Ticonderoga Class Cruiser: An Unpretentious Look at the Fate of the US Navy’s Long-Standing Warship

A brief explanation of the technical terms is provided at the bottom of the article.

1992 is a very distant year from today. Modern computer technology was still in its infancy, Moore’s law still seemed to be constant in its exponential growth, the Euro didn’t exist and China was still an emerging country in isolation from much of the world. However, 1992 marks the last time the US Navy launched a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, namely the USS Port Royal, hull CG-73. The first ship of the class, USS Ticonderoga, was authorized by Congress back in 1978. At that point the White House was inhabited by a fellow named Jimmy Carter, and production of the Ticonderoga class continued until the presidency of George H. W. Bush. Today however, it is the presidency of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. to put an end to the long, victorious and volatile service life of the Ticonderoga Class as the Navy has decided to start decommissioning the VLS variant of the class (the twin-armed launcher version, while a much less useful variant has already been decommissioned fully). When the last member of the class will be scrapped in 2026, the Ticos will have been one of the most successful and long-lived ships in modern naval history.

What is it that makes them so effective to be still useful today, 50 years after their creation?

The answer lies in their design and characteristics. In a fleet, especially since the advent of dreadnoughts at the beginning of the 20th century, cruisers have been the intermediate-sized, long-ranged and reasonably-armed ships. They were key in projecting power in the far seas and were the backbone of colonial fleets due to the extreme costs and relatively smaller operating range of battleships and the offensive incapability of their smaller cousins the destroyers. Up until WW2 cruisers were either designated as “CL”, light cruiser, or “CA”, heavy cruiser, depending on the calibre of the main battery guns – anything with a bore of 8 inches (200mm) or larger used to be classified as heavy. After WW2 the introduction of missiles brought in a new designation, the “CG” guided-missile cruisers. And the two main lessons applied by the Americans and learned quite painfully by the Japanese – “protect your carriers” and “ships really do not like planes” created a mission perfectly fit for these new missile-armed cruisers – to protect the flattops and shoot down anything hostile that had ill intentions towards it.

This has been – and still is – the mission of the Ticos: to identify, engage and eliminate any airborne threat, prioritising the survival of the aircraft carrier above all else. And the Ticonderoga class is equipped with the absolute best instruments to complete such mission: namely 122 vertical launched missiles, that allow it to dispatch its full load in a matter of a few minutes and the SPY-1 AEGIS series radar and fire control system, capable of identifying threats by coordinating with AWACS airborne radars and directing the Anti-Aircraft defences of every ship in the fleet to engage and destroy threats.

Given the vitality of their role, and the problems that are vexing the now ageing class such as some severe hull failures due to old age, we could expect that the navy has been preparing a replacement for years to take the torch from the old ladies. However, there is no direct cruiser substitute ready to fill the hole the Ticonderoga class ships will leave.

The reasons for this span from funding issues to a tactical shift. The main concept in modern navies is to have multi-role units, capable of both air defence and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) operations as well as land bombardment and surface fleet engagements with missiles. The relatively new DDG (guided-missile destroyer) Arleigh Burke class is the brainchild of this philosophy: a full sonar suite, a passable (yet inferior to that of Ticos) air-search radar, a helipad and 96 VLS tubes make for a very intimidating package. However, the multiple capabilities of the class also bring in some drawbacks: those 96 tubes are split between ASW, ASUW and AA roles (Anti-submarine, anti-surface and anti-air respectively). This means that the gradual phasing out of the Ticonderogas might leave the carrier fleets with more limited AA capabilities in a time where medium range ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles seem to be as great a danger to carriers as they have ever been.

On the bright side, the US Navy is (of course) aware of these risks, and the Arleigh Burke Flight III destroyers will bring a more advanced fire control and air search radar suite to the table, and possibly a more anti-air focused VLS loadout. This new suite is going to be (quite obviously) more advanced than the now somewhat outdated systems on the Ticos, and it is most likely that the new ships will be employed in a similar role to that of the older cruisers, just with a more well-rounded deck of operational capabilities. The only incognita of this multi-mission capability is whether, in a situation where the circumstances force two different tasks at the same time, the ship is still able to maintain an apt effectiveness in both. A likely example of this situation is a missile attack while the ship is engaged in ASW duties – a “submarine hunt”. While it is true that most of the weight in that situation is carried by the ship’s helicopter –  both as a radar picket for beyond the horizon sensor range and as probably the second most effective ASW platform (the mobility and the extreme unlikelihood of retaliation of the chopper – unless Ivan pulls a crazy manoeuvre and literally surfaces to attack the chopper with an Igla – are only bested by the Orion P3), the active sonar pinging of the mothership still plays a fairly important role while requiring the ship to take position on the outside of the convoy, and this is amplified if the ship has to deploy its towed array sonar. The positioning and manoeuvring required for ASW operations might thus reduce the capacity of the AEGIS system to properly defend the carrier in case of a missile attack.

The US Navy in recent years has actually tried to retire the older hulls of the Ticonderoga class several times. And up until this year, congress had refused. The reasons behind the Navy’s decision are several: the literal, physical hulls of the ships were not designed to stay in service for 50 years. Warping and structural failures have started showing up in unexpected ways, driving up the cost. Furthermore, in some of the older units the radar suite – the system the whole ship is built around – is so old it is still an analogical apparatus with enormous upgrade costs. The years have driven up the operational costs of the class, most of them unexpected, and lowered their relative operational capabilities. At the same time, Congress has been reluctant of retiring the class in a time when the PLAN has been pumping tens of thousands of ship-tons out of its naval military yards. While the US still hold the technological advantage, especially in the submarine warfare, the number’s advantage is shifting in favour of the dragon.

To wrap up, the Ticos have played a key role in protecting the flattops in the past fifty years. While much less iconic than the other mainstay of the US military, the BUFF, they were the pivot point of the air defence of coalition forces and their AEGIS system is widely considered the most flexible and effective AA suite of its time. The importance of the system is underlined in the motto of the lead ship of the class, USS Ticonderoga (CG-47): “The First AEGIS Cruiser”.

The Idiot-Proof Glossary for This Article. With Just a Pinch of Sass.

VLS: VLSs are vertical tubes in which missiles are stored. They represent a huge improvement on previous systems, as they can be fired is quick succession and are extremely flexible in what they contain. Possible missiles are anti-surface, anti-air (long range), four anti air shorter range missiles, and even an ASROC, a missile with a torpedo that gets dropped on the estimated location of the enemy sub.

Twin-Armed Missile Launcher: This system predated VLS and was rendered obsolete the moment the vertical cells entered services. It consisted in a launcher turret with two railed arms, that housed the missiles and were reloaded by rotating them and aligning them with an autoloader in the ship’s magazines.

Dreadnoughts: The first battleships that represented the end of the Age of Sail. Powered by a steam boiler and completely steel-hulled, they had a main battery with large calibre guns housed in turrets and a secondary battery of smaller ones, usually housed in casemates. They take the name from HMS Dreadnought, first of its kind. The concept was so revolutionary that HMS Dreadnought was literally untouchable until other navies were able to develop – read: copy or commission – similar ships.

“ships really do not like planes” See the Battle of Midway and Operation Ten-Go. But also, the sinking of the Bismarck, the Prince of Wales, the Tirpitz, and Pearl Harbour. Yes, it’s that bad.

Flattops: Nickname for Aircraft Carriers, dating back to WW2 (especially escort carriers, the smaller carriers, lacked a superstructure and were thus flat on the top, hence flattops – superstructure is the towers and ship parts above the deck, not including turrets).

AEGIS: The name of radar and fire control suite. Incredibly advanced, its main advantage being the capability of controlling all the anti-air power of a fleet at the same time, estimating targets and coordinating different platforms to minimize overlap. For a more in-depth explanation, look it up.

AWACS: The funny-looking planes with a weird nose and a fairly unmissable radar dish on the top. They are the eyes of a fleet, using altitude and a very powerful radar to provide long range sensor coverage.

Anti Aircraft defences: typically consist of: on-deck machine guns (that were ineffective in WW2, and basically wishful thinking considering today’s supersonic planes and missiles), AA cannons (the flak puffs that are shown in the movies – again, widely ineffective today), short range AA missiles (basically the same ones you see on the wings of fighter planes), longer range AA missiles (name says it all), Close-In Weapon Systems CIWS (pronounced seewhizz – probably – they are the R2D2 like thingies you see on the deck of ships and aircraft carriers, they consist of a radar in the big canister and a very rapid firing cannon beneath it. They are the last resort in AA defence), and chaff launchers (throw aluminium stripes in the sky and hope the enemy missile is dumb enough to target those instead of an actual ship… yeah, they actually work).  Failed experiment that I report just to shit on the Brits: Rocket AA. Shoot rockets in the sky, fit them with an explosive charge and a parachute and hope the enemy flies through them. Surprising anyone thought that would work.

The ship’s helicopter: Some ships have a helicopter, that is armed with one or two torpedoes, sonar buoys (actually scary if you are a submariner) and an immersion sonar (literally hover on the sea and dip in a big ass microphone to hear the sub – incredibly effective, can both listen passively and send out pings actively).

Beyond the horizon: Laws of physics says radar can only see as far as the horizon goes. Navy did not like laws of physics, put radars in high up places to get as much coverage as possible. This is also used to fool anti-ship missiles: ship launches helo, helo switches on radar and surprise, the incoming missiles have to split targets. At the last moment, the helo switches off radar and starts praying.

Igla: Some Russians submarines actually listed a MANPAD (stands for something like man-portable air defence system) – an infantry missile launcher that has a range of approx. 4-5kms (3.5ish freedom miles) – as one of the onboard weapons. Only problem, a kill is very unlikely and requires the sub to be completely surfaced, exposed to retaliation fire (a surfacing sub within 5 km is not exactly inconspicuous) and submarines do not really enjoy having any kind of hole in their hull even if they are just small calibre ones. Kinda dumb, very slav.

Orion P3: A personal crush of one of the authors, this four-engine turboprop is built entirely out of soviet submariners’ worst nightmares. Capable of 12+ hours patrols, nearly indefinite range with in-air refuelling, cameras, sonar buoys, a MAD (magnetic anomaly detector – a magnet that feels the magnetic field of the submarine under the water), torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles, this bad boy is the most effective ASW platform ever made. It is so effective that all the best sub hunters in the Navy serve on those, and have command of all ASW operations when they are present. Sadly, they have been replaced by a glorified Boeing 747. Ewww.

Active sonar pinging: surface ships’ active sonars are fairly limited, for several reasons. First of which, the main countermeasure they have against sonar homing torpedoes (if it’s a wake following torpedo, tough luck) is called the Prairie-Masker system and consists of many, noisy bubbles created around the hull of the ship that confuse the hearing system of the torpedoes… but also hamper their sonar effectiveness. So, the active pinging is used to put pressure on the enemy sub and force it to make a mistake, revealing its position to the sonar buoys or to the helo’s dip in radar.

Mothership: Helicopters are usually assigned to the same ship and seldom land on other units (usually when they are used as a taxi by the ship commander in order to have dinner with his pals on other ships in the convoy). Fun fact: the Brits name their helos based on the mothership, so you have combos like Battleaxe (ship) and Hatchet (chopper).

PLAN: The Chinese Navy.

BUFF: Big Ugly Fat Fucker, the nickname for the B-52 strategic bomber.

Written by Federico Pasotti.

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