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 A Summary History of U.S. Navy Destroyers

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A destroyer is a fast and maneuverable warship that is designed for multiple roles, primarily to protect larger vessels in a fleet, convoy, or battle group. Today, destroyers are the primary general purpose surface combat ship for most navies. In size and weight, the destroyer is bigger than a frigate, and smaller than a cruiser. There are no longer any active battleships in the world. Only the United States, Russia, and Peru have cruisers. Within the U.S. Navy, the over 61 destroyers currently commissioned fulfill Anti-Air Warfare (AAW), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW) roles.

The destroyer evolved, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, because of the need to defend larger warships against the advent of small, fast, and more maneuverable torpedo boats. The name "torpedo-boat destroyer" (TBD) was shortened to simply destroyer. By the First World War the navy of every major combatant had destroyers.

In the opening years of World War One the United States remained neutral but took note of the loss of merchant ships to German submarines. Anticipating eventual entry to the war, the Navy undertook a new type of destroyer design. This new design was much improved over pre-WWI destroyers. American neutrality ended as a result of German submarines sinking American shipping on the way to England, in addition to the sinking of the passenger ship RMS Lusitania by a U-boat, where 1,198 civilians died, of which 128 were American. The United States entered WWI in April of 1917.

During WWI the United States mass produced 267 destroyers of the Wickes and Clemson classes. These ships had four smoke stacks, which gave them the nickname "four stackers" or "four pipers." The British and American merchant ships were formed into convoys, transiting the north Atlantic escorted by U.S. Navy destroyers. As a result the tonnage lost to German U-boats was decreased by two thirds in 1917. In the 250 engagements between German submarines and American destroyers, the small surface ships laid the foundation for anti-submarine warfare. Of the two million doughboys that went to fight in Europe, not a single soldier or transport ship was lost to the enemy.

When the war ended the United States had the largest destroyer force in the world. After the war, the American destroyers were formed into Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet. The Force was reduced and redesignated Destroyer Squadron, Atlantic, in 1921. Later, the force of American destroyers was redesignated Destroyer Squadron, Scouting Fleet, U.S. Fleet on December 8, 1922. Unfortunately, under the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, more than 200 WWI era destroyers were decommissioned and 40 more were scrapped. No new destroyers were built from 1921 to 1934. As the world watched the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany during the 1930s, many countries began to modernize their naval forces. The United States did the same, part of which was to order the construction of 45 new destroyers during the last half of the decade. Beginning in 1937, with an eye on the growing tensions with Japan, some of these ships were sent to the Pacific.

These new ships that were laid down in the interwar years were the Farragut, Mahan, Dunlap, Gridley, Bagley, and Benham classes. They were nicknamed "1500 tonners" for their displacement (weight) which was a fifty percent increase over the classes of the WWI-era. The Sims, Porter, and Somers class all came in at 1570 tons. The ships now had two stacks, and carried 5-inch guns along with their compliment of torpedoes and depth charges.

World War II began on September 3, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The United States was officially neutral; however American supplies were once again being convoyed across the north Atlantic, and hence vulnerable to German U-boat attack. The Nazi submarine force was so effective in the early years of the war that the German submariners called the summer of 1940 "the happy time." From June through October the Germans sank 270 ships in the Atlantic. The United States Navy established a base in Iceland and began escorting convoys to that mid-point in the route to Great Britain. President Roosevelt "loaned" Winston Churchill fifty earlier class destroyers to serve as convoy escort for the second half of the north Atlantic route.

The USS Greer (DD 145), a Wickes-class destroyer, was steaming between Newfoundland and Iceland on September 4, 1941, when she made contact with a German submarine. The Greer maintained sonar contact with the sub without incident for nearly three and a half hours when, without warning, the U-boat attacked. Greer avoided two torpedo attacks and replied twice with depth charges. The German submarine broke off the attack and got away, but the President Roosevelt used the incident to issue "shoot on sight" orders for any German submarine found in "our defensive waters."

Just over a month later, on October 16, 1941, the Gleaves-class destroyer USS Kearny (DD 432) along with the destroyers Plunkett (DD 429), Livermore (DD 431), and Decatur (DD 341), was sent to rescue a Canadian convoy that was being attacked by U-boats 350 miles south of Reyjavik, Iceland. The American destroyers were screening the Canadian merchantmen, when a "wolfpack" of German U-boats attacked. During one of the attacks, Kearny was hit by a torpedo that tore a hole in the side of the destroyer. Kearny was able to make it back to Iceland for repairs, but the engagement made her the first American destroyer damaged in WWII.

Only two weeks later, on October 31, 1941, the Clemson-class USS Reuben James (DD 245) was escorting a convoy of 44 merchantmen, along with the destroyers Tarbell (DD 142), Benson (DD 421), Hilary P. Jones (DD 427), and Niblack (DD 424), about 600 miles west of Ireland. At approximately 05:25 a torpedo fired without warning by U-552 struck Reuben James and tore the ship in two. Both halves sank within minutes, killing 115 of the 160 man crew and making Reuben James the first United States naval vessel sunk due to enemy action during WWII.

When the United States officially entered WWII after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the American Navy had only 100 destroyers that were seven years old or newer. Fortunately, when the war first began in Europe in September 1939, the Navy began to modernize and lay down new destroyers for the conflict they knew we would find ourselves in. Seeing service beginning in 1942, the 175 ship Fletcher-class weighed in at 2100 tons. These first Fletcher class destroyers sported an enlarged hull design and five guns on deck. Later, 112 ships were built in a six-gun design. As the war went on, destroyers got bigger. Sixty-seven ships of the Allen M. Sumner-class at 2200 tons and forty-five Gearing-class destroyers displacing 2250 tons were constructed during the war.

The demands of the Cold War drove the development of more modern destroyer designs and rebuilds. The first major warship the U.S. Navy built after the Second World War was a larger version of the WWII-era destroyer and designed specifically for anti-submarine warfare. Derived from the Fletcher concept, Forrest Sherman-class destroyer was the successor to the Fletcher, the Allen M. Sumner, and the Gearing classes. It was designated as a "destroyer leader" (DL), but was referred to as a "frigate." The Charles F. Adams-class that came next added a guided missile launcher on an enlarged hull. In 1975, the twelve remaining Mitscher and Farragut-class destroyers were reclassified as guided missile destroyers (DDGs 35-46).

The Spruance-class was specifically designed to serve as anti-submarine defense for aircraft carrier task forces. The Spruance class destroyers were the first ships in the United States Navy powered with gas turbines (four marine jet engines driving two shafts with reversible-pitch propellers), an improvement over boilers. The last Spruance-class destroyer was decommissioned in 2005. The Kidd-class consisted of four enlarged Spruance-class destroyers that were built for delivery to the Iranian Navy, at that time our ally. The Shah of Iran was overthrown by a revolution in 1979, so the ships were commissioned into the United States Navy instead. Hence, they were nicknamed the "Ayatollah" or the "dead admiral" class. The four Kidd class destroyers were decommissioned in the late 1990s, and in 2001 sold to Taiwan.

Today the Arleigh Burke-class ships are the U.S. Navy's only active destroyers. The Arleigh Burke is a class of guided missile destroyers (DDG) built around the Aegis Combat System and the SPY-1D multi-function phased array radar. The Arleigh Burke class is designed to be a multi-role destroyer. To fit the AAW (Anti-Aircraft Warfare) they have powerful Aegis radar and anti-aircraft missiles. For the ASW (Anti-submarine Warfare) role they were fitted with a towed sonar array, anti-submarine rockets, and an ASW helicopter. Harpoon missiles and tomahawk missiles fulfill the ASUW (Anti-surface warfare) role. The class is 510 feet long overall and displace 9,200 tons making them heavier than previous ships that were categorized as guided missile cruisers. They can reach a sustained speed in excess of 35 knots and have a range of 4,400 nautical miles at 20 knots. An Arleigh Burke destroyer carries a crew of 23 officers and 300 enlisted sailors.

The lead ship in the class, the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) commissioned July 4, 1991, was the first destroyer named after a living person: World War II Admiral Arleigh Burke. The USS Arleigh Burke is one-third longer and correspondingly heavier than the Fletcher class destroyers of the squadron Burke commanded in WWII. There are 62 of the planned 75 ships in the class completed, all named for significant figures in Navy and Marine Corps history. This class of destroyer has already started to play a significant role in post-Cold War naval operations. The USS Cole (DDG-67) was damaged by a terrorist attack while docked in Aden, Yemen on October 12, 2000. Apparently a shaped charge of 200 to 300 kg in a boat was placed against the hull and detonated by suicide bombers, killing 17 crew members. The ship was repaired and returned to duty in 2001. In October 2011 it was announced that four Arleigh Burke class destroyers would be forward-deployed in Europe to provide missile defense as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach. The ships are to be based at Naval Station Rota, Spain. In February 2012 they were identified as the USS Ross (DDG-71), the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), the USS Porter (DDG-78), and the USS Carney (DDG-64).

The next generation of destroyers will be the Zumwalt-class (DDG-1000). Previously known as the "DD(X)," the Zumwalt is designed as a multi-mission ship with a focus on land attack. The class will feature a low radar profile; an integrated power system that can send electricity to the electric drive motors or weapons, which may someday include lasers or electromagnetic projectile (railgun). The class is designed to require a smaller crew and be less expensive to operate. As of January 2009, the GAO found that only 4 out of 12 of the critical technologies planned for the futuristic ship were mature. Originally 32 ships were planned, with the $9.6 billion research and development costs spread across the class, but as the quantity was reduced to 10, then 3, the cost-per-ship increased dramatically. The first ship, the USS Zumwalt, is planned to cost $3.3 billion; the next two, USS Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001) and USS Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG-1002), are estimated to cost $2.5 billion each. It has been reported that the average cost could rise to $5 billion or more. The cost increase caused the U.S. Navy to identify the program as being in breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment (requiring notification to Congress if the original cost estimation will increase by more than 15%) on February 1, 2010. The USS Zumwalt was laid down at Bath Iron Works in Maine on November 17, 2011 and is due to be commissioned in 2015.

List of U.S. Navy Destroyers in service since WWII

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List of active and planned destroyers in the U.S. Navy

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