Spruance and John Hancock (left) at Port Everglades, Florida, 1996. (N1601-JB-10/96-004)
Through the 1950s and ’60s, as technology struggled to catch up with the prospect that the next war might be a nuclear one, the active and reserve fleets were otherwise sufficient for the US Navy’s needs. Excepting the nuclear frigates, no destroyer keels were laid down for eight years following commencement of the last Belknaps in 1963.

By the 1970s, however, facing block obsolescence of its World War II classes after 25–30 years in operation, the Navy looked forward to a new anti-submarine platform. Well knowing that a fast task force escort’s value to the fleet meant maintaining station with carrier battle groups in any weather, designers conceived of the Spruance class as giants—16 feet longer and more than 15 per cent heavier than the Belknaps, with no fleet air defense or land attack capability but much room for growth. In the vision of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations 1970–74, these ships formed the “high” end of a “high-low” construction program.

The “low” end was quite different: an economical design that could be built in numbers sufficient to replace the World War II destroyers relegated to escort duty. “Design to cost” mitigated against anticipating future modifications, however, so unlike the Spruances, the resulting Oliver Hazard Perry class incorporated little margin for growth.

The 31 Spruances served through the 1980s and into the ’90s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its submarine threat, 24 were modified with Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) that gave them a strike capability. This newfound versatility kept them on the front line, still in excellent condition at the turn of the millenium. All were retired by the end of 2005, however—their careers shortened by the arrival in numbers of the Arleigh Burkes, which delivered more “bang for the buck.”

Surprisingly, it is the Perrys that continue to provide value to the Navy. Seaworthy enough for myriad secondary roles, many remain in commission today with no successors in sight, as shrinking budgets point toward rehabilitating rather than replacing them.