10 January 2015

Ships of the Line: Medium and Light Cruisers

Much like some classifications of cars, some types of naval warships often get ranked by popularity. Battleships, battlecruisers, aircraft carriers, attack subs, and the kick-ass dreadnoughts are normally the most popular in media and some of the most revered naval vessels. Making these popular naval warships similar to Lamborghini, Ferrari, or Bugatti. This creates a difference between those red-blooded exotics and the normal cars of us normal people, like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and the Mazda 6. This also creates a difference between the very popular types of naval warships and the vessels were are talking about today: the light and medium cruisers. These type of cruisers are more common than the battleship or carrier, but are often overlooked, and are outranked in popularity by their own bigger brother: the heavy cruiser. In this blogpost in the continuing Ships of the Line serial, we shall be looking at light and medium cruisers.

What is an Light Cruiser?
During the heyday of warships around World War One and World War Two, there was a number different types of warships, and light cruisers were among these, rounding out the more popular Dreadnought battleship. Light Cruisers were classificated by the London Treaty of 1936 as an cruisers with 6.1 inch guns and were sometimes called "light armored cruisers" that were designed for speed, and not a naval slug-fest. The first of the light cruiser was the 1878 HMS Mercury of the Royal Navy, and the German Gazelle class further defined the light cruiser classification in the 1890's. By World War One, most Light Cruisers were under 5,000 tons and mounted six inch guns as the main armament. The 2nd World War was the last gasp of glory for the light cruiser, were the demand for warships was at fever pitch. However, once the war was over, the demand for these types of cruisers dried up, and during the Cold War, the missile cruiser and the Destroyer classes took over.

The Light Cruiser of Today's Navies
Sadly, there is only a single light cruiser still in active naval service as of the writing of this blogpost, the Peruvian BAP Almirante Grau. This warship was sold to Peru in 1973 by the Royal Netherlands navy. The BAP Almirante Grau was originally the De Ruyter, built in 1939 and commissioned in 1953. This light cruiser has been modernized several times during its service life in the Peruvian Navy. Why are light cruiser no longer in service? This is due to the change in modern naval surface warfare which is more dependant on aircraft carrier and missile cruisers, and not an array of cruisers and battleships. The traditional role of the cruiser can be fulfilled by the frigates and destroyers.

The Curious Case of the "Medium Cruiser"
In the history of naval warships, there are a number of different types of cruisers, but none are classified as "medium cruiser". However, in the realm of the science fiction, medium cruiser do exist, and they are often seen in RPGs and fleet simulation games...so what's the deal with the disconnect? It could be that medium cruisers grew out of ignorance of standard naval classifications by the creators, and the title "medium cruisers" sounded good to them. Also, it seems logically that since there is heavy and light cruiser classes, it makes sense that there could be an medium cruiser classes sandwiched in between the light and heavy cruiser classifications. Certainly,  Star Wars and Star Trek wargames were the ones that put these types of fictitious warships into the minds of future creators, and they soon riffed off these creations, like myself.

The Future Combat Role of the Light/Medium Cruiser Classes
In any "normal" sci-fi space fleet organization, the heavy and missile cruisers are the most respected and valved among the cruiser warship classification, while the lesser two (light and medium) are regaled to patrol duties and border security. However, like much of the cruiser classes of any space navy, they are flexible and able to take on a variety of missions. These warships would be a multi-role, being retasked for patrol, escort, flank security.
In peacetime, light and medium cruisers could be used for patrol duty, short-range science/exploration missions, and even escort duty. Some of these cruisers could be used a training vessels for cadets. Then there is another use of light and medium cruisers: the wolf in sheep's clothing. Given the attitude towards light and medium cruisers, it could be possible to use their diminutive status as an advantage. Light or medium cruiser could be used to conceal a naval experimental testbed project vessel. Much like the Star of Milwaukee from the Dynamo Joe comics or the USS Pegasus from ST: TNG "The Pegasus". 

Would There be an  Hard Science Light/Medium Cruiser?
While most science fiction fleet based war-simulation games occur in a soft science universe (*cough* Star Trek *cough* Star Wars), and there can be any number of warship classes with all manner of jobs. But, if we examine the real world with real rules set down by Newton and Einstein, would there be light and/or medium cruisers in our future? I very seriously doubt the existence of medium cruiser. I guess you could up-arm and up-armor an light cruiser of some sort of civilian vessel to be an "medium cruiser", but it would not exist as its own independent class.
I could see a light cruiser class of warship that was designed to be an inter-solar system patrol and first-responder warship to hostile actions and disasters. By design and limitations, the light cruiser would be bound to a solar system, unlike its longer range brother, the heavy cruiser. Light Cruiser could compose the bulk of the "coast guard" of the colonies. These would be a cheaper warship, lightly armed with a limited armory of smaller KEW/DEW systems, and be able to be serviced by local resources. When and if an military action was undertaken inside the star system, these light cruisers would be serve along side the expeditionary taskforce. I've read that light cruisers could be vessels assembled by colonies for their own defense from material left over from their colony ships.    

What is the Hell is the Deal with Star Trek and Cruisers?!
When one examines the bulk of starships in the Star Trek universe, they are mostly cruisers, especially in the Federation, but why? Being a former Trekkie, I can only guess that cruiser classes offer a flexible platform of an agency like the Federation's Starfleet, where their main aim is not a military organization, but one of keeping the peace and exploration. Plus, the word cruiser is not committal and does not sound immediately military or aggressive like an Dreadnought or battlecruiser. Most of the Federation ships in service are classified as "starships" to dilute the waters further, and even pressed, canon Trek sources simply say, "oh, they're cruisers."  Some of it has to do with the attitude of Trek to not be about conflict and space battles, but a hopeful vision of the future. It took FASA and other Trek wargames to further develop the Federation line of starships. Either way, there are a shit ton of cruisers in Trek.    

The Light/Medium Cruiser of Science Fiction
Like many of the ship classes discussed in the Ships of the Line blogpost serial, the majority of the light and medium cruisers found in science fiction are in RPG, video games, and the occasional mainstream work. While light cruisers were an actually combat naval vessel that since has all but disappeared due to the changes in naval surface warfare, the medium cruiser of sci-fi is all but fantasy. Often the light and medium cruisers are used as fast attack elements of a space navy flotilla or as protection for more critical vessels, like space carriers and troop transport. Some RPG and video game players I know used these types of smaller warships similar to chess pawns, using them to push the offensive line and test the plans of the enemy.
While they compose most of the bulk of any large space fleet taskforce, these lower classification of cruisers are seen as unimportant and expansible. I often used light and medium cruiser as flanking units while my larger heavier warships engaged the enemy vessels. I won several Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat Simulator engagements with that tactic, but I lost much of my Reliant and Durrett class cruisers in the process. This is not just in the realm of Star Trek, but also in other works, and the smaller cruisers often are the foot soldiers of the fleet, and languish in the shadows finding little respect, while their bigger brothers, the heavy cruiser get the starring roles.     


The Republic Consular class Light Cruiser from the Star Wars Universe
Can you say, all style and no heart? The weakass Republic Consular class light cruiser was a symbol of a different time in the galaxy prior to the rise of the Sith and the Clone Wars when the Jedi and the Republic were still in power. This Corellian Engineering Corporation built government staship were designed specifically to transport Jedi and Republic personnel to hotspots around the galaxy in the spirit of solving intergalactic crisis peacefully. These were painted in the red hue of their diplomatic immunity status, and were lightly armed, if at all. In a crisis situation, these Republic cruiser could be used as neutral ground in negotiations with specialized salons, meeting rooms for all types of environments. After the Clone Wars broke out, the Consular class light cruiser was retrofitted for combat duties, from troop transport to being a frigate.
The Cruisers of the Citadel Council Members from the Mass Effect Universe
Cruisers are the defined as "middle weight class combatants" in the allied navies of the Citadel Council member races, and the Alliance Navy and the Turian cruisers were considered the "infantry" of any naval flotilla. These cruisers are mostly in the 500 meter length range with light armaments and are mostly used by the navies for patrol and security for the larger and more expensive Dreadnoughts. Losses of light cruisers were heavy during the Battle of the Citadel during the first Mass Effect game, and during the all-out Reapers invasion, Cruiser class warships were slaughtered.
When Shepard is attempting to make her way through the wreckage of Alliance HQ on Earth, an Systems Alliance light cruiser attacks an Reaper ship with little effect. This speaks to the ability of the light cruisers of the Systems Alliance Navy to be dual-atmosphere, and is could be used in planetary operations. All of the Alliance Navy light cruisers are named for Earth cities, but oddly, there is no class name known of these cruisers.

The Federation Constellation class Light Cruiser from the Star Trek Universe

One of the few Starfleet classes of starships seen in TNG that speak to the "in between years" spanning from the movies to TNG is the Constellation class light cruiser. This class was based around a modified saucer section from an Constitution class heavy cruiser, and was an "cheaper" design by Starfleet Operations and the production staff of TNG. This class of light cruiser was designed to be an short-range explorer vessel and serve as an light cruiser in military operations, which was rare in those years.
During military operations, the warp nacelle pylons could be mounted with twin torpedo launchers, allowing for the shaky class of starship to be an artillery vessel in a taskforce. As per most of the Starfleet during the Dominion War, these old vessels were pulled out of mothballs, and placed on the secondary line of fighting, as patrol and early warning vessels. Of course, the Constellation class came to fame due to the Stargazer mission under Captain Picard. This is one of the Federation starship classes that was different in the FASA RPG manuals and other more official publications. Some of these was design related, there was a difference in opinion about the role of the ships and their numbers. In the non-canon FASA ST:TNG Officer's Manual, there was 126 Constellation class built, but less than ten were construction according to the Star Trek: The Magazine.  

The Federation Saber class Light Cruiser from the Star Trek Universe
This is one of the more odd designs of Federation starships, and it very much of the modern Starfleet design that grew out of the bloody Battle of Wolf 359 and the continued Borg threat. The Saber class light cruiser looks different from the dorsal and side views. From the side, the Saber class looks more like some sort of large shuttle, and not in the typical Federation starship design. However, from the dorsal view, the Saber class was more compact, and reminds me of the old Soyuz class, an subclass of the Miranda class, this is more dramatic from the angled view, especially with the forward mounted shuttle bay. It is uncertain what happened to the Saber class during and after the Dominion War, but we do know that the class served during the war, and it suffered along its brethren

The UNSC Halcyon class Light(!) Cruiser from the HALO Universe
The first official class of UNSC Naval warships seen in the HALO universe was the massive Sulaco inspirited Halcyon class light cruiser that was seen in the original 2001 HALO: Combat Evolved game opening scenes. That vessel was the Pillar of Autumn and it was the vessel that escape the slaughter of Reach and carrying Cortana and the Master Chief to the discovery of the  first Halo ring. The Halcyon class was classified by Bungie as a light cruiser despite being 1170 meter long and 414 meters tall, and containing enough UNSC forces to mount an ground and air assault on Installation 04 against the Covenant. In addition, the Pillar of Autumn was heavily armed with an MAC cannon, Archer missile pods, and a number of 60mm point-defense cannons.
I was seemingly unaware that the Halcyon class was an light cruiser, and during a recently replay of the excellent HALO: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition over the holiday, I was shocked at the resources, size, and abilities of the Pillar of Autumn, and the rest of the Halcyon class for only being a light cruiser! I cannot believe that the Halcyon class is a light cruiser in the minds of most sci-fi fans unless the rest of the UNSC Navy has some seriously huge warships other than the common Charon class frigate. My guess that these vessels were misclassified by Bungie due to ignorance.    

The Klingon K'vort class Light Cruiser from Star Trek Universe
Since ST likes to create mottoes for their starships, the K'vort class should be "Necessity is the mother of invention", because its entire existence is owed to the lack of SFX budget on TNG. In one of the best TNG episodes of all time, "Yesterdays Enterprise", the alternate future Federation and Klingon Empire are at war, and for the studio to pull of the ship-to-ship combat scenes in the episode with the added expense of constructing the "C" Enterprise, the studio recycled the familiar Bird-of-Prey class scout, and renamed it the "K'vort" class cruiser. According to later information, the K'vort class was a larger, combat-minded variant of the familiar and smaller B'rel class scout, and was christened a light cruiser. This would allow the studio to pepper the old Bird-of-Prey ship in any episode that required a Klingon warship. This new aggressive and fast light cruiser was developed to fill the gaps between the old D-7 and the new Vor'cha class "attack cruiser" in the Klingon fleet.
During massive Klingon naval engagements, especially at the battle of Deep Space 9, the K'vort class was the rapid assault element, operating in packs. The speed of this small warship was to offset the unpowered shield grid and the light hull armor. When an enemy was able to lock on to the K'vort class, they were taken down with minimum effort. This factor made the K'vort class the assignment of newer warriors to the fleet, and/or warriors in disfavor of the high council. It is believed that the K'vort class is the most produced Klingon warship in service to their fleet during the 24th century. In the real-world, the K'vort class light cruiser was a creative answer to a familiar porblem on sci-fi TV shows: money. It is believed by Trek sites, that the K'vort class represents the majority of appearances of the Bird-of-Prey model in Trek shows. Since there is no really difference between the B'rel and the K'vort classes, they often referenced to as just "the Bird-of-Prey class".

The Imperial Strike class Medium Cruiser from Star Wars
To most, the Fleet of the Imperial government of the Star Wars universe, is comprised of Star Destroyer class warships and TIE fighters. However, there were other warships in service of the Empire, and one of the best was the Loronar constructed Strike class medium cruiser, coming in at 450 meters and armed with turbolasers and ion blasters. These vessels can carry a company of soldiers, some AT-ST and AT-AT walkers with some TIE fighters. During the reign of the Empire, the Strike class medium cruiser were patrol vessels and rounded out Imperial Fleet taskforces. While the Star Destroyer class was heavily expensive, the Striker class was cheaper and easy to produce, making it a common sight during the days of the Empire.

The Federation Centaur class Medium Cruiser from Star Trek: DS9
During the devastating Dominion War in the Alpha Quadrant from 2373-2375, the Federation was desperate to put starships on the frontlines. Losses had been great due to the Starfleet's philosophy of being an agency of exploration and not a military organization. During the war, the powerful Dominion had shown them the error of their ways. During the operation to retake Deep Space 9 space station and control the Bajoran Wormhole, Starfleet needed all ships, completed or not, into the fray. 
The Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards above Mars responded with a motley kitbash of medium cruisers, and one of them was the temporary Centaur class. This medium cruiser classification was armed with the normal array of phasers and photon torpedoes, and the vessel was assembled out of parts from the Excelsior class battlecruiser and possibly the Akira missile cruiser class, and  it was christened the "Centaur" class medium cruiser. During the Dominion War, Centaur class medium cruisers were on the line, and filled in the gaps in the Federation naval taskforces. It is believed that after the war ended, these kitbashed classes were disassembled.       

The Narn Regime Th'Loth class Light Cruiser from the Babylon 5 Universe
Given the budget of the Babylon 5 show, there was a limited amount of CGI starships that could be seen on-screen. The Narn Regime mainly used the excellent G'Quan class heavy cruiser, but if the starship combat computer game, Babylon 5: Into the Fire had been released by Sierra, than we would have seen more starships of the Narn, including the Th'Loth class. After the Narn were able to repel the Centauri Occupation, they attempted to get a fleet into space to defend themselves from another threat, and the Th'Loth light cruiser was one of the first. The only element developed by the newly formed Narn Regime was the shell that housed alien technology, from the weapons to the hyperspace drive, the Th'Loth class was a symbol of the Narn turning their enemy's weapons and tools against them.  

The Federation Steamrunner Class Light Cruiser from the Star Trek Universe
Here is a funky little design, and one of the more interesting Federation starships in a long time. The Steamrunner class light cruiser that was developed for the Battle of Sector 001 scenes in Star Trek: First Contact, and it was just another class of Federation starship in the chaos. Alex Jaeger at ILM developed the Steamrunner class for the movie, and was named for a song from the Fold Zandura band (never heard of them personally). After the Battle of Wolf 359, Starfleet Operations had to replace the losses and develop new ships in case the Borg came back.
While ships like the infamous Defiant class escort was underdevelopment, Starfleet Operations also saw the need for replacing the aging Miranda class light/medium cruiser class, and the Steamrunner was developed for that purpose. However, the vessel was called "ugly", and Starfleet Operations preferred the much more beautiful Intrepid class heavy cruiser. One element of this oddball class that is debated is if its an "heavy frigate" or light cruiser. The DS9 Technical Manual clearly states that the Streamrunner class is an light cruiser. In the Star Trek Armada game, the Steamrunner class is used as a long-range artillery vessel armed with tricobalt torpedo.

The Federation Norway Class Medium Cruiser from the Star Trek Universe
After the revolution of CGI SFX and the lower of costs in using these in productions both on TV and in the movies. This created more Starfleet starships began to show up on-screen, and the Norway and the Steamrunner were both forged out of the computer and not the model shop, both by the talent of Alex Jaeger. Once again, the Norway class medium cruiser was born out of the devastating Battle of Wolf 359 and the Borg Threat. Originally, the Norway class was designed to replace the aging Miranda class cruisers, but that aging vessels served along its replacements during the Dominion War.
The Norway class medium cruiser was first seen in the Battle of Sector 001 in the Star Trek: First Contact, and it had an powerful phaser beam emitter on the dorsal bow, and was seen used against the Borg cube. This class was used throughout the Dominion War, and it is possible that Federation designers took the inspiration of this class from early smaller Starfleet starships that were in use prior to the Earth-Romulan War.

The Federation Miranda class Light/Medium Cruiser from the  Star Trek Universe
During the days when there were few official canonized Federation starships, the Miranda class cruiser was one of the few, and had a starring role in the best Star Trek movie of all time. This caused the Miranda class to be a favor design among wargamers, comics, and game manuals, and the ship became known by a number of names. This caused the Miranda class to be shoehorned into the TOS time period. Officially, the USS Reliant was a member of the Miranda class medium cruiser, however, the FASA RPG listened the class as the "Reliant", and the noncanon 1991 Ships of the Starfleet: Volume One, there are several classes based around the Miranda base, including the Avenger and Knox, and some of them are light and medium cruisers. Most of them are different classes based on the "roll bar" used or if there is one at all.
Since the formation of Starfleet, there have been Miranda class type cruisers populating the ranks, like the 22nd century Intrepid class and the 23rd century Anton class. During the refit of Starfleet during the 2270's, the Miranda class was developed and became a fixture of Starfleet and Federation Space. While Starfleet wanted to replace the Miranda class cruiser during the 24th century, the Dominion War caused the Miranda class to be saved and put into another conflict. However, by the end of the war, the Miranda class survivors were few, and this was the last duty of the old lady.

Next Time on FWS...
In the next installment of the blog serial Forgotten Classics, FWS will exploring a hidden lost gem on the original Xbox and the Playstation 2: Battle Engine Aquila. This was 2003 mecha first-person shooter developed by the British gaming studio Lost Toys and published by ATARI. While the game was given solid reviews at the time, and placed on some of the "best of" lists for the PS2 and Xbox, the game was a commercial flop, forcing the closing of Lost Toys. I decided it was high time FWS cover one of my favorite titles on the original Xbox, so, I got onto Amazon, ordered a copy and dusted off my original Xbox for some retro fun.


  1. The halcyn class crusier is actually one of the smallest ships in the unsc . A lot of the most famous ships are huge as hell. And can create their own bases. And have a shitton of firepower , u rarely see any cus after the human covenant war ended in 2553 there were only 3 unsc frigates left. Yeah, humanity got fuked up

  2. Being a halo nut I thought I thought I should add a little more info in the Halcyon class and it's history. The halcyon's were put into service during the UNSC military build up do to the colonial insurrection, it's designer, designed a unique honeycomb hull but skipped out on the weapons (with only one MAC and six missile pods) and power generators which made the ship under powered. The ship was also costly to maintain due to the honeycomb hull. Later when the Marathon class heavy cruiser came out, ( which was better armed, better powered, could carry more trooped, and cheaper to maintain.) the UNSC chose to make it their main line cruiser. The only reason the few Halcyon class ships where kept on was due to the covenant war and that the UNSC needed every ship it could get.

  3. I'm surprised that no one has brought up that the reason the Pillar of Autumn is so heavily armed is because it was outfitted for a special Spartan mission which was never completed due to the Covenant attacking Reach before they could leave.

  4. Would there be a hard sci-fi light cruiser?

  5. A cruiser is one of the few designations that makes sense in a hard SF setting. An outright war is likely to be fought with torch missiles launched from opposite sides of the solar system. In a setting without torch drives there is more flexibility, but still no room for manned vessels. I look at this in a post on my own blog (http://sfworldbuilding.blogspot.com.au) But although combat ships are unlikely, scouts are needed to see if the ship the Martian Republic is building is a freighter or a warship, for example. In a hard sf universe, even one with torch missiles, trips to Mars or the Asteroids will be months or years, and so even a small scout is a fairly large vessel.

    William, could you do a post on combat in free fall? What weapons, tactics, and armour could be used when fighting in zero gravity and hard vacuum. Would there be hand to hand combat, power armour, or humanoid drones?


  6. If the cruisers are manned, they will probably be used for special ops. . That's the only real use to me for light & medium cruisers.

  7. I just reposted the blogpost with a "hard science light/medium cruiser section", I forgot to add it. Thanks for all of the great comments, especially about the UNSC!
    From the size of the UNSC warships, they must stripmine entire worlds for their heavy combat vessels! The scale of the UNSC Infinity is on par with the SW Executor and the ROBOTECH SDF-1 and SDF-3! Hell, the UNSC Infinity carries gunships in its belly! We will be discussing the SDF series and the Infinity in the "space control vessel" blogpost in a few years.
    By the way, Moran, great site! Will add to FWS sites!

  8. I am hoping to see a Hospital and Science Ships in the future of the line. Including the USS Pasteur

  9. Oh yes, you will. The non-combat vessels that populate science fiction space-going navies and space fleets will be profiled.
    And Moran, I will have a free-fall Zero-Gee combat blogpost put in the draft section. Thanks for the suggestion.

  10. This will be a little offtop but I think it will be an interesting addition to potential FWS post: http://www.pan-spatial.com/project-cas-1.html

  11. This a cool near-future endoatmospheric gunship/CAS design! I will have to add this to my helicopter/gunship blogpost

  12. Interesting entry there William, and the use of Medium/Light Cruisers in Sci-Fi is quite contrary to my initial view of such classes as escorts or something silly. Also useful of note in that Light Cruisers would be considered interplanetary patrol craft and not normally interstellar; a speculation that I think I might take advantage of in my own setting and its accompanying blog site. And that they're most commonly seen as an infantry-equivalent, most interesting indeed..... I'm starting to think that, when it comes to Hollywood style spaceship warfare, tactically these ship classes are utilized the same as with a squad or even a fireteam.

    As for my own ponderings on the whole "medium cruiser" inquiry, from what research I have done with naval classes as it pertains to a tabletop/wargaming viewpoint ( http://roleplaying.diraven.net/misc/alt_rules/ship_classes_and_types.html ), I didn't really see anything called a "Medium Cruiser". I always figured that a Heavy Cruiser was just a cruiser that was heavier in some way such as cargo, armor, or armament and a Light Cruiser being the reverse of that. With that logic in mind, is there such a thing as a "pure" Cruiser or does it have to have a Class "Type" attached to it?

  13. (Two Years too late)
    Concerning the Halcyon class Light Cruiser, I think Bungie hit it on the nail with it.
    While the size difference is negligible between the Halcyon and Marathon, the weapons load out is not, the Halcyon being armed with a single primary MAC (most likely light coil) and 6 Archer Missile Pods (360 missiles) while the Marathon is armed with two primary MACs (potentially heavy coil) and 30 Archer Missile Pods (1,800 missiles).
    These factors, combined with the Halcyon's heavier armor put her in line with the old armored cruisers, which were eventually folded into the Light Cruiser blanket along with Protected Cruisers.

    What is funny is that Halo's various authors and lore gods didn't re-brand the Valiant Super-Heavy Cruiser (1,518 metres long, armed with 1+ MACs and ~2,400 Archer missiles) a battlecruiser.

  14. Funny to think about how the UNSCs Halcyon class Light Cruiser is nearly four times longer than the Covenants Zanar-pattern/CRS class Light Cruiser and weights 57,89 times it's mass
    (Halcyon class = 11.000.000,00 metric tonnes;
    Zanar-pattern/CRS class = 190.000,00 metric tonnes)...