As we welcome the fall season, the Navy continues adding new ships to the fleet. On Saturday, the Navy christens littoral combat ship (LCS) USS Kansas City in Mobile, Alabama. Next week, the Navy christens Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Frank E. Peterson JR (DDG 121) during a ceremony in Pascagoula, Mississippi. In November, PCU Sioux City (LCS 11) will be commissioned and PCU St. Louis (LCS 19) will be christened. In December, the Navy commissions PCU Thomas Hudner (DDG 116).
It should come as no surprise that it takes a lot to deliver a ship to the Fleet: a lot of planning, a lot of resources, a lot of time, and the work of a lot of people. The needs of the Navy determine what ships are built, while funding determines how many. For the most part, new ships follow a chronological numbering system when being built.
But who or what determines the name of a ship?
The short answer is the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), who does so under the direction of the President and in accordance with rules prescribed by Congress. Prior to 1925, U.S. law included language explicitly assigning the SECNAV the task of naming new Navy ships. However, today’s code (10 U.S.C. §7292) does not. Nevertheless, given the location of Section 7292 in subtitle C of Title 10, which covers the Navy and Marine Corps, it is implied that the Secretary of the Navy retains authority.
While the assignment of responsibility for naming is very much a legislative matter, the actual name selection process is more a product of evolution and tradition. The names carry with them a heritage that becomes part of the future ships and crews’ identity – giving life to the steel hulls and deckplates that represent sovereign U.S. territory around the world.
Recommended names are forwarded to SECNAV by the Naval Historical Center (NHC) via the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). NHC compiles the list of recommendations from historical research and suggestions submitted from service members, veterans, and the American public. The recommendations follow general working rules for each class of ship:
- Aircraft Carriers (CVN) honor past U.S. Presidents generally. Of the past 14, 10 were named for past U.S. Presidents and two for Members of Congress.
- Destroyers (DDG) honor deceased members of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, including Secretaries of the Navy.
- Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) are named after regionally prominent U.S. cities and communities.
- Amphibious Assault Ships pay homage to epic battles heavily influenced by the U.S. Marines, or famous U.S. Navy ships of the past that were not named for battles.
- San Antonio Class Amphibious Ships honor major U.S. cities and communities, including those attacked on September 11, 2001.
- John Lewis (TAO-205) class oilers honor people who fought for civil and human rights.
- Lewis and Clark (TAKE-1) class cargo and ammunition ship honor famous American explorers, pioneers and trailblazers.
- Expeditionary Fast Transports (EPFs), previously called Joint High-Speed Vessels (JHSVs), are named after small U.S. cities.
- Expeditionary Transport Docks (ESDs) and Expeditionary Sea Bases (ESBs), previously called Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) ships and Afloat Forward Staging Bases (AFSBs), respectively, honor famous people or places having historical significance to U.S. Marines.
As the Fleet has evolved, so have the rules. “US Navy ship-naming policies, practices, and traditions are not fixed; they evolve constantly over time,” noted a 2012 Navy report to Congress. For example, Cruisers were once named for cities, then later for states, and most recently for battles.
As previously mentioned, Destroyers generally honor famous U.S. naval leaders and distinguished heroes. The Navy, however, recently unveiled a few exceptions to this rule. In 2012, the Navy announced that DDG 116 would be named for a living person, Thomas Hudner, who passed away, Nov. 13, 2017. The Navy announced in 2013 that DDG 117 would also be named for a living person, Paul Ignatius. That same year, the Navy announced DDG 118 would honor an Army hero, the late Senator Daniel Inouye. (insert link to earlier blog about Daniel Inouye) DDG 120 and DDG 124 will honor living people, former Senator Carl Levin, and Harvey C. Barnum, Jr., respectively.
The LCS naming convention varied as well. In 2012, the Navy named LCS 10 in honor of former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Earlier this year, President Trump announced that an LCS would be named Canberra in honor of the Australian cruiser Canberra (D33) that fought alongside U.S. Navy forces in World War II.
Amphibs are generally named for major U.S. cities and communities. An exception to the rule, however, was made for LPD 26 and LPD 29. They have been named after late Representative John P. Murtha and Navy Captain Richard M. McCool, Jr., respectively.
Ship names are normally announced after the ship has either been authorized or appropriated by Congress, but before its keel laying or christening. SECNAV records the decision with a formal naming announcement.
Congress has the ability to petition and influence the naming of ships but the responsibility ultimately lies with the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President. It would not be unprecedented for ship naming conventions to continue to evolve as new ships continue to be built and the focus of the Navy continues to evolve in order to provide maritime power and power projection required by the Nation, now and into the future.