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Weaponry, Technology and Threats Improve Destroyers Over Time

By Kelley Stirling, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division Public Affairs | NSWC Carderock Division | Sept. 17, 2018


With the advancement of technology and weaponry, as well as evolving threats to the United States, the progression of the U.S. Navy destroyer has changed dramatically over the years.

The first destroyers, built more than 100 years ago, were designed as torpedo-boat destroyers, said James Harrison, director for the Expeditionary Warfare Ships Division at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA 05D3), during another one of his “history lessons” at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division in West Bethesda, Maryland, on Sept. 6.

In “From Flivvers to Flight III,” Harrison talked about the evolution of the Navy’s destroyers. He called the very first destroyers built starting in 1899 “proto-destroyers” since the Navy was still trying to figure out exactly what a destroyer should be. He said he considers the “flivver,” commissioned in 1909, the first ship built with a true destroyer mission.

When other navies were building torpedo boats to go after battleships, which were large and expensive, the U.S. Navy decided to build less-expensive, ocean-going, high-speed boats to protect the battleship and other high-value assets from asymmetric threats.

“You don’t want your battleships fighting torpedo boats, you want them fighting other battleships,” Harrison said.

The Smith- and Paulding-class torpedo-boat destroyers, starting with USS Smith (DD-17), became known as flivvers because the ship was built in fairly high numbers, was high-powered and shook and rattled when it was underway, similar to the Model T Ford at the time, which had the nickname “flivver.”  

Throughout the history of designing and building destroyers, the Navy considered threats in the world at the time, whether it was torpedo boats as in the case of the flivver, or fast-attack crafts for the Arleigh Burkes.

“Before they even delivered the first of the flivvers, the Navy was taking another round turn on the design,” Harrison said.

By the time the U.S. entered World War I, the Navy had three types of destroyers: the proto-destroyers, flivvers and what became known as 1,000-tonners, of which USS Cassin (DD-44) was the first built.

The 1,000-tonners did get more guns and torpedo tubes, adding to a destroyer’s offensive capabilities, with the threat still being torpedo boats and enemy destroyers.

“When the ships were built, submarines were not a concern,” Harrison said. “But, during World War I, the Germans are doing U-boat warfare. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we are in the war.”

The Navy added Y guns to project depth charges off either side of the ship with the objective of sinking a submarine. Harrison said it wasn’t very effective, as only about 1 percent of depth-charge attacks result in the sinking of a submarine, but it was effective at preventing the submarine from launching an attack.

With anti-submarine warfare in mind, the Navy started building another class of destroyer before the end of World War I called the flush deckers. With the larger ship, the Navy streamlined the forecastle, thinking it would be able to handle the waves better, which is why it is called a flush decker. Harrison said that didn’t seem to make a difference, no matter how large the ships became over the generations, so the Navy ultimately went back to the larger, flared forecastle, which is still the case in the Arleigh Burkes.

The flush deckers, which became known as the World War I-era destroyers since they continued service into World War II, were built in very large numbers. Between April 2017 and the end of World War I, the Navy delivered 42 flush deckers, and after the war, most of the earlier destroyers were retired. In all, the Navy built 273 flush deckers. Many of these ships got mothballed, since the need wasn’t there anymore.

The next line of destroyers the Navy started building in the 1930s became known as the gold platers, because of how much nicer they were than the flush deckers.

Sonar was added to the ships at this time, increasing the anti-submarine warfare capabilities, but not by much. Harrison said the early sonar meant pointing the hydrophone specifically in the direction a submarine was thought to be, listening, potentially hearing it and maybe tracking it.

Improvements in machinery engineering allowed the designers to start trunking from the boilers, therefore needing only one or two exhaust stacks, instead of the four that all previous destroyers had.

As air warfare became a threat, the Navy started adding anti-aircraft weaponry to the destroyer. With some of the gold platers, they replaced one 5-inch gun with 40-mm and 20-mm guns in service. They started adding shields to the guns, as well as more depth charges.

“Of the eight Farragut-class destroyers, one was sunk in battle and two were sunk by typhoon, because once all these modifications were made, they had very limited stability,” Harrison said.

When the Navy built the next round of destroyers starting in 1942 at 50 percent larger, future improvements in technology were a consideration, leaving room for upgrades in anti-aircraft weaponry, especially during World War II, when the threat was Japanese aircraft. But by 1947, new threats in jets and the German Type XXI submarine made the Fletcher-class destroyer obsolete. After building 100s of the Fletcher class, the Navy began a fleet rehabilitation and modernization (FRAM) update to the ships in the 1950s, changing much of its weaponry to meet the challenges of the time.

Many of the upgrades included air conditioning and noise reduction technology, which meant the machinery would take up more space. The new destroyers also had more advanced radar and larger sonar. The guns became automatic and higher-velocity, shooting potentially 40-rounds per minute, versus 15.

With the Spruance-class destroyers, built in the 1970s, the Navy had gone to gas-turbine engines, finally shedding its decades-long dependence on steam, somewhat behind the rest of the world. The ship had more silencing technology and habitability improvements. The Spruance was also the first class of destroyers built with a modular weaponry system, allowing for somewhat plug-and-play upgrades.

Harrison ended his talk by focusing on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, a ship that some of the current naval architects at Carderock have worked on in their careers. The advancement in technology and weaponry was so vast in the Arleigh Burke, Harrison said the Navy just kept making improvements to the same hull, calling the newer versions Flight I, Flight II and lastly, Flight III.

“In 100 years or so, we’ve gone from six guys standing on the bow, hoping they don’t trip over something and fall over the side, looking down the barrel of a gun, trying to hit something maybe 300 yards away, to a ship that can knock down a ballistic missile hundreds of miles away in any weather, any condition,” Harrison said. “What’s next?”