Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts

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Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts. The modern destroyer (DD) is a general purpose warship capable of surface, subsurface, and antiair warfare. Destroyers evolved from ships designed to destroy torpedo boats that threatened battleships at the end of the nineteenth century. Much like the horizontal expansion of fortifications around castles to protect them from cannons, torpedo boat destroyers formed a defensive ring around capital ships and engaged torpedo boats beyond torpedo range. By the turn of the century, destroyers mounted torpedoes and replaced the torpedo boat.

The introduction of the submarine during World War I resulted in the need for destroyers to escort convoys and hunt submarines. A destroyer shortage led to a conflict over U.S. shipbuilding resources. Adm. William S. Sims, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe, disagreed with the chief of naval operations (CNO), Adm. William S. Benson, over the continued allocation of shipbuilding resources to capital ships. These battleships would provide the United States with naval superiority over Britain—considered by Benson to be a postwar rival. The anglophilic Sims successfully argued that the first priority was victory in the Atlantic, and resources were shifted to construct destroyers and other antisubmarine ships.

After the war, the battleship remained the standard of naval power. Since no modern battleship had been sunk by a submarine, submarines were largely discounted. The destroyer returned to its prewar mission of torpedo attack and defense. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt restarted warship construction under the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), Adm. William V. Pratt, the CNO, identified destroyers as the first construction priority since those built during World War I were approaching obsolescence and construction of capital ships was prohibited by the Washington Naval Arms Limitation (1922) and the London Naval Treaty (1930). The U.S. Navy commissioned 114 interwar destroyers in three major classes prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941; another 67 of these 1930s designs were completed during the first two years of the war.

In fall 1939, the navy began design work on “Destroyer 1941”—the 175‐ship Fletcher class that would bear the brunt of World War II destroyer action. The Fletchers were large ships, designed as torpedo attack vessels, with a secondary mission of antisubmarine defense of the battle fleet. Many senior officers were concerned over the increasing size of such destroyers, but increased capability required larger ships. In addition to their torpedoes, Fletchers were equipped with dual‐purpose (antiair and antisurface) 5‐inch guns, as well as 40mm and 20mm antiaircraft guns to enhance their survival in a war in which the airplane was demonstrating its ascendancy.

Referred to as “tin cans” due to an absence of armor, destroyers relied on their high speed (up to 40 knots) for survival. But speed had failed to protect British battle cruisers at the 1916 Battle of Jutland, and unarmored destroyers proved equally vulnerable to gunfire, torpedoes, bombs, and kamikaze attacks during World War II. Seventy‐one U.S. destroyers were sunk. By 1944, the Fletchers were joined by larger Gearing/Summer–class ships with even more emphasis on air defense.

In the post‐1945 U.S. Navy, the destroyer continued to protect the capital ship—now the aircraft carrier—which came with more emphasis on antiair warfare and secondary emphasis on antisubmarine warfare. The development of surface‐to‐air missiles and sensors drove up the size of postwar destroyer designs. The Forrest Sherman– class destroyers (1953) displaced almost 5,000 tons, approximately a fivefold increase over the mass‐produced destroyers of World War I. The Charles F. Adams class of guided missile destroyers (1958) were nearly as large.

Adm. Hyman Rickover pushed for a nuclear‐propelled navy, which led to the construction of nuclear‐powered destroyers (DLGNs) and cruisers to escort the new nuclear‐powered aircraft carriers. Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, CNO in 1970–74, viewed the increasing complexity, size, and cost of U.S. destroyers (now approaching the size of World War II cruisers) with alarm. Zumwalt advocated a “high‐low” mix of ships but ran afoul of Rickover's political clout. Zumwalt was able to shepherd the “low‐end” FFG‐7 class of guided missile frigates (ships smaller than destroyers and designed for convoy escort) into production. But “purebred” destroyers continued to increase in size and cost. The Spruance class (1975) weighed in at 7,800 tons, and its hull design was large enough to be used for the CG‐47 class of Aegis air defense cruisers.

The navy's most recent destroyers, the Arleigh Burke (DDG‐51) class (1991), are large, capable ships, and like the Fletchers that Adm. Arleigh Burke commanded during World War II, are designed for three‐dimensional warfare, using sophisticated sensors and weapons, including cruise missiles, to strike targets above, on, and under the sea.
[See also Aircraft Carriers; Battleships; Cruisers; Torpedo Boats; World War I: Naval Operations in; World War II: Naval Operations in.]


Theodore Roscoe , United States Destroyer Operations in World War II, 1953.
Norman Friedman , The U.S. Destroyer: An Illustrated Design History, 1982.
William M. McBride , Good Night Officially: The Pacific War Letters of a Destroyer Sailor, 1994.
Don Sheppard , Bluewater Sailor: The Memoir of a Destroyer Officer, 1996.

William M. McBride