Even to the other branches of service, the Navy can be a deep dark mystery of rates and rankings, Captains that have a lot of authority and wearing name tapes on your pants. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And one of the biggest questions posed by vets of other branches and civilians alike is just what the heck do all those letters on these ships mean anyway?
It means you’re in for a history lesson.
Hmmm… maybe not that far back.
In 1920, the Navy was producing so many new kinds of ships, they needed a better way to keep track of them all. So, acting Navy Secretary Robert Coontz decided to standardize a numbering system that included a two-letter code that would identify the ship and its status as well as its number in the series, type, and sub-type. If the ship didn’t have a sub-type, the first letter would just be repeated
So the Battleship USS Missouri, being a battleship with no sub-type and the 63rd ship in that series was designated USS Missouri BB-63.
Easy, right? Well, Mostly.
Welcome to the military, where nothing is really that easy.
That was the early 20th Century. World War I had only just introduced a number of new technological innovations to the battlefield, and there were a lot more to come. Training ships, aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and so, so much more were still to come to the U.S. Navy, and they would need even more designation letters, ones that would describe their purpose and even their power source.
So where do aircraft carriers get the designation CVN, as in the USS Gerald Ford CVN-78? The C is for carrier, and the N means it’s a nuclear-powered ship. The V, well, that’s not that simple. According to the publication “United States Naval Aviation 1910-1995, Appendix 16: US Navy and Marine Corps Squadron Designations and Abbreviations,” the V means it carries heavier-than-air aircraft (as opposed to, say, blimps), but no one really knows for sure why the letter V was chosen, though many believe it was to represent the French vol plané, the word for “glide.”
Meanwhile Russia’s carrier just smokes and slowly retains more water, like your mom.
But there is now more than a century’s worth of Naval Ship Designations for you to peruse, far too many for me to list in their entirety. There are even four-letter designations now, like the SSGN (Attack Submarine, Guided Missile, Nuclear Powered).
Luckily for the curious, there’s always Wikipedia, where someone took the time to list them all, including all the historical designations, like monitors and coastal defenses. Be sure to leave a tip.