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    U.S. Navy Ship Names: Tradition, Controversy, and Political Tides

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    The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) transits with Royal Danish navy Absalon-class command and support ship HMDS Absalon (L 16) during a passing exercise off the coast of Greenland.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    The naming of U.S. Navy ships, a tradition as old as the nation itself, has often reflected the political and social currents of its time.

    USS Columbia visits Yokosuka, Japan” by #PACOM is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The latest reports by the Congressional Research Service, obtained in May 2024, scrutinize the complexities and deviations that have shaped the Navy’s ship-naming conventions. These reports come amid a surge in ship procurement, signaling the staying power of the names chosen during this period.

    USS COLUMBIA SSN 771” by TimWebb is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    From the very beginning, the naming of ships has been a prerogative of the Secretary of the Navy, guided by the direction of the President and congressional legislation.

    The Virginia-class submarine USS Indiana (SSN 789) completed her maiden deployment and returned home to Submarine Base New London.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    Over time, the conventions for naming various classes of vessels – from ballistic missile submarines to destroyers and aircraft carriers – have developed and sometimes shifted dramatically, often creating controversy and perceived politicization.

    An unmanned aerial vehicle delivers a payload to the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730) near the Hawaiian Islands.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    Ballistic missile submarines, once named for states, have seen recent exceptions. The first two SSBN-826 class submarines were named District of Columbia and Wisconsin, while Virginia-class attack submarines have deviated from the state-themed convention with names like a former Secretary of the Navy, and a city.

    Navy helicopters deliver payloads to ballistic-missile submarine, increase readiness of strategic forces” by #PACOM is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Aircraft carriers have traditionally been named for past U.S. Presidents or Members of Congress. For example, 10 out of the Navy’s 15 most recently named carriers commemorate former Presidents. This highlights the prestige associated with these powerful vessels and the desire to honor the nation’s leaders.

    Borei Class Ballistic Missile Sub in Severomorsk” by Christopher.Michel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    Naming ships for individuals has been another common practice, albeit more contentious. Notably, the John Lewis-class oilers are named after individuals who fought for civil rights and human rights, such as the lead ship named for the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

    USNS Harvey Milk (T-AO 206) slides into the water during its christening ceremony at General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    This class also includes the USNS Harvey Milk and the USNS Earl Warren, honoring figures known for their advocacy in the realms of gay rights and civil justice, respectively.

    USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) patrols the South China Sea.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    Controversy has arisen when ship names have been perceived to carry political undertones or break with tradition.

    USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) conducts routine operations in the South China Sea.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    For instance, the naming of a littoral combat ship, USS Gabrielle Giffords, after the Arizona congresswoman who survived an assassination attempt, sparked debate and demands for an investigation during the Obama administration.

    USS Gabrielle Giffords transits the South China Sea.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    Historian Thomas Cutler from the U.S. Naval Institute emphasizes the importance of a ship’s name to its crew, stating that serving on a vessel with a storied name carries significant pride. The choice of name can shape the identity and spirit of a ship and those who serve aboard it.

    USS Montgomery (LCS 8) and USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) operate in the South China Sea, Jan. 28, 2020.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    The CRS report underscores the political maneuvering that often accompanies the ship-naming process. The executive branch holds the ultimate decision-making power, but Congress regularly weighs in with suggestions.

    USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) transits the eastern Pacific Ocean.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    This can lead to political competition, especially for high-profile vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines that remain in service for up to 50 years.

    USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) conducts routine operations in the South China Sea, June 16, 2020” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    The long history of U.S. Navy ship-naming reflects the nation’s evolving values and politics. While the process involves tradition and legislation, it is equally a product of changing times and societal shifts.

    USS Gabrielle Giffords sails in formation with USNS Pecos after completing a replenishment-at-sea” by #PACOM is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The names chosen for Navy ships, therefore, stand not only as identifiers but as vessels carrying the legacy of American ideals and contentious political landscapes for decades to come.

    Relevant articles:
    Report to Congress on U.S. Navy Ship Names, USNI News
    Report to Congress on Navy Ship Names, USNI News
    Traditions vs. politics: The long and undisciplined history of Navy ship-naming, Stars and Stripes
    The Evolution of Ship Naming in the U.S. Navy, United States Navy (.mil)

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