The Powhatan class ships were intended to serve as escorts for Yorktown class carriers on strike missions. Since the carriers carried only short-range area defense missiles, they were considered vulnerable to attack by smaller, more maneuverable vessels. If a carrier was accompanied by one or more smaller, heavily armed ships, the mission could be performed with a much lower risk of interference by enemy ships. Even before the launch of the EFTL-5 powered UES Krechet, engineers had begun developing a series of compact reactors for smaller ships. The first to enter service was the EFTL-6 in the Torsk class. Although smaller and lighter than it was also slightly less powerful. This was considered acceptable for border patrol ships, which were expected to operate in a limited geographic area. However, escorts for carriers had to be capable of sustained operations at high speeds for month-long missions into enemy territory.
The EFTL-8 was smaller and lighter but provided higher peak output levels for longer periods of time. Compared to earlier cruisers, Powhatan could be considerably smaller than earlier cruisers but have significantly improved performance, also the sleek lines were also strikingly different, she was long and thin where Krechet had been fat and round. Powhatan mounted a four nacelle system to improve maneuverability, and also used the new J-4A computer, which was a special version of the J-4 for smaller ships.
No carriers under their protection were lost to enemy action in the last 15 months of the war.
The long range, high speeds, and heavy weaponry of the class also made it useful in a wide range of other roles. By early 2159, Powhatans had largely superseded all other small cruisers in the roles of escorts, destroyers, scouts, and cruisers. Several ships were modified to perform intelligence missions deep within enemy territory. Even after the introduction of the Comet class in October 2158, the superior firepower of the Powhatans ensured that they continued in front line service. However, when peace came, a lack of space for scientific facilities meant that Powhatans had only limited use in the new Starfleet. They were replaced in 2185 by the more versatile Moskva class cruisers.
The POWHATAN-class escort USS PHAETON (CEM-18) is now on display at the Starfleet Museum.
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