United States Navy

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United States Navy
History of the United States Navy
Ships and aircraft
Current fleet
Historic ships
Historic fleets
Naval aircraft
Weapons and equipment
Department of the Navy
Chief of Naval Operations
Fleets and operating units
Senior officers

The United States Navy (USN) is the branch of the United States armed forces responsible for naval operations. The U.S. Navy consists of 281 ships and over 4,000 aircraft. It has over a half million men and women on active or ready reserve duty.

The United States Navy traces its origins to the Continental Navy, which the Continental Congress established during the American Revolutionary War. The United States Constitution, ratified in 1789, empowered Congress "to provide and maintain a navy." Acting on this authority, Congress ordered the construction and manning of six frigates; one of the original six, USS Constitution, familiarly known as "Old Ironsides," survives to this day.

The War Department administered naval affairs from that year until Congress established the Department of the Navy on April 30, 1798. The Navy became part of the Department of Defense upon its establishment in 1947.


History of the Navy

Main article: History of the United States Navy

Flag of the U.S. Navy
Flag of the U.S. Navy

The Continental Navy was established in Philadelphia by the Continental Congress on October 13, 1775, which authorized the procurement, fitting out, manning, and dispatch of two armed vessels to search for munitions ships supplying the British Army in America. The legislation also established a Naval Committee to supervise the work. The Continental Navy operated some 50 ships over the course of the American Revolutionary War, but no more than about 20 at one time. After the war, Congress sold the surviving ships and released the seamen and officers.

Congress ordered the construction and manning of six frigates on March 27, 1794, and three years later welcomed into service the first three: USS United States, Constellation and Constitution. The frigates became famous in the War of 1812, where they unexpectedly defeated British Royal Navy forces several times.

During the American Civil War, the Navy was an innovator in the use of ironclad warships, but after the war slipped into obsolescence. A modernization program beginning in the 1880s brought the U.S. into the first rank of the world's navies by the beginning of the 20th century.

The Navy saw little action during World War I, but grew into a formidable force in the years before World War II. Japan unsuccessfully attempted to allay this strategic threat with a late-1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. During the next three years, the U.S. Navy grew into the most powerful in the world. It is widely accepted that currently the United States Navy is the most powerful Navy in the world.


The Navy is administered by the Department of the Navy, led by the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV). The senior naval officer, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), is the four-star admiral immediately under the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations are responsible for organizing, recruiting, training, and equipping the Navy so the Navy is ready for operation under the command of the Unified Combatant Commanders. (Also see United States Armed Forces Organization.)

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                   SECNAV              |
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                    CNO      Unified Combatant Commanders    
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             --------------------      |
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   Shore establishment       Operating Forces (including fleets)


The two main fleets are the Pacific Fleet and the Atlantic Fleet. Under these two organizations fall the numbered fleets.

Shore commands

In addition to afloat fleets, the Navy maintains several "Naval Forces Commands" which operate naval shore facilities and serve as liaison units to local ground forces of the Air Force and Army. Such commands are answerable to a Fleet Commander as the shore component of the afloat command. During times of war, all Naval Forces Commands augment to become task forces of a primary fleet.

Some of the larger Naval Forces Commands include:

  • Commander Naval Forces Korea (CNFK)
  • Commander Naval Forces Marianas (CNFM)
  • Command Naval Forces Japan (CNFJ)

Staff corps

In addition to the regular line commands of the navy, several staff corps are also maintained which augment the line community and whose personnel are assigned to both line and staff commands. The current staff corps of the United States Navy are as follows:



Main article: U.S. Navy ships

See also List of ships of the United States Navy for a more complete listing of ships past and present.

The names of commissioned ships of the U.S. Navy start with USS, meaning 'United States Ship'. Non-commissioned, civilian-manned vessels of the U.S. Navy have names that begin with USNS, standing for 'United States Naval Ship'. A letter-based hull classification symbol is used to designate a vessel's type. The names of ships are selected by the Secretary of the Navy. The names are usually those of U.S. states, cities, towns, important people, famous battles, fish, and ideals.

The U.S. Navy pioneered the use of nuclear reactors aboard naval vessels; today, they power most U.S. aircraft carriers and submarines. See United States Naval reactor.

As of January 2004, a relatively small number of ship classes accounted for the bulk of the U.S. naval fleet. These include:

Aircraft carriers

U.S. Navy supercarrier USS Nimitz on November 3, 2003. Approximately fifty aircraft can be counted on deck.
U.S. Navy supercarrier USS Nimitz on November 3, 2003. Approximately fifty aircraft can be counted on deck.

Aircraft carriers are the major strategic arm of the Navy. They put U.S. air power within reach of most land-based military power. The US Navy's carriers are much larger and more powerful than those of the rest of the world. See also: List of aircraft carriers of the United States Navy and List of escort aircraft carriers of the United States Navy. Modern aircraft carriers since CV-67 are typically named for living or dead politicians; previous aircraft carriers were named for battles and famous fighting ships of the Navy.

Amphibious assault ships

The largest of all amphibious warfare ships amphibious assault ships resemble small aircraft carriers; capable of V/STOL, STOVL, VTOL tiltrotor and rotary wing aircraft operations; contains a welldeck to support use of Landing Craft Air Cushion and other watercraft. Amphibious assault ships are typically named after World War II aircraft carriers, a name source kept over from the earliest ones, which were converted WWII carriers.

Amphibious transport docks

Amphibious transports are warships that embark, transport, and land elements of a landing force for a variety of expeditionary warfare missions. Amphibious transport docks are named for cities, except for USS New York (LPD-21), which is named for the state of New York and USS Somerset (LPD-25), which is named for Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

  • San Antonio class (3 launched, 2 under consturction, 3 planned, 2 projected)
  • Austin class (10 ships active, 1 Decommissioned, 1 converted to AGF)


Main article: Submarines in the United States Navy

There are two major types of submarines, ballistic and attack. Ballistic subs have a single, strategic mission: carrying nuclear SLBMs. Attack submarines have several tactical missions, including sinking ships and subs, launching cruise missiles, and gathering intelligence. Sea attack submarines are typically named for cities; land attack submarines (Virginia and Ohio-class boats) are typically named for states. Earlier attack submarines were named for fish, while earlier ballistic missile submarines were named for "famous Americans" (although many of these were actually foreigners).

  • Ohio class (18 in commission) — ballistic missile submarines, 4 to be converted into guided missile submarines
  • Virginia class (1 in commission, 3 under construction, 2 on order) — attack submarines
  • Seawolf class (3 in commission) — attack submarines
  • Los Angeles Class (51 in commission) — attack submarines


Guided missile cruisers can conduct air warfare, surface warfare and undersea warfare. All modern cruisers are named for battles. Previous cruisers were either named for cities (until CG-12), the redesignated frigates were named for naval heroes (CG-15 to CG-35) or states (CG-36 to CG-42).


See also the List of destroyers of the United States Navy. All destroyers have been named for naval heroes since USS Bainbridge (DD-1).


Modern frigates mainly perform anti-submarine warfare and escort other ships. The U.S. Navy is gradually retiring its frigates; some of their jobs will be performed by the nascent littoral combat ship. [1] Named, like the destroyers, for naval heroes.


All U.S. battleships have been retired, although two Tomahawk-capable ships remain in "Inactive" Reserve. They are maintained in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996. Current plans in the United States Navy call for keeping the battleships on the NVR until the naval surface fire support gun and missile development programs achieve operational capability, which is expected to occur sometime between 2003 and 2008. All battleships except USS Kearsarge (BB-5) were named for states.

Early vessels

Naval aircraft

Four F/A-18E Super Hornets assigned to the "Black Aces" of Strike Fighter Squadron Forty One (VFA-41) fly over the Western Pacific Ocean in a stack formation. Taken October 25, 2003
Four F/A-18E Super Hornets assigned to the "Black Aces" of Strike Fighter Squadron Forty One (VFA-41) fly over the Western Pacific Ocean in a stack formation. Taken October 25, 2003

Harbor defense

The United States Navy has, in the last few years, greatly expanded its harbor defense forces in response to the War on Terrorism. The main components of Naval Harbor Defense include:

  • Inshore Boat Units (IBUs)
  • Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare Units (MIUWUs)
  • Special Boat Units (SBUs)

Special warfare

The Navy Seals are the U.S. Navy's primary special warfare units whose purpose is to engage in "special activities other than war". The Navy also maintains an EOD Corps (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) as well as a small corps of Surface Warfare personel known by the designator "Special Operations Underway".

Missiles, guns, equipment

Submarine warfare and nuclear deterrence

The submarine has a long history in the USN. It began in the late 19th century, with the building of the SS-1, USS Holland. The boat was in service for 10 years and was a developmental and trials vessel for many systems on other early submarines.

The submarine really came of age in World War I. The USN did not have a large part in this war, with its action mainly being confined to escorting convoys later in the war and sending a division of battleships to reinforce the British Grand Fleet. However, there were those in the USN submarine service who saw what the Germans had done with their U-boats and took careful note.

Doctrine in the inter-war years emphasised the submarine as a scout for the battle fleet, and also extreme caution in command. Both these axioms were proven wrong after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The submarine skippers of the fleet boats of World War II waged a very effective campaign against Japanese merchant vessels, doing to Japan what Germany failed to do to the United Kingdom. They were aggressive and effective, and operated far from the fleet.

In addition to their commerce raiding role, submarines also proved valuable in air-sea rescue. There was many an American aircraft carrier pilot who owed his life to the valour of USN submarine crews, including future U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

Navy revolutions

After WWII, things continued along much the same path until the early 1950s. Then a revolution, that was to forever change the nature of the submarine arm occurred. That revolution was USS Nautilus.

The Nautilus was the first nuclear-powered submarine. Up until that point, submarines had really been, at their most basic level, torpedo boats that happened to be able to go underwater. They had been tied to the surface by the need to charge their batteries using diesel engines relatively often. The nuclear power plant of the Nautilus meant that the boat could stay underwater for literally months at a time, the only limit in the end being the amount of food that the boat could carry.

Another revolution in submarine warfare came with USS George Washington. Nuclear powered, like Nautilus, George Washington added strategic ballistic missiles to the mix. Earlier submarines had carried strategic missiles, but the boats had been diesel powered, and the missiles required the boat to surface in order to fire. The missiles were also cruise missiles, which were vulnerable to the defences of the day in a way that ballistic missiles were not.

George Washington's missiles could be fired whilst the boat was submerged, meaning that it was far less likely to be detected before firing. The nuclear power of the boat also meant that, like Nautilus, George Washington's patrol length was only limited by the amount of food the boat could carry. Ballistic missile submarines, carrying Polaris missiles, eventually superseded all other strategic nuclear systems in the USN. Deterrent patrols continue to this day, although now with the Ohio class boats and Trident missiles.

U.S. Navy Los Angeles class submarine, USS San Juan
U.S. Navy Los Angeles class submarine, USS San Juan

Given the lack of large scale conventional naval warfare since 1945, with the USN's role being primarily that of power projection, the submarine service did not fire weapons in anger for very many years. The development of a new generation of cruise missiles changed that. The BGM-109 Tomahawk missile was developed to give naval vessels a long range land attack capability. Other than direct shore bombardment, and strikes by aircraft flying off carriers, the ability of naval vessels to influence warfare on land was limited.

Now, instead of being limited to firing shells less than 20 miles inland from guns, any naval vessel fitted with the Tomahawk could hit targets up to 1,000 miles inland. The mainstay of the Tomahawk equipped vessels in the early days of the missile's deployment were the Iowa class battleships, and the submarine fleet. The Tomahawk was first used in combat on 17 January 1991, on the opening night of Operation Desert Storm. On that day, for the first time since the surrender of Japan in 1945, an American submarine fired in anger when Tomahawks were launched by US boats in the eastern Mediterranean.

Since then, the Tomahawk has become a staple of American campaigns. It has seen use in no less than three separate wars. It has also been exported to the United Kingdom, which has also fitted it to submarines. The Tomahawk has seen a change in the design of attack submarines. At first it was fired through torpedo tubes, but more recent US boats have been fitted with vertical launch systems to enable them to carry more of the weapons.

In the early 21st century, the USN submarine fleet is made up entirely of nuclear powered vessels. It is the most powerful of its type in the world. However, there are those who worry that there are not enough boats in the fleet. As with other branches of the US military the budget cuts of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, as the Cold War ended, followed up by the War on Terrorism, have left little or no slack in the system. This point is illustrated by the fact that in 2003, for the first time since 1945, a US submarine made two back-to-back war patrols.

Major naval bases


Commissioned officer

Commissioned officers in the Navy have paygrades from O-1 to O-10. Officers with superior performance may be promoted. Officers between O-1 and O-4 are called junior officers, O-5 and O-6 are called senior officers, and O-7 to O-10 are called flag officers. See U.S. Navy officer rank insignia for a complete list of paygrades and corresponding ranks.

Commissioned officers belong to one of the following communities:

The term "line" officer means someone who may command a warship or an aviation unit. It is a carryover from the 18th-century British tactic of employing warships in a "line" to take advantage of cannons on each side of the ship. The captains of such vessels commanded "ships of the line." Today, all Navy line officers wear a star on the sleeves of uniforms near the cuff braid that denotes rank. Staff officers wear different insignias. Note: Marine Corps officers, also part of the Department of the Navy, are all considered "line" officers because they are qualified as troop commanders in addition to their specialties.

Commissioned officers originate from the United States Naval Academy, Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), Officer Candidate School (OCS), direct commission, and other commissioning programs (such as Seaman to Admiral-21 and Limited Duty Officer programs).

Officer Rank Structure of the United States Navy
Fleet Admiral Admiral Vice Admiral Rear Admiral Upper Half Rear Admiral Lower Half Captain Commander Lieutenant Commander Lieutenant Lieutenant Junior Grade Ensign
O-11 O-10 O-9 O-8 O-7 O-6 O-5 O-4 O-3 O-2 O-1


Enlisted members of the Navy have paygrades from E-1 to E-9. Enlisted members with superior performance may be advanced in paygrade. Two notably significant advancements are Seaman to Petty Officer Third Class (E-3 to E-4) and Petty Officer First Class to Chief Petty Officer (E-6 to E-7). Advancement to Chief Petty Officer is especially significant, marked by a special initiation ceremony. See U.S. Navy enlisted rate insignia for a complete list of the paygrades.

All new active-duty enlisted members receive basic training ("boot camp") at the Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois. Those who have a contract for a specific rating continue onto "A" schools for training in the rating. Those who don't have a specific rating go into the fleet to learn on the job and later strike for a rating. Some members may go to additonal training in a "C" school either before a tour of duty, or after a tour of duty. A "C" school assigns a member a Navy Enlisted Classification code, or NEC, which shows that a sailor is able to perform a specific task requiring that NEC, such as NEC 2780 - Network Security Vulnerablity Technician.

Enlisted members of paygrades E-4 and above are said to be "rated" and have a rating: an occupational specialty. As of June 2005, there are more than 50 ratings, including Boatswain's Mate, Quartermaster, Engineman, Damage Controlman, Electronics Technician, Information Systems Technician, Air Traffic Controller, Fire Control Technician, Gunner's Mate, Sonar Technician, Construction Mechanic, Hospital Corpsman, Yeoman, Disbursing Clerk, Culinary Specialist, Photographer's Mate, Musician, Master-at-Arms, Aviation Electronics Technician, and Cryptologic Technician. Some ratings have subspecialties acquired either through an initial "A" school for training (such as Cryptologic Technician Technical and Cryptologic Technician Collection) or through a separate "C" school (such as Aviation Electronics Technician Organizational and Aviation Electronics Technician Intermediate.)

Non Commissioned Officer Rank Structure of the United States Navy
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Senior Chief Petty Officer Chief Petty Officer Petty Officer First Class Petty Officer Second Class
E-9 E-9 E-8 E-7 E-6 E-5
Enlisted Rank Structure of the United States Navy
Petty Officer Third Class Seaman Seaman Apprentice Seaman Recruit
E-4 E-3 E-2 E-1
no insignia


Sailors prove they have mastered skills and deserve responsibilities by completing Personal Qualification Standards (PQS) tasks and examinations. Among the most important is the "warfare qualification," which denotes a journeyman level of capability in Aviation Warfare, Special Warfare, Surface Warfare, or Submarine Warfare. Many qualifications are denoted on a sailor's uniform with U.S. Navy badges and insignia.

Sea Warrior

Launched in 2003 as part of the Navy's Sea Power 21 transformation plan, Sea Warrior is intended to link the fleet's personnel processes (recruiting, training, and assigning) with acquisition processes (buying ships, aircraft, etc.) in a way that also improves each individual sailor's ability to guide his or her own career in a satisfying direction. The aim is to more efficiently muster the right number of sailors with the right skills and seniority at each ship, squadron, and duty station.

Sea Warrior is led by the Chief of Naval Personnel[2], and the commander of the Naval Education and Training Command.

Naval culture

Navy sailors are trained in the core values of Honor, Courage, Commitment. Sailors cope with boredom on long cruises of six months to a year, and cherish their time in their home ports, as well as vacations at ports abroad.

Naval jack

First and Current U.S. Naval Jack
First and Current U.S. Naval Jack
The First U.S. Naval Jack hoisted aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) on December 23, 2001
The First U.S. Naval Jack hoisted aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) on December 23, 2001
Former U.S. Naval Jack
Former U.S. Naval Jack

The naval jack of the United States is the First Navy Jack, first used during the American Revolutionary War. On May 31, 2002, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England directed all U.S. naval ships to fly the First Navy Jack for the duration of the War on Terrorism. Many ships chose to shift colors on September 11, 2002.

The jack is flown from the bow of the ship and the ensign from the stern when the ship is moored or anchored. When underway, the ensign is flown from the main mast.

The former naval jack was a blue field with 50 white stars, identical to the canton of the ensign, both in appearance and size. A jack of similar design was first used in 1794, though with 13 stars arranged in a 3–2–3–2–3 pattern.

Naval jargon

Main article: Military slang

A distinct jargon has developed among sailors over the course of the last four centuries. Naval jargon is spoken by American sailors as a normal part of their daily speech.

There are three distinct components of Naval jargon:

  • Words that are unique to sailing and have no use in standard English, such as yardarm, bow, and stern.
  • Archaic English that remains common in naval jargon, such as "aye" (the common English word for "Yes" until the 16th century), "Fo'c'sle" (from Fore Castle), and Bo'sun (from "Boat Swain", swain being Middle English for a young man or a servant).
  • Modern jargon, such as "Bird" to refer to missiles, or 1MC.

See U.S. Navy slang for more information. Also see Covey Crump.

Notable members of the U.S. Navy

John Paul Jones, America's first well-known navy hero.
John Paul Jones, America's first well-known navy hero.




  • Neil Armstrongastronaut, first man on the moon
  • James Lovell — naval aviator, astronaut, pilot of first lunar orbit flight (Apollo 8) and commander of Apollo 13 mission
  • Alan Shepard — naval aviator, first American in space (Mercury-Redstone 3) and Apollo 14 commander
  • John Young — naval aviator and Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle astronaut


See also

External links

Military of the United States
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