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Naming Ships

The procedures and practices involved in Navy ship naming are the products of evolution and tradition, rather than of legislation. In the United States, ships are regarded as female, while Russian ships were considered male. More recently, the US Navy has decided to defer to the Associated Press style guide, and refer to ships as "it" - a practice that may improve the post-service employment opportunities of Navy News Service writers, but that does nothing to instill a sense of tradition in the sea services.

The names for new ships are personally decided by the Secretary of the Navy. Ship name recommendations are conditioned by such factors as the name categories for ship types now being built, as approved by the Secretary of the Navy; the distribution of geographic names of ships of the Fleet; names borne by previous ships which distinguished themselves in service; names recommended by individuals and groups; and names of naval leaders, national figures, and deceased members of the Navy and Marine Corps who have been honored for heroism in war or for extraordinary achievement in peace.

On 17 July 1920 the US Navy went to the modern alpha-numeric numbering system. The US Navy's system of alpha-numeric ship designators and associated hull numbers was for several decades a unique method of categorizing ships of all types: combatants, auxiliaries and district craft. Though considerably expanded over the years, this system remains essentially the same as when formally implemented in 1920. It is a very useful tool for organizing and keeping track of naval vessels, and also provides the basis for the identification numbers painted on the bows of most ships and sometimes on their sterns.

The hull number system's roots extend back to the late 1880s, when ship type serial numbers were assigned to most of the new warships of the emerging "Steel Navy". During the course of the next thirty years, these same numbers were combined with filing codes used by the Navy's clerks to create an informal version of the system that was put in place in 1920. Limited usage of ship numbers goes back even earlier, most notably to the "Jeffersonian Gunboats" of the early 1800s and the "Tinclad" river gunboats of the Civil War Mississippi Squadron.

It is important to understand that hull number letter prefixes are not acronyms, and should not be carelessly treated as abbreviations of ship type classifications. Thus, "DD" does not stand for anything more than "Destroyer". "SS" simply means "Submarine". And "FF", the post-1975 type code for "Frigate", most emphatically is not translated "fast frigate"!.

Starting at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Navy's ships were named in accordance with a system, tailored to ship types. Names of states, for example, were borne by battleships. Cruisers were named for cities while destroyers came to be named for American naval leaders and heroes, as today's destroyers are still named. Starting in 1931 submarines were named for "fish and denizens of the deep." As World War II ship construction programs included new types of ships requiring new name sources; and other classes required a modification of existing name sources to meet a perceived shortage of "appropriate" names. Mass-produced antisubmarine patrol and escort ships were named in honor of members of the naval service killed in action in World War II. Some were named for destroyers lost in the early stages of that war. Ships lost in wartime were normally honored by having their names reassigned to new construction. During World War II the names of individuals were once again assigned to aircraft carriers.

A Confusion of Names

Over time, this system has evolved beyond recognition, due in part to the evolution of modern ships. Today's "destroyers" such the DDG-51 class are nearly as large as the Battleships of the early 20th Century. Although the absence of armor has reduced displacement by a factor of four, a modern "destroyer" is only a few dozen feet shorter than what passed for a capital ship for much of the 20th Century, and modern ships surely make up in firepower, speed, and sensor capabilities what they may lack in raw tonnage. Hence names that may have sufficed for ships of a particular class decades ago may no longer do justice to the magnificence of their current counterparts.


Badly Named Ships

The lack of discipline in distinguishing between the quick and the dead has been utterly overwhelmed in recently years by the promiscuous distribution of names among various classes of ships. One of the chief benefits of the classical naming system that flourished during the Second World War was the precision with which the name of a ship defined the ship's class, no small matter with a Navy boasting thousands of ships. The elegance of the system in which battleships were named for states, battle-cruisers for territories, large cruisers for large cities and light cruisers for small cities is difficult to exceed. But as the 600-ship Navy has evolved into the 300-ship Navy, it would seem that a presumption has arisen that one should be on a first-name basis with each ship of the fleet, and that no further introductions should be required.

Half a century ago, there would be no doubt that a ship named after a state of the Union was a battleship, whereas today a ship with such a name might be whatever class of ship found favor with the Navy at the moment. This situation has reached absurd proportions with the SSN-21 class, the three units of which are named after a denizen of the deep, a state of the Union, and a President. This problem is not entirely an esthetic one, though the esthetics are difficult to ignore. As the Navy is increasingly called upon to operate in a joint environment, the services' increasingly confusing ship nomenclature will only compound interoperability problems [indeed, one may wonder how many Army and Air Force personnel are aware that there is, in principle, some system by which the Navy names its various ships].

Badly Named Ships
ComissionedProblem[s]AlternateConsolation
SSN 21Seawolf17 Jul 1997
  • Taxonomy violation
    [denizen of the deep,
    rather than a city or a state]
  • Delawarenone
    SSN 23 Jimmy Carter19 Feb 2005
  • Living Person
  • Taxonomy violation
    [distinguished American,
    rather than a city or a state]
  • New JerseyDDG-1000
    post mortem
    CVN-77 George H.W. Bush10 Jan 2009
  • Living Person
  • Saratogalet history judge
    DDG 108Wayne E. MeyerFall 2009
  • Living Person
  • JASON L. DUNHAMDDG-1000
    post mortem
    LPD-21New York2009
  • Taxonomy ambiguity
    [possibly a State,
    rather than a city]
  • New York CityN/A
    LHA-6America2013
  • Taxonomy violation
    [aircraft carrier,
    rather than famous Marine Corps battle]
  • Al Anbar ProvinceN/A
    CVN-78Gerald R. Ford2014
  • Living Person
  • Lexingtonlet history judge
    SSN-785John WarnerOct 2015
  • Living Person
  • Taxonomy violation
    [distinguished American,
    rather than a city or a state]
  • MassachusettsDDG-1000
    post mortem



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