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Ellen Ioanes

How the Navy picks names for its ships — and breaks its own rules

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.

An artist rendering of the future Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.

US Navy / DVIDS

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.

The Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut moored at US Fleet Activities Yokosuka for a port visit.

Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Dobbs / US Navy / DVIDS

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.

The Virginia-class fast attack sub USS Hawaii sails by the battleship Missouri Memorial and the USS Arizona Memorial while pulling into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, June 6, 2019.

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Charles Oki / US Navy / DVIDS

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.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) underway in the Indian Ocean prior to flight operations. The Carl Vinson Strike Group is currently on deployment to promote peace and stability and respond to emergent events overseas. USS Carl Vinson will end its deployment with a homeport shift to Norfolk, Va., and will conduct a three-year refuel and complex overhaul.

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Dusty Howell

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.

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

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.

The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Montgomery at Changi Naval Base in Singapore.

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tristin Barth / US Navy / DVIDS

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.

USS Boxer (LHD 4) prepares to launch Australian S-70A Blackhawks during flight operations in support of Exercise Talisman Saber 2005.

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class James F. Bartels

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.

The 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.

US Navy

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

A graphic representation of a future U.S. Military Sealift Command John Lewis-class oiler.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Armando Gonzales

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.

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.

The Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Carson City arrives in Sekondi, Ghana, in support of its Africa Partnership Station deployment, July 21, 2019.

John McAninley / US Navy / DVIDS

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.

USNS John Glenn underway off the California coast, January 9, 2014

US Navy

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

An artist rendering of the future USNS Navajo (T-TATS 6), February 15, 2019.

US Navy photo illustration

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.