The US Navy is trying to retire all of its guided missile cruisers by 2027.
US cruisers specialize in air defense and are among the best-armed navy ships in service.
Lawmakers are dismayed by the Navy’s plan, believing it will reduce US firepower as China’s navy grows.
In April, the US Navy presented an ambitious plan to decommission all 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers by 2027.
The move is not surprising. The Navy has tried to get rid of its cruisers for years, but Congress has consistently rejected its proposals, largely out of concern that decommissioning would take away a much-needed weapon as China’s naval strength continues to grow.
With the last battleships retired nearly 20 years ago, cruisers are the largest surface combatants – a category that generally does not 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, well-armed club.
The Ticonderoga class
Twenty-seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers were built between 1980 and 1994. They have an extensive service history, with high-profile operations worldwide. The 567-foot ships displace about 10,000 tons and are the most heavily armed surface combatants in the US Navy.
Two Mk 41 vertical launch systems, each with 61 cells, can carry up to 122 missiles. Two Mk-141 missile launchers can carry up to eight more missiles. The Ticonderogas are also equipped with two 5-inch Mark 45 cannons, two Phalanx gun systems and two triple-barrel 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.
Its large and diverse arsenal allows the Ticonderogas to comply with various rules, including air defense, anti-ship anti-submarine warfare, and land attack attacks. 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 radar to track hostile forces and guide friendly fire towards incoming threats.
Because of the Ticonderogas’ status and weaponry, its autonomous deployments are often intended to convey a message, as in the USS Port Royal transit through the Taiwan Strait in May.
The Kirovs and Slavas
The Russian Navy has two types of cruisers. The best known and most feared are the Kirov-class, four of which were built between 1974 and 1998.
Classified as “battle cruisers” because of their heavy weaponry, the Kirovs are 827 feet long and displace about 28,000 tons. Their nuclear propulsion gives them range limited only by the stamina of the crew and their supplies.
Designed to destroy groups of American aircraft carriers, its primary armament is 20 P-700 supersonic anti-ship missiles, each capable of carrying either a 1,600-pound high-explosive warhead or a nuclear one. The Kirovs also carry 136 surface-to-air missiles and six short-range weapons systems, as well as a double-barreled 130 mm cannon, 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 mighty Northern Fleet, while Admiral Nakhimov has been undergoing modernization since 1999, although Russian authorities to say will be delivered this year.
Nakhimov’s upgrades will allow it to fire Kalibr and Onyx cruise missiles and new anti-submarine weapons, as well as carry Pantsir-M air defense systems. Russian officials also claim that Nakhimov will be armed with hypersonic Zircon missiles in the future.
In 1976, the Soviets launched 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 separate dual launchers on either side of the ship. Each P-500 can carry either a 2,000-pound conventional warhead or a nuclear warhead. Some Slavas were armed with more modern P-1000 anti-ship missiles.
Slava-class cruisers also carry 96 surface-to-air missiles, a double-barreled 130mm cannon, six close-range 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 flagship of the Pacific Fleet. The Moskva, the lead ship of the class, was the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet until she was sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles in April.
Two countries field warships they designate as destroyers, but the US and naval experts classify them as cruisers because of their size, displacement and weaponry.
China’s Type 055, known as the Renhai class, is the most notable. The think tank of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said he “may be the most capable multi-role surface combatant currently at sea.”
At 590 feet long and displacing over 12,000 tons, the 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 approach weapons system.
China tested a hypersonic missile aboard a Type 055 earlier this year, and in the future, ships could be armed with anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to kill aircraft carriers.
Type 055s are equipped with Type-346A active electronically scanned array radars, a more modern and more 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 force – they have been seen close to Japan and Alaska – and could be a central part of China’s future aircraft carrier battle groups.
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 more than 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 equipped with Aegis and provide ballistic missile early warning.
South Korea plans to build three more Sejong the Great-class ships that will only have 88 VLS cells but will be equipped with SM-6 missiles that Seoul plans to buy, allowing it to intercept ballistic missiles.
‘Disinvest to invest’
The U.S. Navy wants to scrap the Ticonderogas — including the USS Vicksburg, which is in the midst of a $200 million overhaul — as part of a broader “divest-to-invest” strategy to free up resources for newer, more advanced ships.
While lawmakers and others fear this will put the Navy behind China, Navy officials argue that the cruisers, all over 30, are nearing the end of their useful lives, have outdated electronics and will cost a lot 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,” Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said in March. “We are paying tens of millions of dollars more than we expected because of growth work and new work on ships that are beyond their lifespan.”
The Navy has proposed retiring five cruisers by 2023. In budget documents released this month, the House Armed Services Committee would allow just four retirements and block that of the USS Vicksburg, which is one of the youngest of five on the chopping block, an adviser to the committee told reporters.
The 2023 budget has yet to be finalized, but documents released this month also direct the Navy to report on the costs of modernizing and extending the lifespan of its other cruisers, suggesting that the divestment battle will continue.
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