How the U.S. Navy Works

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.