U.S. Navy Ship Classes: A Close Look at Classifications

Photo by Canadian Armed Forces Cpl. Djalma Vuong-De Ramos

Much like the other American branches of service, the U.S. Navy, is second to none. American sailors are better trained and better equipped and they serve on some of the most advanced ships to ever cruise the oceans. Sure, the North Koreans and Chinese might have a larger naval force by sheer numbers, but the quality of the U.S. Navy makes up for any discrepancies in inventory numbers.

The surface fleet is comprised of various classes of vessels, and the submarine force is made up of attack submarines, ballistic missile submarines, and guided missile submarines.

USAMM assembled this list of Navy ship classes to help those non-Navy types out there who aren’t fluent in Navy speak.

Gerald R. Ford-class
The Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier is the newest of Navy ship classes and carriers in the U.S. fleet. The Navy plans to replace the Nimitz class ships with Ford class vessels.

According to the Navy, the Ford has first-in-class technology including a new nuclear plant, the ability to generate nearly three times the amount of electrical power, innovative advanced arresting gear and the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS).

EMALS replaces the steam catapult system traditionally used to launch aircraft and will expand the aircraft launch envelope, paving the way for innovations in manned/unmanned aircraft as well as providing the opportunity for other technological advancements in the future.

Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Peter Burghart

The Zumwalt-class destroyer is another of the newest of Navy ship classes in the U.S. Navy and it the Navy says it is the largest and most technologically advanced surface combatant in the world. The USS Zumwalt is the lead ship of a class of next-generation multi-mission destroyers designed to strengthen naval power from the sea. The vessel is a multi-mission stealth ship.

According to the U.S. Navy, the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is one of the Navy ship classes considered a small surface combatant armed with capabilities focused on defeating global challenges in the littorals. LCS is designed to provide joint force access in the littorals. LCS can operate independently or in high-threat environments as part of a networked battle force that includes larger, multi-mission surface combatants.

The Freedom-class LCS is one of two littoral combat ship classes in service today.

The Independence-class LCS is the second of the two LCS classes. Identifying them is easy because they have a unique trimaran design. They are one of the more easily identifiable Navy ship classes.

The largest of all amphibious warfare ships, modern U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships, also referred to as “big decks,” resemble small aircraft carriers. These ships must be capable of sailing in harm’s way and enable rapid combat power buildup ashore in the face of opposition. The U.S. Navy maintains the largest and most capable amphibious force in the world.

The America-class amphibious assault ship will replace the Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship. The ship can carry the F-35B, AV-8B Harrier II, V-22 Osprey, and the AH-1Z Viper. This is one of the most unique Navy ship classes.

Photo by Navy Petty Officer Roger S. Duncan

San Antonio-class
Amphibious transport dock ships are warships that embark, transport and land elements of a landing force for a variety of expeditionary warfare missions.

These ships are used to transport and land U.S. Marines, their equipment, and supplies by embarked Landing Craft Air Cushion or conventional landing craft and amphibious assault vehicles augmented by helicopters or vertical take-off and landing aircraft. These Navy ship classes support amphibious assault, special operations, or expeditionary warfare missions and serve as secondary aviation platforms for amphibious operations.

Whidbey Island-class
The Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship is one of the Navy ship classes intended to transport Marines and their vehicles for amphibious operations. They can carry up to four launch air-cushioned landing craft, the massive hovercrafts that Marines use to carry tanks and vehicles to shore.

Harpers Ferry-class
These Navy ship classes project power ashore by transporting and launching amphibious vessels and vehicles containing Marines. These ships can also provide docking and repair services to smaller ships.

The primary mission of the Cyclone-class patrol coastal ships is coastal patrol and interdiction surveillance, an important aspect of littoral operations outlined in the U.S. Navy’s maritime strategy. These Navy ship classes help combat attacks such as those that occurred in Yemen.

Cyclone class patrol ships are particularly suited for the maritime homeland security mission and have been employed jointly with the U.S. Coast Guard to help protect America's coastline, ports and waterways from terrorist attack. In addition, the ships have been forward deployed to the Gulf region in support of the war on terrorism.

Photo by Canadian Forces photo

Arleigh Burke-class
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyers replaced the Charles F. Adams-class, and they are designed with an all-new hull form, incorporating much of the Spruance-class destroyer propulsion and machinery plant, and the integrated Aegis Weapons System proven on the Kidd-class destroyers and installed on the larger Ticonderoga class cruisers.

These Navy ship classes have been continuously upgraded with advanced sensors and weapons and improved support systems.

The Wasp-class ships are currently the largest amphibious Navy ship classes in the world. The lead ship, the USS Wasp was commissioned in July 1989 in Norfolk, Virginia.

These ships provide the U.S. Marine Corps with a means of ship-to-shore movement by helicopter in addition to movement by landing craft. The ships have been participants in major humanitarian-assistance, occupation, and combat operations in which the United States has been involved.

Photo by Marine Corps Cpl. Yvonna Guyette

Avenger-class ships are designed as mine sweepers/hunter-killers capable of finding, classifying, and destroying moored and bottom mines. These Navy ship classes were purchased in 1990, bringing the total to 14 fully deployable, oceangoing Avenger class ships.

These ships use sonar and video systems, cable cutters and a mine detonating device that can be released and detonated by remote control. They are also capable of conventional sweeping measures. The ships are of fiberglass sheathed, wooden hull construction.

Modern U.S. Navy Ticonderoga-class cruisers ships perform primarily in a battle force role. These ships are multi-mission Air Warfare, Undersea Warfare, Naval Surface Fire Support, and Surface Warfare surface combatants capable of supporting carrier battle groups, amphibious forces, or of operating independently and as flagships of surface action groups.

Ships in these Navy ship classes are equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles giving them additional long range strike warfare capability. Some Aegis Cruisers have been outfitted with a ballistic missile defense capability.

These aircraft carriers have been the backbone of the U.S. Navy for decades and will eventually be replaced by the Ford-class carriers.

There are 10 Nimitz-class carriers, and all are nuclear powered in these Navy ship classes.

Photo by Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Crayton Agnew

Blue Ridge-class
The two Blue Ridge-class ships are the only ships designed from the keel up for an amphibious/command ship role. After entering service, both ships largely have served as fleet flagships.

USS Blue Ridge and USS Mount Whitney's are only two ships in these Navy ship classes and the service lives were extended in 2011 by the chief of Naval Operations to 2039.

USS Constitution
The U.S. Navy’s oldest vessel, the Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned vessel still sailing. Nicknamed "Old Ironsides," because of a battle fought in 1812 where British cannonballs reportedly bounced off its hull during the fight.

It is the only one of its kind and part of the six original frigates built for the U.S. Navy.

Attacks Submarines
The Navy has three classes of attack submarines in service. Los Angeles-class submarines are the backbone of the submarine force with 40 now in commission. Thirty Los Angeles-class subs are equipped with 12 vertical launch system tubes for firing Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

The Navy also has three Seawolf-class submarines. Commissioned on July 19, 1997, USS Seawolf is exceptionally quiet, fast, well-armed, and equipped with advanced sensors. The Seawolf class has eight torpedo tubes. The third ship of the class, USS Jimmy Carter, has a 100-foot hull extension called the multi-mission platform. This hull section provides for additional payloads to accommodate advanced technology used to carry out classified research and development and for enhanced warfighting capabilities. 

Photo by Navy Chief Petty Officer Christopher Perez

The Navy continues to build the next-generation attack submarine, the Virginia-class. Twelve Virginias have been commissioned and they will replace Los Angeles-class submarines as they retire.

Ballistic Missile Submarines
The Navy's ballistic missile submarines, often referred to as "boomers," serve as an undetectable launch platform for intercontinental missiles. They are designed specifically for stealth and the precise delivery of nuclear warheads.

Each of the 14 Ohio-class subs originally carried up to 24 submarine-launched ballistic missiles with multiple, independently targeted warheads. However, under provisions of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, each submarine has had four of its missile tubes permanently deactivated and now carry a maximum of 20 missiles. 

Guided Missile Submarines
Combined, the four subs in this class represent more than half of the submarine force's vertical launch payload capacity with each capable of carrying up to 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.

The USS Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Georgia are all guided missile subs, also known as SSGNs.

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