the documents released this month also direct the Navy to submit a report on the costs of modernizing and extending the service lives of its other cruisers, suggesting the divestment battle will only continue.
Benjamin Brimelow is a reporter at Business Insider.