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This article is about the warship. For other meaning, see destroyer (disambiguation).

In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast and maneuverable yet long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet or battle group and defend them against smaller, short-range attackers (originally torpedo boats, later submarines and aircraft). At the beginning of the 21st century, destroyers are the heaviest surface combatants in general use, with only two nations (the United States and Russia) operating cruisers and none operating battleships or battlecruisers.


Genesis of the destroyer

The destroyer originated in Britain and Japan in the last years of the 1880s, and became firmly established after the Chilean Civil War of 1891 and in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). In those conflicts, a new type of ship proved to be devastatingly effective—the swift, small torpedo-boat invented by John Ericsson. These small boats had speed greater than that of the larger ships, and could dash in close to them, loose their torpedoes, and dash away.

While normally a small, short-range boat of this sort would be easily destroyed long before getting into range, they could be operated within a fleet with larger ships as long as the fleet was close to base. In this case the defending force had to choose which set of targets to attack: the larger ships which they were built to counter, or the smaller torpedo boats which were charging in to attack. Yet this one-two punch cost almost nothing to the attacker, as the small torpedo boats were very inexpensive.

The world's navies recognized the need for a counter weapon and developed the torpedo-boat destroyer. The basic idea was to have a screen of ships that were as fast as the torpedo boats, but armed with guns instead of torpedoes. They would operate at a distance from the main fleet of capital ships to keep the torpedo-boats from ever getting into torpedo firing range.

However it was clear even at the time that this concept had problems of its own. The ship would indeed be capable of holding off an attack by torpedo boats (which typically have no guns of their own), but while operating away from the fleet they would be easy targets for any other capital ship. Thus they were often given torpedoes of their own.

Another problem was that the torpedo-boats were short ranged and thus easy and cheap to produce. However the destroyers had the problem of needing to operate as a screen for the fleet. This required them to have the speed and range of the battleships, so destroyers were often much larger than the boats they were designed to counter.

First designs

The first effective design of a torpedo-boat destroyer emerged in 1885 with the Japanese Kotaka, a Japanese-designed, but British-built, torpedo-boat with expanded capabilities and performances, which "was the forerunner of torpedo-boat destroyers that appeared a decade later" (Kaigun, David C. Evans). Designed and ordered in 1885, she was transported in parts to Japan, where she was assembled and launched in 1887. She was armed with four 1-pounder (37mm) quick-firing guns and four torpedo tubes, reached 19 knots, and at 203 tons, was the largest torpedo boat yet designed. In her trials in 1889, Kotaka demonstrated that she could go beyond a role of coastal defense, and was capable of following larger ships on the high seas. The Yarrow shipyards, builder of the parts for the Kotaka, "considered Japan to have effectively invented the destroyer" (Howe).

The Spanish Navy's Destructor (1886)
The Spanish Navy's Destructor (1886)

Almost immediately after the order of the Kotaka was placed, Fernando Villaamil of the Spanish Navy also placed an order for a torpedo-boat destroyer in November 1885, with the British builder James and George Thompson, of Clydebank, also nearby the Yarrow shipyards. The ship, named Destructor was laid down at the end of the year, launched in 1886, and commissionned in 1887, thereby becoming the first torpedo-boat destroyer to be completed. Her displacement was 380 ton, and she was equipped with triple expansion engines generating 3,800 HP, for a maximum speed of 22.6 knots. She was armed with 1 canon Hontoria of 90 mm, 4 canons Nordenfeldt of 57 mm, 2 Hotchkiss machine guns of 37 mm and 3 Schwartzkopff torpedo tubes. Her complement was 60 men.

The next effective design of torpedo boat destroyer, with the range and speed to keep up with battleships, was the Havock class of two ships of the Royal Navy, developed in 1892 under the newly appointed Third Sea Lord Rear Admiral John A. "Jackie" Fisher, and launched in 1893. The Havock had a 240 tons displacement, a speed of 27 knots, and was armed with a single 12-pounder (76mm) gun, three 6-pounders (57mm), and three 46cm torpedo tubes.

The torpedo boat destroyer later on took over the role of the smaller torpedo boats, performing torpedo attacks on fleets, such as the devastating Japanese attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur at the opening of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, and attacks in the Pacific theatre of World War II.

World War I

Torpedo Boat destroyers grew in size and effectiveness in the early part of the 20th century. Innovations such as turbine propulsion, oil-fired rather than coal-fired boilers, and longer ranged "heater" torpedoes, led to effective ships being designed by Britain and Germany.

The threat evolved by World War I with the perfection of the submarine. In general, the submarine, or U-boat, of the era was nothing more than a submersible torpedo boat. This change allowed the submarine to hide from the guns of the destroyers and close to firing while underwater. This led to an equally rapid destroyer evolution during the war, which was quickly equipped with depth charges and sonar for countering this new threat.

At the end of the war the state of the art was represented by the British V and W class destroyer.

Inter War

Japan's Fubuki destroyer (1928).
Japan's Fubuki destroyer (1928).

Destroyer construction continued during the inter war period initially with designs evolved from the British V & W Class. A major innovation came with the Japanese Fubuki class destroyers or special type of 1928, which introduced enclosed turrets capable of anti-aircraft fire and the 24-inch (60cm) oxygen fuelled Type 93 torpedo. Most other nations replied with similar larger type ships examples include the US Porter-class destroyer leader and the British Afridi-class destroyer (commonly called "Tribals")

The submarine threat had been insufficiently realized, however; while sonar (or ASDIC)was fitted, training in its use was indifferent. Weapons to attack submarines changed little, and ahead-throwing weapons, a need recognized in WW1, had made no progress.

World War II

By World War II the threat had evolved once again. Submarines were more effective, and aircraft had become important weapons of naval warfare; once again the fleet destroyers were unequipped for combatting these new targets. They were re-equipped with new anti-aircraft guns, radar, and ahead-throwing ASW weapons, in addition to their existing light guns, depth charges, and torpedoes. By this time the destroyers had become large multi-purpose vessels, expensive targets in their own right rather than expendable vessels for the protection of others. This led to the introduction of smaller and cheaper specialized anti-submarine warships by the Royal Navy: corvettes and later frigates, while the US introduced destroyer escorts.

Post War

Some conventional destroyers were completed in the late 1940's and 1950's which built on wartime experience. These vessels were significantly larger than wartime ships and had fully automatic main guns, unit Machinery, radar, sonar, and antisubmarine weapons such as the Squid mortar. Examples include the British Daring-class, US Forrest Sherman-class, and the Soviet Kotlin-class destroyers.

Some World War II-vintage ships were modernised for anti-submarine warfrare, and to extend their service lives, to avoid having to build (expensive) brand-new ships. Examples include the US FRAM I programme and the British Type 15 frigate.

The Missile Age

The advent of surface-to-air (SAM) missiles and surface-to-surface (SSM) missiles, such as the Exocet, in the early 1960's changed naval warfare. Guided missile destroyes (DDG in the US Navy) were developed to carry these weapons and protect the fleet from air, submarine and surface threats. Examples include the Soviet Kashin-class, the British County-class, and the American Charles F. Adams-class.

Modern US destroyers

Modern Destroyers
Modern Destroyers

The United States commissioned its first destroyer, USS Bainbridge, Destroyer No. 1, in 1902. In the US Navy, destroyers operate in support of carrier battle groups, surface action groups, amphibious groups and replenishment groups. Destroyers (with a DD hull classification symbol) primarily perform anti-submarine warfare duty while guided missile destroyers (DDGs) are multi-mission (anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, and anti-surface warfare) surface combatants. The relatively-recent addition of cruise missile launchers has greatly expanded the role of the destroyer in strike and land-attack warfare. As the expense of heavier surface combatants has generally removed them from the fleet, destroyer tonnage has grown (a modern Arleigh Burke-class destroyer has the same tonnage as a World War II light cruiser). Arleigh Burke is billed by her builders, the Bath Iron Works, as ton-for-ton the most powerful warship in history.

Two classes of destroyers are currently in use by the US Navy: the Spruance class and the Arleigh Burke class. The Zumwalt class were planned to replace them; on November 1, 2001, the US Navy announced the issuance of a revised Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Future Surface Combatant Program. Formerly known as DD 21, the program will now be called DD(X) to more accurately reflect the program purpose, which is to produce a family of advanced technology surface combatants, not a single ship class. DD(X) is no longer called Zumwalt class, and is much larger than traditional destroyers, being nearly three thousand tons heavier than a Ticonderoga-class cruiser. It will potentially employ advanced weaponry and an all-electric Integrated Power System.

Modern Royal Navy destroyers

Type 45 (artist's conception)
Type 45 (artist's conception)

The Royal Navy's first destroyers were the Havock-class destroyers of 1893. The Royal Navy currently operates 8 ships of the Type 42 class. The destroyers (as well as frigates) are, as always, the workhorses of the fleet, the former optimised for air defence and the latter for surface and subsurface warfare. They are equally at home in large task groups or on independent operations which may include sanctions enforcement, humanitarian relief or anti-drug patrols. British destroyers (of recent times) have an average displacement of around 5,000 tonnes, and are armed with a mixture of guns and missiles including 114 mm (4.5 inch) Mk 8 guns, Sea Dart Missiles, 20 mm Close range guns, Vulcan Phalanx close in weapons system (CIWS), anti submarine torpedo tubes.

The current Royal Navy destroyers are to be replaced by the new Type 45 Daring Class from 2006 onwards. A class of 12 ships is envisaged, with an entire programme budget of £6 billion. Displacing around 7,200 tons, they will be equipped with the UK variant of the Principal Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS). Design and construction of the first ships is to be split between BAE Systems and Vosper Thornycroft under the overall project management of BAE systems. Two of the ships will be assembled at Scotstoun, by BAE Systems and the other by Vosper Thornycroft at a new shipbuilding facility at Portsmouth Naval Yard.

See also


  • "Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941", David C. Evans, Mark R.Peattie, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland ISBN 0870211927
  • "The Origins of Japanese Trade Supremacy: Development and Technology in Asia from 1540 to the Pacific War", Christopher Howe, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226354857
  • "The Atlantic Campaign", Dan van der Vat.

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