Aircraft Carrier Designations

We have previously described a variety of different designation systems used by the United States military, including those for aircraft and missiles. The US Navy has also developed its own comparable designation system for ships that dates back to the 1890s. The system has evolved considerably over the years, but has generally consisted of a two to four letter code defining the type of vessel followed by a dash and a hull number. The numbers are usually assigned sequentially to new ships of that same type.

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), the newest aircraft carrier in the US Navy
USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), the newest aircraft carrier in the US Navy

Battleships, for example, began with the USS Indiana commissioned in 1895. This ship was originally designated as Battleship #1, which was later abbreviated to BB-1. Subsequent battleships included the USS Arizona (BB-39) sunk at Pearl Harbor as well as the USS Missouri (BB-63) where Japan signed the formal surrender ending World War II.

Other major types of naval vessels have similar designations, including destroyers (DD-#) and submarines (SS-#). It is also common for a type of ship like the destroyer to be split into sub-variants with different yet related designations, such as the destroyer escort (DE-#) or guided missile destroyer (DDG-#). Cruisers, for example, have traditionally been classified as light cruisers (CL-#) or heavy cruisers (CA-#) and more recently as guided missile cruisers (CG-#) or nuclear powered guided missile cruisers (CGN-#).

The aircraft carrier emerged as a new type of naval ship following World War I. In selecting an abbreviation to represent this new ship, the US Navy chose the letters "CV" as an abbreviation for "carrier aviation." Although it might seem more logical to use the letters "AC" for "aircraft carrier," a ship designation beginning with the letter A was usually reserved for auxiliary vessels like cargo ships, tenders, hospital ships, oilers, repair ships, and other transports. The code AC itself had already been applied to the collier, a type of ship designed to carry coal and refuel other vessels at sea.

In addition, the aircraft carrier was often seen as a vessel similar to a cruiser since many early carriers around the world were converted from cruisers. Since cruiser designations began with C, it was logical to use the same letter for an aircraft carrier. However, a direct abbreviation of "carrier aviation" was not possible since the designation "CA" was already used for heavy cruisers. The Navy instead chose to use the second letter in aviation to create the designation "CV" that we know today.

USS Langley (CV-1), America's first aircraft carrier
USS Langley (CV-1), America's first aircraft carrier

The first ship to adopt this new designation was the USS Langley (CV-1) commissioned in 1922. The Langley had originally been a collier known as the USS Jupiter (AC-3). The ship underwent an extensive two-year rebuilding before emerging with a flat wood-covered deck for the operation of fixed-wing planes. The Langley was viewed as an experimental ship and was soon followed by several larger and more capable aircraft carriers during the 1930s. Among these new ships were vessels that would earn great fame during World War II, including the USS Saratoga (CV-3) and USS Enterprise (CV-6).

The aircraft carrier continued to evolve at a rapid pace during World War II. Given the need for so many ships to support different kinds of missions across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, new types of carriers also began to emerge. The traditional aircraft carrier became known as the fleet carrier (CV-#) best represented by the 24 ships of the Essex (CV-9) class. Joining the fleet carriers were smaller ships like the light carrier (CVL-#) exemplified by nine examples of the Independence (CVL-22) class and the escort carrier (CVE-#) of which 86 were built for convoy defense. By the end of the war, a new type of very large aircraft carriers was under construction known as the Midway class. Since the three ships of this class were so much bigger than their predecessors, the Navy originally gave them the new designation "CVB" for "large aircraft carrier." The USS Midway, now on display at the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum, became CVB-41 even though this designation was later abandoned.

Further diversification of aircraft carrier designations continued after the war. A new generation of "super carriers" was ushered in during the 1950s with the completion of the Forrestal class. The USS Forrestal was originally known as CVA-59 standing for attack aircraft carrier. A new revolution in ship design also came with the introduction of the USS Enterprise designated as CVAN-65 for nuclear powered attack aircraft carrier. During the same time period, many of the older Essex class ships were modified as dedicated anti-submarine ships and redesignated CVS for small or ASW aircraft carriers. An example is the USS Yorktown (CV-10, CVS-10) located at the Patriot's Point Maritime Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. Other older carriers were retired from front-line service and relegated to auxiliary ship status. These vessels were redesignated as "AVT" and used for support roles like aircraft transport or training. The USS Lexington (CV-16, AVT-16) mentioned in the question is an example of such a ship and is featured at the Museum on the Bay in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Still other older carriers were converted to a new type of vessel designed to transport Marines into combat. Called amphibious assault helicopter carriers (LPH), these vessels were similar to traditional aircraft carriers but adapted to carry helicopters and land Marines ashore. An example is the USS Princeton (CV-37, LPH-5). These helicopter carriers were also joined by newly-built vessels like the Tarawa (LHA-1) and Wasp (LHD-1) classes built specifically as amphibious assault ships but with improved capabilities over the older conversions.

USS Boxer (LHD-4) amphibious assault ship
USS Boxer (LHD-4) amphibious assault ship

As the 1960s progressed, the large variety of designations available for aircraft carriers was becoming overly complex and confusing. The Navy decided to simplify the scheme in 1975 by returning to the original designation "CV" for conventional aircraft carriers and "CVN" for nuclear powered aircraft carriers. The "V" in the designation has been further clarified as referring to fixed-wing aircraft. Although this type of carrier often carries four to eight helicopters in its complement, its primary mission is to operate fixed-wing planes like the F-18 Hornet and E-2 Hawkeye.

Today's amphibious assault ships use the designations "LHA" or "LHD" where the "H" refers to the helicopters embarked aboard such vessels. These ships can also carry fixed-wing planes like the AV-8B Harrier, but their primary mission is to operate transport helicopters such as the CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Super Stallion.

I believe the purpose of the statement you found about fixed versus rotating wings is to differentiate between the fixed-wing aircraft typically carried aboard aircraft carriers and the helicopters that dominate the decks of amphibious assault ships. Helicopters are also sometimes referred to as rotary-wing vehicles since they become airborne thanks to lift generated using rotating blades.
- answer by Molly Swanson, 1 May 2005

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