Here's how the Navy picks names for its ships — and how it breaks its own rules to do it

  • The Secretary of the Navy is charged with naming new US Navy ships, but there are rules to how those ships are named.
  • The Navy sometimes breaks the naming rules, which is itself a tradition, a new report from the Congressional Research Service says.
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The Secretary of the Navy is in charge of naming US Navy ships, under the direction of the president and with the guidance of Congress.

But it’s not just a random choice; there have long been rules and traditions concerning how ships are named.

On Monday, the Congressional Research Service released a report on the current rules for naming ships recently obtained by the Navy and those that will be procured in the future. The report outlines the rules for naming ships for Congress, but the ultimate decision rests with the Secretary of the Navy, so of course there are exceptions.

In fact, the report says exceptions to the naming rules are as much a Navy tradition as the naming rules themselves.

Learn about the Navy’s ship-naming rules – and the exceptions – below.

The Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines will replace the Ohio-class, starting to patrol in 2031. The first submarine has been named Columbia for the District of Columbia, but the Navy hasn’t publicly stated what the rule for naming this submarine class will be.

US Navy / DVIDSAn artist rendering of the future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.

The 12 submarines of the Columbia class are a shipbuilding priority. The Columbia-class Program Executive Office is on track to begin construction with USS Columbia (SSBN 826) in fiscal year 2021, deliver in fiscal year 2028, and on patrol in 2031.

The Navy doesn’t seem to have a rule for naming Seawolf-class attack submarines. The three submarines of this class still in service are the Seawolf, the Connecticut, and the Jimmy Carter — named for a fish, a state, and a president.

Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Dobbs / US Navy / DVIDSThe Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut moored at US Fleet Activities Yokosuka for a port visit.

Designed to be the world’s quietest submarines, Seawolf-class submarines are one of the Navy’s most advanced undersea warfighting platforms, and unique among US submarines.

The Jimmy Carter now serves the same secretive purpose as the USS Parche, the US Navy’s most decorated warship.

Virginia-class attack subs are supposed to be named for states, and all of them are — with the exception of the USS John Warner, a former Republican senator, a Marine, and Secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974.

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Charles Oki / US Navy / DVIDSThe Virginia-class fast attack sub USS Hawaii sails by the battleship Missouri Memorial and the USS Arizona Memorial while pulling into Joint Base Pearl Harbour-Hickam, June 6, 2019.

Step aboard the USS John Warner for a rare tour of one of the US Navy’s most dangerous warships.

Sources: US Navy, US Congress

Aircraft carriers are supposed to be named for US presidents. Of the 11 currently commissioned, eight are named for presidents and two for members of Congress (the USS John C. Stennis and the USS Carl Vinson). One, the first of the Nimitz-class, is named for Navy Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who was commander of the US Pacific Fleet and commander in chief in the Pacific during WWII.

Getty Images

Source: US Naval Academy

The Navy rule for destroyers is to name them after Navy, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps members who have died, or for Navy secretaries who have died. Adm. Arleigh Burke’s namesake class has broken this rule, though; one destroyer is named after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and one is named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

US NavyUSS Preble, USS Halsey, and USS Sampson underway behind the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf, March 24, 2018.

Source: US Navy

Littoral combat ships are supposed to be named for US cities, except when they’re not. The USS Gabrielle Giffords is named for former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who became a gun-reform activist after she was shot. The USS Independence’s namesake is exactly what it seems to be — the idea of independence.

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tristin Barth / US Navy / DVIDSThe Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Montgomery at Changi Naval Base in Singapore.

Source: US Navy

Amphibious assault ships are typically named after major battles or for famous earlier ships that were not named for battles. For example, the current USS Boxer is the sixth ship named for the British ship HMS Boxer, captured by the US Navy in the War of 1812.

Source: Center for the History of Medicine, Harvard University.

San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks are named after US cities or communities, and for cities attacked on September 11, 2001. The only exception is the USS John P. Murtha, named for Pennsylvania congressman and Marine John P. Murtha.

US NavyThe amphibious transport dock ships USS San Antonio and USS New York underway together in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia, June 9, 2011.


The New York Times

John Lewis-class oilers will be named for civil-rights and human-rights activists, like Lewis himself.

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesRep. John Lewis is presented with the 2010 Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama at the White House, February 15, 2011.

Some of the Navy’s Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ships are named for civil-rights leaders, like Cesar Chavez, too, although the rule is to name them for explorers.

Lewis, who fought for civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and is now a member of Congress, attended the keel-laying of his namesake oiler earlier this year.

Sarah Burford / DVIDSActress Alfre Woodard and Rep. John Lewis prepare to weld their initials onto the keel plate of Military Sealift Command’s newest fleet-replenishment oiler, USNS John Lewis, during a keel-laying ceremony in San Diego.

Source: DVIDS

Expeditionary Fast Transports (EPFs) are being named for small US cities, like Carson City, Nevada. But a future EPF will be the USNS Puerto Rico — a US territory.

John McAninley / US Navy / DVIDSThe Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Carson City arrives in Sekondi, Ghana, in support of its Africa Partnership Station deployment, July 21, 2019.

Source: US Navy

Expeditionary Transport Docks (ESDs) and Expeditionary Sea Bases (ESBs) will be named for people or places of significance to Marines. ESD-2 is named for Marine aviator and NASA astronaut John Glenn.

US NavyUSNS John Glenn underway off the California coast, January 9, 2014

Source: USNI News

Navajo-class towing, salvage, and rescue ships will be named for Native American tribes or famous Native Americans.

US Navy photo illustrationAn artist rendering of the future USNS Navajo (T-TATS 6), February 15, 2019.

Source: US Navy

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