The Virginia-class nuclear guided-missile cruisers
(CGN-38 class) were a series of four double-ended (with armament carried both fore and aft) guided-missile cruisers commissioned in the late 1970s, which served in the US Navy until the mid- to late-1990s. With their nuclear power plants and the resulting capability of steaming at high speeds for long periods of time, these were excellent escorts for the fast nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, such as the Nimitz
The Nimitz-class supercarriers are a class of ten nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in service with the United States Navy. With an overall length of and full-load displacements of over 100,000 long tons, they are the largest capital ships in the world...
class. Their main mission was as air-defense ships, though they did have capabilities as anti-submarine (ASW) ships, surface-to-surface warfare (SSW) ships, and in gun and missile bombardment of shore targets.
The ships were derived from the earlier California class nuclear cruiser
The California class cruisers were a set of two of nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers operated by the United States Navy between 1974 and 1998. Other than their nuclear power supply and lack of helicopter hangars, ships of the California class were comparable to other guided missile cruisers...
(CGN-36 class). They were decommissioned as part of the early 1990s "peace dividend
The peace dividend is a political slogan popularized by US President George H.W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the early 1990s, purporting to describe the economic benefit of a decrease in defense spending. It is used primarily in discussions relating to the guns versus butter...
" after the Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...
ended. A fifth warship, the CGN-42, was canceled before being named or laid down. It was found that while it was possible to mass-produce nuclear-powered warships, the ships were less cost-efficient than conventionally-powered warships, and the new gas-turbine-powered ships then entering the fleet (the Spruance class destroyer
The Spruance-class destroyer was developed by the United States to replace a large number of World War II-built Allen M. Sumner- and Gearing-class destroyers, and was the primary destroyer built for the U.S. Navy during the 1970s....
s) required much less manpower. Following the end of production of this class, the U.S. Navy continued conventional destroyer/cruiser production, and it redesignated the DDG-47 class of guided missile destroyers as the CG-47 Ticonderoga class cruiser
The Ticonderoga class of missile cruisers is a class of warships in the United States Navy, first ordered and authorized in FY 1978. The class uses phased-array radar and was originally planned as a class of destroyers...
s. Three of the four Virginia
-class ships were authorized as guided missile frigates (in the pre-1975 definition), and they were redesignated as cruisers either before commissioning or before their launching. The last warship, the USS Arkansas
, was authorized, laid down, launched, and commissioned as a guided-missile cruiser.
The early retirement of the Virginia
class cruisers has been widely criticized. They were new, modern ships; given a New Threat Upgrade
-The Program:New Threat Upgrade was a program to improve the anti-aircraft capability of Terrier and Tartar ships. It allowed the full use of newer Standard missiles and improved the interoperability of the radar and computer systems aboard the ships...
electronics overhaul they would have been well-suited to modern threats. They had rapid-fire Mk 26 launchers which could fire the powerful Standard SM-2MR medium-range surface-to-air missile. Earlier decommissioned cruisers used the slower-firing Mk-10 launchers which required manual fitting of the fins of the missiles prior to launch.
Nevertheless, the CGN-38-class cruisers, with their missile magazines and Mk-26 missile launchers, were incapable of carrying the SM-2ER
The RIM-67 Standard ER is an extended range surface-to-air missile and anti ship missile originally developed for the United States Navy...
long-range surface-to-air missile, being restricted to the SM-2MR
The RIM-66 Standard MR is a medium range surface-to-air missile originally developed for the United States Navy . The SM-1 was developed as a replacement for the RIM-2 Terrier and RIM-24 Tartar that were deployed in the 1950s on a variety of USN ships...
medium-range surface-to-air missile. This was a significant limitation in their capabilities.
Another weakness was a lack of LAMPS
Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System is the United States Navy's program that developed manned helicopters that assist the surface fleet in anti-submarine warfare.*SH-2 Seasprite *SH-60 Seahawk...
A helicopter is a type of rotorcraft in which lift and thrust are supplied by one or more engine-driven rotors. This allows the helicopter to take off and land vertically, to hover, and to fly forwards, backwards, and laterally...
s, which had been replaced by the Tomahawk
The Tomahawk is a long-range, all-weather, subsonic cruise missile. Introduced by General Dynamics in the 1970s, it was designed as a medium- to long-range, low-altitude missile that could be launched from a surface platform. It has been improved several times and, by way of corporate divestitures...
cruise missile. In the end, what really doomed the ships was economics. They were coming due for their first nuclear refuelings, mid-life overhauls, and NTU refittings, which were all expensive projects, together costing about half the price of a new ship. Further, they required relatively large crews, straining Navy personnel resources. The 1996 Navy Visibility and Management of Operating and Support Costs (VAMOSC) study determined the annual operating cost of a Virginia
class cruiser at $40 million, compared to $28 million for a Ticonderoga
class cruiser, or $20 million for an Arleigh Burke class destroyer
The Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers is the United States Navy's first class of destroyer built around the Aegis combat system and the SPY-1D multi-function phased array radar. The class is named for Admiral Arleigh "31-Knot" Burke, the most famous American destroyer officer of...
. Given a lower requirement for cruisers, it was decided to retire these nuclear ships as a money-saving measure. The early Ticonderoga
class cruisers which lacked the Vertical Launch System had equally short careers, serving between 18 and 21 years.
Ships in class
||Length of Service
USS Virginia was a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, the lead ship of her class, and the eighth ship of the United States Navy to be named for the Commonwealth of Virginia.-Construction:...
|| 11 September 1976
|| 10 November 1994
|| 18.2 years
|| Disposed of by recycling, 25 September 2002
USS Texas was the second Virginia-class nuclear guided missile cruiser. She was the third ship of the United States Navy to be named in honor of Texas.-Construction:...
|| 10 September 1977
|| 16 July 1993
|| 15.3 years
|| Disposed of by recycling, 30 October 2001
USS Mississippi , a Virginia class, nuclear fuel powered, U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser, was the fourth ship of the United States Navy named in honor of the 20th state admitted to the Union....
|| 5 August 1978
|| 28 July 1997
|| 19 years
|| Stricken, to be disposed of by recycling, 28 July 1997
The fourth USS Arkansas was a Virginia-class nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser of the United States Navy, in service during the 1980s and 1990s.-Construction:...
|| 18 October 1980
|| 7 July 1998
|| Disposed of by recycling, 1 November 1999