A cruiser is a type of warship. The term has been in use for several hundred years, and has had different meanings throughout this period. During the Age of Sail, the term cruising referred to certain kinds of missions - independent scouting, raiding or commerce protection - fulfilled by a frigate or sloop, which were the cruising warships of a fleet.
The term "cruiser" or "cruizer" was first commonly used in the 17th century to refer to an independent warship. "Cruiser" meant the purpose or mission of a ship, rather than a category of vessel. However, the term was nonetheless used to mean a smaller, faster warship suitable for such a role. In the 17th century, the ship of the line was generally too large, inflexible, and expensive to be dispatched on long-range missions (for instance, to the Americas), and too strategically important to be put at risk of fouling and foundering by continual patrol duties.
In the middle of the 19th century, cruiser came to be a classification for the ships intended for this kind of role, though cruisers came in a wide variety of sizes, from the small protected cruiser to armored cruisers that were as large (although not as powerful) as a battleship.
By the early 20th century, cruisers could be placed on a consistent scale of warship size, smaller than a battleship but larger than a destroyer. In 1922, the Washington Naval Treaty placed a formal limit on cruisers, which were defined as warships of up to 10,000 tons displacement carrying guns no larger than 8 inches in calibre. These limits shaped cruisers until the end of World War II. The very large battlecruisers of the World War I era were now classified, along with battleships, as capital ships.
In the later 20th century, the obsolescence of the battleship left the cruiser as the largest and most powerful surface combatant (excluding aircraft carriers). The role of the cruiser varied according to ship and navy, often including air defense, commerce raiding, and shore bombardment. The U.S. Navy in the Cold War period built guided-missile cruisers primarily designed to provide air defense, while the navy of the USSR built battlecruisers with heavy anti-ship missiles designed to sink NATO carrier task forces.
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