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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

Navy Ships

Chart of United States Navy vessels by class and size

Image Credit: Jordan Valinsky. Popular Mechanics.

This Fun Fact Friday we are taking a look at Navy ships. The United States Navy has about 430 ships in its fleet, ranging from the newest massive Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carriers to smaller minesweepers and patrol ships. Unlike standard ships, Navy vessels are made of a special steel alloy to be resistant to damaging attacks. Many ships have advanced weapons systems, with smaller troop transport ships lightly armed or unarmed. Since Navy ships need to transport supplies, weapons, ammunition, and crew, they need to be designed to deploy armaments at a moment’s notice. They’re also built to travel faster than normal ships to get to emergencies and keep up with other ships in their group. Most ships in the Navy can operate independently or in a squadron, following the flagship. Let’s take a closer look at the naming of these ships, the classification of ships, and how they fit into the Navy’s fleet.

How are U.S. Navy ships named?

Commissioned U.S. Navy ships begin with USS, short for United States Navy Ship. Civilian vessels that are non-commissioned, operating under the Military Sealift Command have names that start with USNS, for United States Naval Ship. There’s also a hull classification symbol based on vessel type. The Secretary of the Navy selects names for ships, usually the “the names are those of states, cities, towns, important persons, important locations, famous battles, fish, and ideals. Usually, different types of ships have names that originated from different types of sources,” according to Maritime Connector.

Types of ships

Aircraft Carrier

Aircraft carriers with escort vessels

Aircraft carriers with escort vessels. By U.S. Navy/PH3 Alta I. Cutler -, Public Domain,

Supercarrier is the unofficial term for the largest aircraft carriers. They are a Navy base operating at sea, focusing on air combat operations against targets in the air, sea, and on land. The expense of building and operating these vessels limits their use, with only ten nations running them. They have a full length flight deck for launching aircraft, including jets, helicopters, and even larger gunships and bombers, although they don’t have the ability to land the larger aircraft. These vessels are nuclear-powered, due to their size and power needs. Nuclear power gives them the ability to stay at sea for extended periods of time and travel much faster than conventionally fueled vessels. While many civilian container ships travel at speeds of around 10 knots, aircraft carriers can travel at speeds faster than 30 knots, or 35 miles per hour. In addition to the need to travel quickly, they also need to outrun submarines and their targeting systems. There are 11 large aircraft carriers in the United States fleet, each with a capacity of up to 80 aircraft. The newest Gerald R. Ford class is currently in service, with two in construction, and two more on order. These new carriers will have a magnetic aircraft launching system.


Battleship USS Iowa firing all guns

“The firepower of a battleship demonstrated by USS Iowa (c. 1984). The muzzle blasts distort the ocean surface.” Image Credit: Wikipedia

Battleships are large, armored vessels with large guns. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, these were the most powerful ships, dominating fleets. The USS Iowa, shown above, had nine 16 inch guns firing 2700 pound ballistic-tipped projectiles. Once the leaders of fleets of vessels, fast destroyers, stealthy submarines, and large aircraft carriers eventually made this single-purpose vessel obsolete.

Cruisers and Destroyers

Destroyer USS Winston S Churchill at sea

“USS Winston S. Churchill, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer of the United States Navy.” Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Cruisers are large vessels designed for fast cruising, especially along coastlines for defense or attack. Only a few countries, the USA, Russia, and Peru, still have these vessels. The destroyer is a small, fast, more maneuverable ship designed for short-range attacks. Just as the battleship was a single-purpose vessel phased out in favor of more flexible designs, the lines between cruisers and destroyers have been blurred in favor of ships that can do double duty. Originally small ships that operated in groups, after World War II, destroyers acquired guided missile systems allowing them more independent operation. Destroyers continue to grow larger, with the new Zumwalt class larger than cruisers it’s replacing, and more than four times the displacement of older vessels.

Frigates and Corvettes

USS Independence trimaran littoral combat ship at dock

USS Independence (LCS-2). “U.S. Navy photo by Naval Air Crewman 2nd Class Nicholas Kontodiakos.” Image Credit: Wikipedia.

In the 1600’s, frigates were warships built for speed and maneuverability. Unable to stand on their own in battle, their role was escort and patrol. Eventually, these small, fast ships acquired armor and grew in size, some even specializing in submarine warfare. Right below the frigate, the smallest classified warship is the corvette. These ships served similar roles to frigates as fast attack and patrol vessels, carrying missiles. The modern corvette showed up around World War II for patrol and convoy escort. Since they are small and easily built, many countries have them, although the cost of the systems, weapons, and sensors is about 60% of the total vessel cost and must be purchased on the international market. Although many countries around the world built corvettes, the United States does not, instead building littoral combat ships (LCS), a larger version of the corvette. The LCS is meant to be a stealthy surface vessel operating near shore. They are a little smaller than frigates and can carry small assault vehicles like helicopters, boats, or land vehicles. Two classes of LCS are being built, with the larger "Freedom" class classified as frigates. Above is the "Independence" class littoral combat ship with a unique trimaran design with multiple hulls.

The types of military vessels listed above are not exhaustive but are a good representation of the current state of the military fleets. There are many smaller docking and patrol type ships, amphibious assault ships, and submarines; we may look into some of the smaller vessels and submarines in the future. As you can see from the on-the-water ships, over time the lines have become very blurred from one “type” of vessel to the next. Navies around the world look to build vessels that serve multiple purposes, especially as they continue to grow in size, complexity, and cost. Warships were once the centerpiece of a strong navy, but they were limited to one role and vulnerable to other vessels like submarines and underwater mines. A whole fleet of new vessels replaced the warship, a fleet that is currently being consolidated into fewer vessels that are adaptable and multi-purpose. This can be seen clearly with the “smaller” ships, the outgoing destroyers are larger than the cruisers and the corvettes are becoming frigate-sized stealth vessels. Vessels will likely continue to grow in size and become more flexible with additional technology, reinforcing that the “types” of vessels aren’t as important as what purpose they can serve and how flexible they can be for a military’s needs.

We hope you enjoyed this Fun Fact Friday, see you next week!


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