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United States Navy

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The United States Navy (USN) is the branch of the United States armed forces responsible for naval operations. The U.S. Navy consists of slightly fewer than 300 ships and over 4,000 operational 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

The Continental Navy was established by the Continental Congress on October 13, 1775, who authorized the procurement, fitting out, manning, and dispatch of two armed vessels to cruise in search of munitions ships supplying the British Army in America. The legislation also established a Naval Committee to supervise the work. All together, the Continental Navy numbered some fifty ships over the course of the American Revolutionary War, with approximately twenty warships active at its maximum strength.

After the American War for Independence, Congress sold the surviving ships of the Continental Navy and released the seamen and officers. In accordance with the Constitution, Congress ordered the construction and manning of six frigates on March 27, 1794 and in 1797 the first three frigates, USS United States, Constellation and Constitution went into service. The frigates became famous in the War of 1812, where they unexpectedly defeated the British Royal Navy on a number of occasions.

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 relatively little action during World War I, but in the years before World War II, it grew into a formidable force, which Japan realized would be a threat to their strategic interests. Japan resolved to remedy the situation with a surprise attack in late 1941. The primary goal of this attack on Pearl Harbor was to cripple the Navy in the Pacific Ocean. The action was strategically ineffective, however, and during the next three years of hard fighting, the U.S. Navy grew into the largest and most powerful navy the world had ever seen.


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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                    CNO      Unified Combatant Commanders    
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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.



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 on , . 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.

Amphibious assault ships

Amphibious assault ships carry Marines and their aircraft.


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.

  • Ohio class (18 in commission) — ballistic 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.



Modern frigates mainly perform anti-submarine warfare and escort other ships. (Frigates are slowly being retired from the U.S. Navy fleet in favor of the development of the Littoral Combat Ship.)


All U.S. battleships have been retired, although two Tomahawk-capable ships remain in "Inactive" Reserve.

Early vessels

Naval aircraft

Four assigned to the "Black Aces" of Strike Fighter Squadron Forty One (VFA-41) fly over the Western Pacific Ocean in a stack formation. Taken ,
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

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 shown to be wrong very quickly 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 in their prosecution of their task, 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 then-U.S. President-to-be, 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 submarine,
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-3 are called junior officers, O-4 to 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:

Commissioned officers originate from the United States Naval Academy, Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), Officer Candidate School (OCS), direct commission, and other commissioning programs.


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.

Enlisted members of paygrades E-4 and above are said to be "rated" and have a rating, or an occupational specialty. There is a wide variety of more than 50 ratings such as Boatswain's Mate, Quartermaster, Engineman, Damage Controllman, Electronics Technician, Air Traffic Controller, Fire-Control Technician, Gunner's Mate, Sonar Technician, Construction Mechanics, Hospital Corpsman, Yeoman, Disbursing Clerk, Culinary Specialist, Photographer's Mate, Musician, Master-at-Arms, and Cryptologic Technician.

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.


Service members in the Navy learn new skills and qualify for more responsibilities as they progress in their naval careers. A very important qualification is the warfare qualification. Service members may qualify for warfare in their fields, including Aviation Warfare, Special Warfare, Surface Warfare, and Submarine Warfare.

To denote qualifications received in the United States Navy, a number of badges and insignia are issued to service members upon completion of approved Personal Qualification Standards (PQS) which are tasks and exams required for qualification in a given field.

A full list of Navy Qualification Badges is displayed on the article: Military badges of the United States

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
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.

Notable members of the U.S. Navy

Related articles

External links

Last updated: 08-17-2005 14:45:50
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