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Monday 1 June 2015

WARSHIPS OF THE PAST: Virginia class nuclear-powered cruisers of the United States Navy

Written by D-Mitch

USS Virginia (CGN-38) lead ship of the Virginia class nuclear-
powered cruisers, prior her refit in the '80s.
Elegant and heavily armed warships, the Virginia-class nuclear-powered guided-missile cruisers 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 United States Navy until the mid-to-late 1990s. A fifth warship, the CGN-42, was canceled before being named or laid down. 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-class aircraft carrier. Their main mission was as air-defense ships, though they did have excellent flagship facilities, capabilities as anti-submarine (ASW) ships, surface-to-surface warfare (SSW) ships, and in gun and missile bombardment of shore targets.

The double ended Virginia class cruiser with her flight deck as it was before the refit.
USS Mississippi (CGN-40)
The Virginia class cruisers were built as improved versions of California class nuclear-powered cruisers and they share similar layout. The main difference was the new Mark 26 twin-arm launcher instead of the Mk 13 launcher of the California class ships and the absence of the ASROC launcher. The Mk 26 could launch also ASROC rockets except the Tartar surface-to-air missiles (SAM) which were replaced by the SM-1 SAM later on (the latter where replaced by the even more advnaced SM-2 SAM) and thus a separate ASROC launcher was not needed. The elimination of the separate facilities for ASROC enabled the hull to be shortened by 3.3m. The introduction of the SM-2MR which needs target illumination only in the terminal phase enabled the two forward SPG-51 trackers/illuminators of the Californias to be eliminated and thus reducing top weight. Moreover, in comparison with Californias, the new vessels had a hangar to accommodate one helicopter. This helicopter hangar was beneath the quarterdeck, a quite unusual feature. A lift transferred the helicopter from the flightdeck to the hangar. The helicopter hangar measured 12.8m x 4.3m and was served by an electro-mechanical elevator covered by a telescopic hatch. This arrangement in a ship other than an aircraft carrier was the first (and last) since the De Moines class cruisers of the '40s. In general the ships of the class had similar (and sometimes improved electronics) with the California class, especially after the refits of both classes. The ships of the class also had limited armor around important parts. Specifically, one inch Kevlar plastic armor was installed around combat information center, magazines, and machinery spaces.

Modified photo of a Virginia class cruiser of the U.S. Navy. For a high resolution image click here.
A Sea King helicopter operating above
the USS Mississippi (CGN-40).
Photo: Robert Scoggin, US Navy
USS Arkansas (CGN-41) cruiser
after her refit in 1986.
Photo: Charon, US Navy
During the ships' refit in the late 1980's, the Virginia class cruisers received gradually the SM-2 MR (RIM-66J) SAM that replaced the SM-1 (SM-2 has  double the range of SM-1, about 80km range), two Phalanx close in weapon systems (CIWS), two quadruple Harpoon launchers and Tomahawk cruise missiles (known as Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles - TLAM) in two armored box quad launchers installed at the flightdeck. The Tomahwak missiles were installed after a decision was taken to remove the helicopter from the ships' equipment as the Virginias were encountering problems with the elevators and in keeping the hangars watertight. Therefore, the capability of the ships to carry a Kaman SH-2 Seasprite LAMPS (Light Airborne Multipurpose System) helicopter either in the hangar or stationed at the deck, it was eliminated. Their electronics and sensors also were upgraded or replaced by more modern ones (such as the AN/SPS-49 radar, although USS Virginia kept the older AN/SPS-40).
Loading a training round in the magazine
of the aft Mark 26 missile launcher of
USS Arkansas (CGN-41).
Loading arm door in the magazine of the
aft Mk 26 launcher of the USS Arkansas
(CGN-41) cruiser.

BGM-109 Tomahawk TLAM is launched toward a target in Iraq from a Mark 143 Armored Box Launcher (ABL) of USS Mississippi (CGN-40).
Reload of Tomahawk launcher aboard
the USS Arkansas (CGN-41).
Mk 32 torpedo launcher of a
Virginia class cruiser.
USS Virginia after her refit
The USS Virginia (CGN-38) after her
refit in the '80s.
Mk 45 gun firing. Notice the Harpoon
launchers and the Mk 26 launcher.

Virginia and Mississippi served with the Atlantic Fleet and Texas and Arkansas with the Pacific Fleet. Two proposals for the construction of modified Virginia cruisers fitted with Aegis system were cancelled in 1979 and 1983 respectively. Planned Refueling Complex Overhauls were cancelled in the early 1990s due to the expense of maintaining the nuclear propulsion components and the requirement for high manpower (Virginias had a crew of about 600 men!), and the ships were all decommissioned after a relatively brief period of service averaging somewhat less than two decades. Thus, the Arkansas, the last of the class that was commissioned in 1980 with a life expectancy of 38 years, though it was decommissioned in 1998 after less than half that period in service.

USS Mississippi (CGN-40). Photo: Alexander C. Hicks
USS Virginia (CGN-38) cruiser


USS Mississippi (CGN-40). Photo: Alexander C. Hicks

USS Texas (CGN-39) leads USS Princeton
while flying the state flag of Texas.
USS Arkansas (CGN-41) at sea in 1985.

USS Mississippi executing a turn. Photo: D.E. Erickson
The early retirement of the Virginia class cruisers was criticized by some circles that time. They were new, modern ships; given a New Threat Upgrade electronics overhaul, they would have been well-suited to modern threats. They had rapid-fire Mk 26 launchers that 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 missiles' fins prior to launch. Nevertheless, the Virginias, with their Mk 26 missile launchers and magazines, were incapable of carrying the SM-2ER long-range surface-to-air missile, being restricted to the SM-2MR medium-range surface-to-air missile. This was a significant limitation in their capabilities. Another weakness was the loss of LAMPS helicopters, due to the installation of Tomahawk cruise missile launchers.

USS Arkansas (CGN-41) cruiser in 1985. Photo: Dostie
USS Texas (CGN-39) prior her refit

USS Arkansas (CGN-41) in 1994

USS Texas (CGN-39), third ship in the class

USS Mississippi (CGN-40) underway
in the Suez Canal in 1990

The Virginia class cruisers were the last nuclear-propelled surface ships (other than aircraft carriers) to be built by the United States Navy. In 1999, one year later than the decommissioning of the last ship of the class USS Arkansas in 1998, their two older cousins, the Californias, were retired and thus the era of nuclear-powered surface combatants of US Navy ended.

USS Virginia (CGN-38) cruiser (1976-1994)


  1. your captions on photos are wrong USS Texas was CGN39 and USS Mississippi was CGN40 I am a plank owner EN3 John WAllace

  2. I have a minor correction for you - the Virginias were commissioned as Tartar/SM-1 ships and did not receive SM-2 until the NTU in the late 1980's (indeed, SM-2 production didn't even start until 1980 - 4 years after Virginia commissioned), so the loss of two illuminators was indeed a problem.

    1. You are right, thank you so much for the correction! I will update the article asap.

  3. These nuclear cruisers seem like they could be a good platform for the electromagnetic rail gun that the USA Navy is now not going to commission. What a loss. With that gun the USA could put Naval gun fire 150 miles inland and reduce the number of expensive sorties in a sea attack. Why isn't this being explored?

  4. Is it me or does it appear as though the navy has wasted a lot of time and an enormous amount of money on failed programs over the last decade. Hence the rail gun, LCS, A-12,DD? Zumwalt, reduced fleet and air wing size in the face of Chinese Naval build-up, still no stealth capability on the carrier deck. Must I go on. What's with navy leadership and acquisition?

  5. Thanks for the pictures. One minor correction; the USS Arkansas picture sixth from the top was not in 1985, but 1986 while on deployment with USS Enterprise. I was onboard, we were passing in review for then Vice President George H. W. Bush, who was onboard Enterprise at the time.

    1. Τhank you for the correction! Do you have photos of the ship you served? Could you contact me at