Report to Congress on U.S. Navy Ship Names

October 7, 2020 10:28 AM

The following is the Oct. 5, 2020 Congressional Research Service report, Navy Ship Names: Background for Congress.

From the report

Names for Navy ships traditionally have been chosen and announced by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President and in accordance with rules prescribed by Congress. Rules for giving certain types of names to certain types of Navy ships have evolved over time. There have been exceptions to the Navy’s ship-naming rules, particularly for the purpose of naming a ship for a person when the rule for that type of ship would have called for it to be named for something else. Some observers have perceived a breakdown in, or corruption of, the rules for naming Navy ships.

Section 1749 of the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (S. 1790/P.L. 116-92 of December 20, 2019) prohibits the Secretary of Defense, in naming a new ship (or other asset) or renaming an existing ship (or other asset), from giving the asset a name that refers to, or includes a term referring to, the Confederate States of America, including any name referring to a person who served or held leadership within the Confederacy, or a Confederate battlefield victory. The provision also states that “nothing in this section may be construed as requiring a Secretary concerned to initiate a review of previously named assets.” Section 1749 of the House-reported FY2021 NDAA (H.R. 6395) would prohibit the public display of the Confederate battle flag on Department of Defense (DOD) property, including naval vessels. Section 377 of the Senate-reported FY2021 NDAA (S. 4049) would create a commission on the naming of DOD items, including ships, that commemorate the Confederate States of America (CSA) or any person who served voluntarily with the CSA. A July 13, 2020, press report states that Navy officials reportedly “have informally discussed renaming several ships, including the [cruiser] USS Chancellorsville, which is named after a Confederate victory, and the USNS Maury, an oceanographic survey ship named after Matthew Fontaine Maury, who served as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory and later joined the Confederate Navy.”

Two aircraft carriers are named for Members of Congress—USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74). Some observers have raised the issue of whether CVN-74 should be renamed on account of Senator Stennis’s positions on segregation and civil rights. A July 13, 2020, press report states that U.S. Navy officials have “discussed renaming two aircraft carriers named after Southern U.S. legislators who advocated racial segregation: the USS John C. Stennis and USS Carl Vinson. Within the military, the Stennis has been nicknamed ‘Johnny Reb,’ a common nickname for Confederate soldiers.”

For ship types now being procured for the Navy, or recently procured for the Navy, naming rules can be summarized as follows:

  • SSBN-826, the first of the Navy’s new ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) has been named Columbia in honor of the District of Columbia, but the Navy has not stated what the naming rule for these ships will be.
  • Virginia (SSN-774) class attack submarines are being named for states.
  • Of the Navy’s 15 most recently named aircraft carriers, 10 have been named for past U.S. Presidents and two for Members of Congress.
  • Destroyers are being named for deceased members of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, including Secretaries of the Navy.
  • The Navy has not yet announced a naming rule for its planned new class of FFG(X) frigates, the first of which was funded in FY2020. Previous classes of U.S. Navy frigates, like Navy destroyers, were generally named for naval leaders and heroes.
  • Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) have been named for regionally important U.S. cities and communities.
  • Amphibious assault ships are being named for important battles in which U.S. Marines played a prominent part, and for famous earlier U.S. Navy ships that were not named for battles.
  • San Antonio (LPD-17) class amphibious ships are being named for major U.S. cities and communities, and cities and communities attacked on September 11, 2001.
  • John Lewis (TAO-205) class oilers are being named for people who fought for civil rights and human rights.
  • Expeditionary Fast Transports (EPFs) are being named for small U.S. cities.
  • Expeditionary Transport Docks (ESDs) and Expeditionary Sea Bases (ESBs) are being named for famous names or places of historical significance to U.S. Marines.
  • Navajo (TATS-6) class towing, salvage, and rescue ships are being named for prominent Native Americans or Native American tribes.

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