U.S. Navy ship names traditionally have been chosen and announced by the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), under the direction of the President and in accordance with rules prescribed by Congress. For most of the 19th century, U.S. law included language explicitly assigning the Secretary of the Navy the task of assigning Navy ship names. The reference to the Secretary of the Navy disappeared from the U.S. Code in 1925.
1. The law of Navy ship names historically
A law approved in 1819 (Resolution, March 3, 1819, §1, 3 Stat. 538, No. 7) stated, “That all of the ships of the navy of the United States, now building, or hereafter to be built, shall be named by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President of the United States” in accordance with rules specifying that ships of the first class were to be named after states of the Union, and second and third class ships were to be named, respectively, after rivers and principal cities and towns.
Another law approved in 1858 (Act of June 12, 1858, c. 153, §5, 11 Stat. 319) provided a similar rule for “steamships of the navy,” except third-class vessels (those with fewer than twenty guns) were to be named by the SECNAV as the President may direct, taking care that no two vessels in the Navy shall bear the same name. §1531 of the Revised Statutes of 1873-1874, citing the 1819 and 1858 laws, states the following: “The vessels of the Navy shall be named by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President” in accordance with rules similar to those above, varying slightly depending on whether the vessel was a sailing ship or a steamship.
In 1898, Congress passed a law (Act of May 4, 1898, c. 234, 30 Stat. 390 [appropriations for the naval services]) prescribing rules for the naming of “first-class battle ships and monitors,” which specified that these were to be named after States and “shall not be named for any city, place, or persons until the names of the States, shall have been exhausted.” The provision did not explicitly state whose duty it would be to assign names to vessels. Congress repealed this provision in 1908 as it pertained to monitors, permitting those vessels to be named “as the President may direct.”
The reference to the SECNAV found in §1531 of the Revised Statutes of 1873-1874 is absent from the U.S. Code of 1925, which covers Navy vessel names in Title 34, §461-463. 3 10 U.S.C. §8662 was previously numbered as 10 U.S.C. §7292. It was renumbered as 10 U.S.C. §7292 by Section 807(d)(2) of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2019. Section 807 of the law directed the renumbering of various sections of Title 10 relating to the Navy and Marine Corps. Sections 806 and 808 did the same for sections of Title 10 relating to the Air Force and Army, respectively.
2. The law of Navy ship names today
The code today (10 U.S.C. §8662) is silent on the issue of who has the authority over Navy ship names, but the SECNAV arguably retains implicit authority, given the location of Section 8662 in subtitle C of Title 10, which covers the Navy and Marine Corps. The Navy’s process for Navy ship names is set forth in SECNAV Instruction 5031.1D of March 21, 2019, which states that the SECNAV is the sole entity with authority to approve the name of new construction, conversion, and long-term charter ships. The SECNAV is also the authority for approving the naming convention for new ship classes.
Section 370 of the FY2021 NDAA established a commission, commonly referred to as the Naming Commission, regarding the removal and renaming of certain Department of Defense assets (including ships) that commemorate the Confederate States of America or any person who served voluntarily with the confederacy.
3. Process for Navy ship names
For now, according to a congressional report, the process is as follows for Navy ship names.
Upon contract award for a new construction ship/ship class without an established naming convention, the cognizant Program Executive Office (PEO) notifies the Secretary of the Navy’s (SECNAV) public affairs office (PAO) and the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) that a contract has been awarded. The SECNAV PAO generates a tasker for the NHHC to develop proposed naming conventions and hull designations. This is the first step in developing Navy ship names.
These recommendations are supposed to be based on historical precedence for previous ships of similar type, capability, or mission and should include three potential naming conventions, with supporting rationale and proposed ship names associated with each convention. NHHC notifies the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Office of Counsel of the potential names to review for possible trademark law issues. After preparation of the naming convention memorandum, the NHHC routes the package through the cognizant PEO; Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Ship Programs (DASN Ships); Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research Development and Acquisition) (ASN [RD&A]); the Director of Navy Staff (DNS); the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO); and ultimately the SECNAV PAO. Each organization reviews the recommended naming conventions and prepares endorsement memoranda for the new Navy ship names. The package is forwarded to the SECNAV for consideration.
Once the naming convention has been established by the SECNAV, subsequent ship naming packages will be initiated upon contract award by the SECNAV PAO, who will generate a tasker for the NHHC to develop a proposed naming package. These recommendations should be based on the naming convention, historical precedence for previous ships, capability, or mission and include supporting rationale. The SECNAV PAO provides the NHHC with ship naming recommendations received from public sources for review and consideration.
The NHHC prepares a memorandum that provides ship name options to the SECNAV, which is routed through the DNS and the CNO. The CNO reviews the options for each hull to be named and forwards the package, along with CNO recommendations, to the SECNAV PAO.
Upon receipt of the naming recommendation package, the SECNAV PAO coordinates with SECNAV Legal Office to identify and resolve issues associated with all proposed names. Upon completion of this review, the package is forwarded to the SECNAV for consideration.
Upon the SECNAV’s selection of a name(s) of new construction ships, the SECNAV PAO prepares a SECNAVNOTE 5030 with input from NHHC for the SECNAV’s signature for distribution to the NHHC, the CNO, DNS, Chief of Naval Information, ASN (RD&A), DASN Ships, the ONR Office of Counsel and the cognizant PEO.
Upon completion of the 5030 the SECNAV PAO will generate a press release to formally release the name to the public. The NHHC maintains comprehensive ship naming records containing biographical data and ship heritage information associated with the ship’s namesake, including information concerning previous ships of the same name.