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.


Navy Ships

While most military branches rely on bases and airfields, the Navy is based on ships and boats. Not only are they key pieces of military equipment, but many sailors live on them for most of the year.

The largest Navy ships are aircraft carriers. More like floating cities than just ships, each aircraft carrier literally has its own zip code. Including the more than 2,000 airmen needed to fly the carrier’s air wing, the crew of a carrier numbers about 5,500. Nimitz-class carriers are the largest ships in the world; they are 1,092 feet long with a displacement of 97,000 tons fully loaded [source: The U.S. Navy]. There are a total of 13 carriers in active service.

Aircraft carriers
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS George Washington (CVN 73) and USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) conduct an ammunition transfer between ships.

Cruisers are large multi-purpose ships, often equipped with advanced missile systems (AEGIS). All 22 Navy cruisers are Ticonderoga-class vessels, guided missile cruisers named after Ft. Ticonderoga. Cruisers can act in support roles (as part of a carrier group or amphibious assault group, for example) or as flagships of their own action groups [source: The U.S. Navy].

Missile cruiser
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
The guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) departs Naval Station Mayport's Basin for routine work-up training off the coast of Florida.

Destroyers are smaller, versatile ships that rely on speed and maneuverability. All modern destroyers (there are more than 50 of them) are of the Arleigh Burke class. Guided missile destroyers are built around an integrated missile guidance system and multi-function phased array radar. Named after a naval hero of World War II and the Korean War, he was the Chief of Naval Operations during the Eisenhower administration.

Missile destroyer
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers USS Russell DDG 59, left, and USS Shoup DDG 86.

Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates are mainly used as escorts for shipping. This is type of general-purpose escort vessel named after Oliver Hazard Perry, a naval hero during the War of 1812. He is famously quoted saying “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
USS Kauffman steams with the Abraham Lincoln Battle Group on a regularly scheduled deployment conducting combat missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Submarines can operate covertly beneath the surface of the ocean. The Navy uses submarines as missile firing platforms and to attack enemy surface vessels, and they can also be used for covert surveillance.

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
Attack submarine USS Virginia (SSN 774) is covered in snow and moored to the pier at Submarine Base New London.

Amphibious Assault Ships come in a variety of forms and sizes – they are used to extend the Navy’s reach from the sea onto land. Very often, the troops sent to fight on land by an amphibious assault ship are Marines.

Amphibious assault vehicle
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
An amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) makes its way toward amphibious transport dock USS Juneau (LPD 10).

Battleships are huge, heavily armed ships that can bombard shorelines and inflict massive damage on enemy ships. As of 2007, the United States does not have any active duty battleships.

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
The battleship USS Wisconsin (BB 64) lies in its birth along the Elizabeth River at the maritime museum Nauticus, in downtown Norfolk, Va.

In addition to their ships, the Navy uses a variety of aircraft for transport and combat. A key requirement for many Navy aircraft is that they have the capability to operate from the deck of an aircraft carrier. This means they must be able to take off and land in a relatively short distance (although steam catapults and cable-and-hook arrest systems help). For fighter aircraft, the Navy relies heavily on the F/A-18.


Navy History

The Navy draws its lineage to the Continental Navy that fought for the United States against England in the Revolutionary War. A largely jury-rigged Navy made up of non-military vessels pressed into service, the Continental Navy was disbanded at the end of the war. The U.S. Constitution empowered Congress to raise and fund a Navy, which they finally did in 1794. The Department of the Navy was formed in 1798 [source: The Naval Historical Center]. Only one of the original six frigates purchased in 1794 is still in existence. The USS Constitution is still in active duty as a promotional and goodwill vessel for the Navy.

USS Constitution
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
The USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship afloat, in Boston Harbor.

The Navy has been heavily involved in every American military conflict, and has contributed to many humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. On December 7, 1941, Navy ships were the target of one of the worst military attacks on U.S. soil when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The Navy has also relied upon a partially civilian corps of engineers, known as the SeaBees, to construct airstrips and other infrastructure crucial to military missions. The SeaBees have built schools, hospitals and power plants throughout the developing world.

Pearl Harbor under attack
Photo courtesy of The National Archives
Pearl Harbor under siege, December 7, 1941.

In 1945, at the peak of World War II, the Navy had a historic high of 3.4 million personnel. Today, the Navy performs its job with about 350,000 personnel [source: The Naval Historical Center]. Navy modernization efforts are focused on making their ships more efficient, allowing them to operate with greatly reduced crew compliments. This will reduce the lifetime operating costs of Navy ships (when you calculate the cost to pay, train, and provide benefits for sailors) by billions of dollars [source: The U.S. Navy.

Family members on the same ship
On November 14, 1942, the USS Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and sunk. On board were five brothers from the Sullivan family of Iowa. The unfathomable tragedy visited on the Sullivan family gave rise to a recurring myth – the Navy won’t allow multiple siblings from serving on the same ship. In fact, the Navy has no such rule. However, in the event that multiple family members are enlisted in the Navy, and all but one of them is killed, the surviving member will be transferred to non-combat duty [source: The Naval Historical Center].


Life in the Navy

Those who enlist in the Navy go through eight weeks (plus one week just for processing and paperwork) of boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, on the shore of Lake Michigan near Chicago. Boot camp for the Navy is more classroom-based than other military training programs – even marching and weapons exercises are conducted indoors. In part, this is because so many regular Navy activities take place inside ships.

Navy running drills
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
A recruit division sings as they successfully complete the final leg of a Battle Stations drill.

Anyone wishing to become an officer in the Navy (and possibly captain a ship someday) has several options. The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland is a four-year undergraduate college that prepares graduates to work as officers in the Navy. This is a prestigious and challenging program that requires a Congressional nomination to apply. Potential officers can also attend Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida. This 13-week course is more rigorous than boot camp, and requires recruits to hold a degree before acceptance.

Graduation day
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
Newly commissioned officers celebrate at the U.S. Naval Academy class of 2005 graduation and commissioning ceremony.

Once past their initial training, recruits may attend a technical school or take part in the Journeyman Program. This places each Navy recruit with more experienced sailors in a variety of ratings to learn various Navy tasks first hand.

The Navy Reserve
Navy reservists train one weekend per month and two weeks each year. They provide a ready force of trained sailors who can be called up if the Navy needs additional manpower for a specific reason. Reservists are eligible for technical training during their service, and are eligible for certain veterans’ benefits when they retire.
Life on shore for Navy personnel is much the same as it is on other military bases. Everyone receives a housing stipend (new recruits usually live in dormitory-style apartments), and on-base housing is available for single sailors as well as larger families. Many amenities are included on the base, like grocery stores, medical facilities, churches and libraries. Recreational opportunities are provided as well, such as movie theaters, golf courses and fitness centers.

The focus of Navy life, of course, is living and working on a ship. The standard Navy ship deployment lasts for six months; however, the Navy is experimenting with deployments shorter or longer than six months to make them more flexible and less predictable. Needless to say, living for six months or more with several hundred people on a ship means close quarters and a lot of patience and camaraderie. The circumstances also require complete, unwavering loyalty and obedience to the ship’s captain, whose authority on his or her ship is absolute.

There is a great deal of work to be done at any given time on a Navy ship, so sailors are kept busy. Even so, limited recreational activities are provided – one famous example was the “Reagan Idol” singing competition held on the USS Ronald Reagan that landed the winner on the actual American Idol TV show in 2007. In addition, every sailor gets 30 days of leave each year. They can fly for free on a stand-by basis on any Navy flight and most other military flights [source: The U.S. Navy].

Jarrod Fowler on Reagan Idol
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
Intelligence Specialist 2nd Class Jarrod Fowler performs during the Ronald Reagan Idol talent competition, March 26, 2006.

Women play an important role in the modern Navy – their progress toward equal treatment and pay mirrored the equal rights movement in the United States. In 1976, Congress ordered that women be allowed to enter the Naval Academy. However, a 1948 law prevented women from serving on most Navy ships. This was overturned in 1978, and women have been serving their country aboard Navy vessels ever since. In addition, women were cleared for air combat duty in the 1990s, and now serve in that respect as well [source: PBS].

Lt. Renee Scherr
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Navy
Lt. Renee Scherr, assigned to Commander Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Pacific, speaks to a group of 5th grade girls during a career day at Meridian Elementary School.

As members of a U.S. military organization, all Navy personnel are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Dismissal from the Navy can take a variety of forms, from an honorable discharge to a court martial, depending on the circumstances surrounding the dismissal. See How the Army Works for a full explanation.

Navy veterans and retirees are eligible for a host of benefits ranging from burial in state cemeteries, health and life insurance, low-interest loans for mortgages or small businesses, and veterans’ health care. The full suite of benefits available may depend on the nature of the veteran’s dismissal – usually an honorable discharge or retirement is necessary for access to all benefits. A search for answers to specific questions about veterans’ benefits begins here: The National Archives.

For lots more information on the Navy and related topics, check out the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Ebbert, Jean and Hall, Marie-Beth. "Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook." Brassey's Inc; Revised edition (December 1994). ISBN 978-0028811123.
  • Work, Robert O. "Winning the Race: A Naval Fleet Platform Architecture for Enduring Maritime Supremacy." Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. March 1, 2005. AlterFleetStdy/B.20050301.AlterFleetStdy.pdf
  • Naval Historical Center. “The Establishment of the Department of the Navy.”
  • Naval Historical Center. “Personnel Strength of the U.S. Navy: 1775 to present.”
  • Naval Historical Center. “The Sullivan Brothers: U.S. Navy Policy Regarding Family Members Serving Together at Sea.”
  • U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy Organization – An Overview.
  • U.S. Navy. “Navy Benefits: Travel Benefits.”
  • U.S. Navy Fact File. “Aircraft Carriers – CVN 21 Program.”
  • U.S. Navy Fact File. “Aircraft Carriers - CV, CVN.”
  • U.S. Navy Fact File. “Cruisers – CG.”