Explaining US Navy warship types

*Originally posted on Hubpages Dec. 13 2015*

Warship Acronyms; 1941-45

In the early 1900’s, the US Navy instituted letter acronyms to denote warship types in written reports, telegraph messages, and especially shipboard log keeping during naval operations. Writing ‘BB 99‘, was far less time-consuming than, “the Battleship USS Ever Sails”. The doubling of the first letters, I.e ‘BB‘ vice ‘B‘ for battleship, was found to stand out immediately when reading logs, or reports. Combining with hull numbers, precluded any confusion that BB might be a typing or writing error.

By 1941, US warship types were clearly defined. 

  • CV – Carrier aViation 
  • BB – Battleship 
  • BC – Battle Cruiser
  • CA – Cruiser Attack (heavy cruiser) 
  • CL – Cruiser Light 
  • DD Destroyer 
  • SS Submarine
  • PT – Patrol/Torpedo boat.

When Sailors and even civilians heard the above terms, they instantly knew almost exactly what each platform could do, had a relative idea of its weaponry, and a good guess at each type’s size, speed and tonnage.

World War II generated naval technological advances which brought about several variations on some acronyms. Added to the list by VJ Day 1945 were; 

  • CLAACruiser Light Anti-Aircraft
  • DEDestroyer Escort
  • DTDestroyer/Transport
  • CVLCarrier Aviation Light
  • CVECarrier Aviation Escort

Each of these latter warship types & their acronyms were born entirely due to the demands of fighting World War II and in the years after the war, were retired as these ships were mothballed and/or converted to other uses. The sole exception was AVT which endured until the U.S. Navy was divested of the last training aircraft carrier, AVT 59 Forestall, formerly CV 59.

The acronym CV for large aircraft carriers for a time was changed to CVACarrier Aviation Attack as the Navy competed to be the prime provider of America’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent. CVA reverted back to CV once that fight was won by the Air Force.

As complicated as splitting the atom was, its effect on ship acronyms was almost childishly simple. “N” was simply added to any vessel’s acronym which was nuclear powered. Thus, CGN, CLGN, CVN, DDGN, DLGNSSBN, SSN.

With the dawn of missiles as the prime naval weapon, a redefining of naval warfare areas quickly began blurring the lines between warship types.

After the war, the Soviets married the German idea of jet and rocket powered anti-ship cruise missiles to large, extremely long-range naval bombers; and duplicated the Japanese WWII strategy of massed attacks, but with ASCMs in place of the manned Kamikaze.

The Navy soon realized that no amount of massed anti-aircraft guns would stop more than a few ASCMs in a massed attack, and that the best defense system would be ship launched surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in large numbers, targeted & launched as rapidly as possible.

SAM carrying warships were initially based on existing 1940’s heavy & light gunned cruiser hull designs. The first of which were converted or partially converted. The partially converted hybrids acronyms changed from CA or CL to CAG or CLG, The G denoting guided missile launch capability.

Ships fully converted had their acronyms changed to CG. Thus, one knew that a CAG had SAM’s and the 8-inch guns of a heavy cruiser; and that a CLG had SAM’s & the 6-inch guns of a light cruiser. If a CG, one knew there were no heavy caliber guns of any kind. Only SAMs. As naval engineering and architecture evolved, CAG/CLGs were replaced by cruisers and destroyers designed from the keel up for missile warfare.

Size mattered

Large caliber naval guns were entirely discarded in new warship designs after the 1940’s, with the rise of missile technology. Thus the need for ships to be large in size to provide space for gun turret machinery also vanished.

As cruisers shrank in size and displacement, destroyers built to carry missiles began to increase in size to accommodate missile storage. It wasn’t long before destroyers were approaching 8,000 to 10,000 tons displacement; the traditional base tonnage of a light cruiser.

Debate ensued within the Navy Department over what exactly was a cruiser or a destroyer. Some sticking with hull size and weight, others insisting the mission of the ship type, should be the defining factor.

The long discarded term Destroyer Leader, was resurrected with the acronym DL assigned to destroyers above 5,000 tons. If armed with SAM, DLG was the assigned acronym. However, this was off the mark. 

Destroyer Leader was originally the designation for Torpedo Boat Destroyers tasked with command of a squadron of sister ships, since they were not large enough to be proper flag ships. It was a functional designation, that had nothing to do with size or armament. 

A ‘compromise’ finally resulted in the mid-1970s whereby, all SAM firing ships at or above 7,000 tonnes would be cruisers with the designation of CG or CGN if nuclear powered. Vessels even slightly under 7,000 tonnes would be destroyers with the designation of DDG or DDGN if nuclear powered.

All DL’s with the non-air defense roles, (anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare) were reclassified DD regardless of tonnage; except for DL-1 USS Norfolk, which was a test bed vessel

Still on the drawing board at the time of the compromise, the Ticonderoga Class AEGIS air-defense cruisers were based on the hull of Spruance Class destroyers. The first four Tico’s were actually launched as “DDG”, then re-designated CG before commissioning. The backbone of the Fleet today, the Arleigh Burke Class DDGs are a modified Spruance hull design, a few of which are larger than a Tico Class CG. Clear as mud, right? 

While the debate swirled, warships under 5,000 tonnes were being designated ‘DE‘, Destroyer Escort. Their roles were primarily anti-submarine warfare. A few however, like the 6 ships of the Brooke Class were SAM-capable and designated DEG. When the ‘compromise’ was reached, these vessels were reclassified ‘frigate’ or ‘FF‘. The Brooke Class becoming ‘FFG‘. 

The last Navy frigate design, the Oliver Hazard Perry Class, were all FFG, no FF’s. This came about because frigates were expected to operate without air defense vessels in company. So, all Perry Class were given limited SAM capability, with a single rail SAM launcher; earning the Perry Class the nickname, ‘One Arm Bandit’

Why not have picked one ship type?

US Navy doctrine has always been that cruisers are fleet escorts, bringing added firepower to guard the main item, once the battleship, now the aircraft carrier.

During World War II, the weaponry focus of cruisers shifted from surface warfare to air defense. But, the prime mission remained the same. The weaponry shift sparked the initial debate within the Navy Department, ascension of missile weaponry, exploded that debate.

To the ‘black shoe‘ Navy of ship-to-ship warfare, destroyers should be assigned to air defense and submarine hunting, while cruisers carried the surface battle mission. To the ‘brown shoes‘ of Naval Air, fast air defense ships that could keep up with their carrier task forces should take precedence, and cruisers fit the task.

In the end, Naval Air got their way. Every cruiser in the US Navy today, is an AEGIS cruiser, with the prime mission of air defense.

The future

At some point in the near future, the prominence of naval missile weaponry as it exists today is going to end as quickly as it began. Missiles will always have a role to play in strategic warfare. But, with the development of kinetic energy projectile weapons, missiles are going to fall from dominance in extended range tactical warfare.

Nowhere will this be more keenly felt than in modern naval warfare. Naval gunnery stands to make a comeback and replace shipboard missile systems. The effect this will have on warship sizes and design is yet unknown. But, it is likely their type designations will return to pre-1945 nomenclature. It’s even conceivable that a modern, if vastly different form of battleship will make a comeback.

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