How the U.S. Navy Works

The United States Navy is the branch of the U.S. military that is equipped to fight wars on the oceans, seas, and even lakes and rivers of the world. It is by far the largest Navy in the world – in fact, if you combined every other navy in the world into one giant navy, it would only be about 5 percent bigger than the U.S. Navy [source: The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA)]. Naval dominance is a vital part of military strategy because ships can patrol international waters, extending the United States’ reach far beyond the country’s physical borders. The Navy also allows key elements of the United States’ arsenal, such as nuclear weapons and aircraft groups, to be located off of U.S. soil, preventing the military from being crippled by a few major attacks to the U.S. mainland.

Navy Flag
Public Domain
U.S. Navy Flag

In this article, we’ll look at how the Navy is structured, what ships they use, the Navy’s history, joining up, life inside and leaving the Navy.

Navy Structure

Doanld C. Winter
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command
Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Donald C. Winter
The U.S. Navy is one of the main military branches. As such, the Department of the Navy sits within the Department of Defense. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is technically the highest ranking Navy official, followed by the Secretary of Defense. The Department of the Navy is headed by a Secretary. Along with an extensive administrative staff, the secretary handles political and administrative tasks and oversees everything the Navy does. The Chief of Naval Operations (the highest ranking officer in the Navy and part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) is below the secretary. The U.S. Marine Corps also falls within the Department of the Navy, under the Secretary of the Navy [source: The U.S. Navy]. However, the Marines are a separate military branch, and no ranking Marine answers to any Navy officer (except when on board a Navy ship).

The Navy’s military structure is divided into Operating Forces and Shore Establishment. There are nine Operating Forces:

  • Atlantic Fleet (now known as Fleet Forces Command)
  • Pacific Fleet
  • Military Sealift Command
  • Naval Forces Central Command
  • Naval Forces Europe
  • Naval Network Warfare Command
  • Naval Special Warfare Command
  • Operational Test and Evaluation Forces
  • Navy Reserve

Within each Operating Force are various numbered fleets that have jurisdiction over a specific geographic area. When a task force of vessels moves from one area to another, they are designated as part of the new area’s fleet. The smallest self-sufficient operating unit in the Navy is the individual ship. However, ships rarely operate alone. Each ship has specific functions, strengths and weaknesses, so they operate in task forces in which groups of ships complement each other to help accomplish the overall mission.

Individual ship
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
An MH-60S Seahawk ship maneuvers away from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5).

Military Sealift Command is a special part of the Navy, because it conducts seaborne transportation of supplies for every branch of the U.S. military. Dry goods and fuel are carried on massive cargo ships and tankers throughout the world, wherever the United States military needs them.

The Shore Establishment is divided into a wide variety of branches to deal with naval intelligence, training, research and development, repair and maintenance, and other logistical concerns. The Naval Academy is part of the Shore Establishment.

Navy Ranks
Commissioned Officers Warrant Officers Enlisted*
Admiral of the Navy (special rank held by only one person, Admiral George Dewey, as a result of his exploits in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War) Chief Warrant Officer 5(WO-5) Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy
Fleet Admiral – Five Stars (not assigned since WW II) Chief Warrant Officer 4 (WO-4) Master Chief Petty Officer
Admiral (ADM) - Four Stars Chief Warrant Officer 3 (WO-3) Senior Chief Petty Officer
Vice Admiral (VADM) - Three Stars Chief Warrant Officer 2 (WO-2) Chief Petty Officer
Rear Admiral Upper Half (RADM) - Two Stars
Petty Officer 1st Class
Rear Admiral Lower Half (RDML) - One Star
Petty Officer 2nd Class
Captain (CAPT)
Petty Officer 3rd Class
Commander (CDR)
Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)
Seaman Apprentice
Lieutenant (LT)
Seaman Recruit
Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG)

Ensign (ENS)

* Note: Enlisted officers are classified by rate instead of rank.

Along with their rank, a Navy sailor has a rating, which is their specific job in the Navy. Examples of ratings include Electronics Technician, Gunner’s Mate or Boatswain Mate. This shouldn’t be confused with rate, which is an enlisted sailor’s pay grade.