Navy

How Does A US Navy Ship Get Its Name?

What are the rules and traditions and why is a civilian in charge of the naming process?

The pride of the United States, the country’s Naval Service, is one of the mightiest navies in the in the world - jostling with the People's Republic of China for dominance in terms of size of fleet.

It may not be as old as the Royal Navy, but what the US Navy lacks in age, it makes up for in firepower and personnel.

With a fleet consisting of 246 commissioned ships, as well as more than 300,000 beating hearts on active duty and 100,000 in ready reserves, the US Navy is unmatched.

Last year the US Navy celebrated its 244th birthday.

Americans have the British to thank for the establishment of their navy. At the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, when our nowadays allies were fighting for their independence from the British Crown, two armoured vessels were purchased by the Continental Congress to attack British ships. And thus, the beginnings of the US Navy were born.

After the US won its independence, the naval service was briefly disbanded, returning its officers and crewmen to civilian life. But with its sea-born commerce constantly disrupted by pirates, it was not long until the young independent nation realised that it needed a navy to protect its two coastlines.

In 1794, a permanent standing US Navy was created by President Washington and has not stopped growing since.

George Washington had several ships named after him. The most recent was a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier commissioned in 1992. Five ships were named after the Father of the Nation (as well as the navy) while he was still alive. Then throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the US Navy refrained from naming ships after a living person.

That changed in 1973 when an aircraft carrier was named after Carl Vinson, a Congressman from Georgia. Since then, at least 21 US military ships have been named after persons who were living at the time the name was announced. The most recent instance occurred on May 6, 2019, when the US Navy announced that it was naming the destroyer DDG-133 after former Senator Sam Nunn.

The naming of ships after national heroes and influential figures has been one of the US Navy’s most honoured traditions. However, the rule on whether the hero can be alive has changed over time.

Naming customs have evolved, with many exceptions permitted throughout the decades. But who makes the ultimate call?

USS George Washington

Who Names US Navy Ships?

The Secretary of the Navy has been responsible for naming ships since 1819.

Guidance can be received from Congress and the President and sometimes members of the public are encouraged to make suggestions. However, the Secretary makes the final call.

By law, the role of the Secretary of the Navy must belong to a civilian at least five years removed by military service.

Kenneth Braithwaite has held the position since May 2020. The Secretary has statutory authority to “conduct all the affairs of the Department of the Navy” which include the important role of naming Navy ships.

USS Caroline
Virginia-class Submarine USS Caroline. Credit : Chris Oxley US Navy. Copyright: ©2011 Huntington Ingalls Industries

Ship Naming Rules At A Glance

For commissioned ships, as well as ships currently being procured, naming rules can be summarized as follows:

The Virginia-Class Submarine

The nuclear-powered cruise missile fast-attack submarines are the latest addition to the United States' underwater warfare arsenal. Incorporating the latest in stealth and intelligence gathering, the Virginia-class subs are expected to be acquired through 2043 and will remain in service until the 2070s.

As the flagship vessels of the US Navy fleet, they have the honour of being named after States.

Aircraft Carriers

The US Navy has 21 commissioned aircraft carriers and three in reserve. In the next few years, 18 new aircraft carriers will be added to the US fleet.

The naming patterns of currently commissioned aircraft carriers have not followed a specific pattern.

Eight have been named after US presidents including Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ronald Reagan, as well as Harry Truman, the man responsible for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.

The Navy has recently announced that out of the newly planned aircraft carriers, 10 more will be named after US presidents and two after members of Congress. 

The only Congressman in the past to have had an aircraft carrier named after him was Carl Vinson, recognising his contribution to the expansion of the US Navy in the 20th century.

Other influential figures to have received the honour include Pacific Fleet commander Chester W. Nimitz who had a class of aircraft carriers named after him. Within the Nimitz-class is USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier named after the Democratic Senator from Mississippi.

Aircraft carriers from the Wasp-class that were commissioned in the late 1980s until 2009, have had names such as USS Iwo Jima and USS Bataan after important World War Two battles. Others have sported names laden with historic connotations such as USS Boxer, the sixth US ship to bear the name of the original HMS Boxer, which was captured from the British during the War of 1812.   

Commemorating historical victories such as the aforementioned capture of a British ship in 1812 may have been popular in the past, however, there has recently been a shift towards striving for diversity in not only military installation names, but also those of US Navy vessels too.

On January 20, 2020, at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ceremony, the US Navy announced that a planned aircraft carrier, would be named for Doris Miller, an African American enlisted sailor who received the Navy Cross for his actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The ship will be laid down in 2023 and commissioned in 2030.

USS John C. Stennis
USS John C. Stennis Credit: Kenneth Abbate US Navy

Destroyers

Destroyers are named after deceased members of the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, including Secretaries of the Navy.

Frigates

Previous classes of US Navy frigates, like destroyers, were generally named for naval leaders and heroes.

The US Navy has not yet announced a naming rule for its planned new class of FFG(X) frigates, the first of which was funded in 2020.

Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs)

Littoral Combat Ships have been named for regionally important US cities and communities.

Amphibious Assault Ships

Amphibious Assault Ships are named after important battles in which US Marines played a prominent part, and for famous earlier US Navy ships that were not named after battles.

San Antonio (LPD-17) Class Amphibious Ships

Similarly to Amphibious Assault Ships, the San Antonio class are being named after major US cities and communities, with a focus on those attacked on September 11, 2001.

John Lewis (TAO-205) Class Oilers

In 2012, the US Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan announced that the previous Kaiser-class of oilers would be replaced by 17 double-hulled vessels. The design has yet to be decided, but the name has however been designated.

The new class of oilers will be named after John Lewis, a Congressman and life-long civil rights hero. The lead ship will be the USNS John Lewis (T-AO-205).

The other 16 vessels in that class will be named after people who fought for civil and human rights.

Expeditionary Fast Transports (EPFs)

EPFs are named after small US cities.

Expeditionary Transport Docks (ESDs) And Expeditionary Sea Bases (ESBs)

ESDs and ESBs are named after famous names or places of historical significance to US Marines.

Navajo (TATS-6) Class Towing, Salvage And Rescue Ships

This new class will be able to perform a variety of tasks such as rescue, salvage, oil spill clean ups and humanitarian missions, due to its wide area search and surveillance capabilities. They will be named after prominent Native Americans or Native American tribes.

USS Boxer
USS Boxer Credit: Michael T. Eckelbecker US Navy

Evolution Of Naming Conventions Over Time

The US Navy is set on modernising itself and that includes revising the ways in which it names vessels in its mighty fleet.

When asked how the US Navy will name its ships in the future, a spokesperson for Naval History and Heritage Command said:

“It seems safe to say that the evolutionary process of the past will continue; as the fleet itself changes, so will the names given to its ships.

"It seems equally safe, however, to say that future decisions in this area will continue to demonstrate regard for the rich history and valued traditions of the United States Navy.”

Naming conventions continue to evolve over time, for example, attack submarines were once named after fish, then later after cities, and most recently after states. While cruisers on the other hand followed a different naming trajectory ... they were once named after cities, later after states and most recently after famous battles.

It is important to remember that whatever ideas members of the public, congressmen or even the President may have on the naming process of US Navy ships, at the end of the day that decision lays entirely with the Secretary of the Navy. Their word is final.

This sentiment was echoed in a US Navy report to Congress which stated that naming rules and traditions will change over time “as every Secretary makes their own interpretation of the original naming convention.”

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