Although aircraft carriers and submarines drew the headlines during the Cold War, nonaviation surface ships constituted the bulk of the world’s navies and conducted most naval operations. The nature, size, and armament of those ships changed gradually as the Cold War advanced. Radar and torpedo technology limitations eliminated small coastal fast-attack craft that had proven effective against ships lacking radar during World War II. The aircraft carrier and the expense of operation drove the battleships out of service by 1960 and relegated World War II-era gun cruisers to the flagship role based on their ability to carry extensive communications suites.
In fact, in Western navies, fleet surface combatants served primarily as escorts that protected the aircraft carrier. Thus, air defense and antisubmarine warfare became their dominant missions. For most U. S. Navy cruisers, that meant carrying long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), but the United States was the only country that could afford to operate such ships. Thus, the unarmored general-purpose destroyer was the mainstay of the world’s surface fleets for most of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was the first country to equip these units with a surface-strike capability, and that development, combined with microminiaturization technology, drove the development and missions for nonaviation surface combatants during the Cold War’s final years. Of course, there were also specialized surface ships such as logistics ships, mine countermeasures, and rescue/salvage ships, which were critical to naval operations.
Having been reduced primarily to the limited roles of providing naval gunfire support for amphibious assaults and supplementing the aircraft carrier’s close-in air defense, battleships became the first major surface combatants to go. Britain’s last battleship, the Vanguard, was commissioned in 1946, but the Royal Navy scrapped eleven of its surviving pre-World War II battleships before 1949. The Vanguard and the four King George V-class units were decommissioned by 1957 and scrapped in 1960. Similarly, the United States decommissioned all of its pre-World War II battleships by 1948, and the remainder left service by 1960. Naval planners briefly flirted with the idea of converting the four Iowa-class units into massive air defense and nuclear missile strike platforms but abandoned the idea because of the costs involved in modifying the heavily armored hulls.
The United States briefly brought the Iowa-class battleship New Jersey into service for a year during the Vietnam War and then returned all four Iowa-class battleships into service in the early 1980s but spent millions of dollars modifying them with new air defense systems and surface-to-surface missiles for both antiship and land attack missions. However, the age of their operating systems and the heavy manning required to operate those systems necessitated their retirement within two years of the Soviet Union’s collapse. A 1995 review determined that they were no longer cost-effective to operate and surplus to naval requirements. All are now museum ships.
Although Soviet leader Josef Stalin flirted briefly with building battleships after the war, the Soviet Union in 1956 decommissioned its two surviving battleships, initially commissioned in the 1920s, and scrapped them in 1957. France discarded its two surviving battleships as well, the Richelieu and Jean Bart, in 1959 and 1960, respectively.
The Soviet Sverdlov-class gun cruisers carried 152mm guns and were based on a blend of Italian and German World War II-era designs and technology. However, the Soviets retained them primarily as flagships and naval gunfire support platforms. Interestingly, some of the U. S. Navy’s latest cruiser designs were decommissioned relatively soon after entering service. The large light cruisers Worcester and Roanoke, for example, mounted a troublesome new main armament suite and served only from 1948 to 1958. The large Des Moines-class ships were used primarily as flagships in the U. S. Sixth Fleet, with the Newport News serving until 1975.
The British and French simply decommissioned most of their gun cruisers. The Royal Navy discarded all of its pre-World War II cruisers by 1949, and all but two of its modern cruisers had been decommissioned by 1965. Those two, the Lion and Tiger, were converted into helicopter cruisers after 1965, retaining only one forward 6-inch gun turret. Both were reduced to reserve status by 1979 and scrapped in 1986.
The United States modified a number of its cruisers to carry heavy long-range SAMs. The first of these, the former heavy cruiser Boston, was recommissioned as a guided missile heavy cruiser in November 1955, carrying two Terrier SAM systems in place of its aft 8-inch gun turret. The Canberra followed eighteen months later.
Other cruisers were subjected to a more radical modification. The former heavy cruisers Albany and Chicago were completely converted to air defense cruisers during 1959-1964, losing all of their guns to make room for two short-range (10 nautical miles, NM) Tartar SAM systems and two long-range (80 NM) Talos SAM systems. They were also equipped with sonars and antisubmarine rockets (ASROC) to become the world’s first multipurpose cruisers (capable of antisurface, antiair, and antisubmarine warfare). Several U. S. Navy light cruisers surrendered their aft 6-inch gun turrets for Talos or Terrier SAM systems.
Finally, the United States built the Long Beach (CGN-9) as the first cruiser designed as a guided missile platform. More importantly, upon its 9 September 1961 commissioning, it became the world’s first nuclear-powered surface warship. Initially completed without guns, the Long Beach had two single 5-inch gun mounts added in 1963 at the direct request of President John F. Kennedy, who thought it unwise to rely entirely on missiles for defense.
These conversions and decommissionings left destroyers as the workhorses for all the world’s navies, including some whose missions were little more than coastal defense. The need to improve the destroyers’ antiair warfare (AAW) and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities meant adding more radars, missiles, and eventually helicopters in order to increase their surveillance and attack ranges. As a result, destroyers become increasingly complex and expensive as the Cold War entered its second decade. A ship type that had averaged 2,200 tons of standard displacement in 1945 had grown to more than 7,000 tons by 1975.
In fact, among the democracies, legislative resistance to funding such expensive destroyers led to a complete reclassification of warships. The heavily modified classification system that dated back to the London Naval Limitation Treaties was abandoned completely. Now, destroyers were ships that focused on a single mission but had limited capabilities in another. Many multipurpose destroyers were then redesignated as cruisers. Ships that had once been designated as destroyer escorts (ASW-focused destroyers) became frigates, and coastal attack craft became corvettes.