NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — On Monday at 1 p.m. the Navy will give a name to its next Virginia-class attack submarine — until now referred to only by its hull number, SSN 791.
The boat is being built by Newport News Shipbuilding and General Dynamics Electric Boat, and it is likely be named for a U.S. state, in keeping with the latest Navy naming conventions.
But what might it be called, and who decides?
Ships are named by Navy secretaries — in this case former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus — under the direction of the president and considering the recommendations of Congress, according to a December 2011 report prepared by the Navy.
Though Mabus has favored state names for submarines, that has not always been the case among his predecessors.
The first Navy sub was named for its inventor, John Phillip Holland, and the second was named the USS Plunger, a description of the boat's diving capabilities. Since then, the boats have been named for both aquatic and land animals (Halibut, Sea Wolf and Tarantula, to name a few); famous Americans (Patrick Henry, Theodore Roosevelt and King Kamehameha of Hawaii); and cities (Los Angeles, Toledo and Hampton, which is named jointly for cities in Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina).
But since the mid-1970s, when the USS Ohio was ordered and built, all but four submarines have been named for states.
According to the Navy report Mabus "subscribes to the thinking … that the Naval Register should always include ships named after states of the union, 'so as to maintain the valuable relationship this promotes between the Navy and the citizens of individual states.'"
So far he has named five boats for five states, picking states that "had been absent the longest from the U.S. Naval Register": Illinois, Washington, Colorado, Indiana and South Dakota.
While Mabus has the authority to break from the tradition he has thus far followed, if he continues to choose state names long absent from naval ships, several stick out as possibilities.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, "there is a small handful of states for which the most time – 90 years – has passed since a ship named for the state has been in commissioned service with the Navy as a combat asset, and for which no ship by that name is currently under construction."
They are: Delaware, Kansas, Montana, Oregon and Vermont, and the last ships to bear all the states' names were battleships.
The last USS Oregon was decommissioned in 1919. The decommissioning of the USS Vermont came a year later. The USS Kansas was pulled from service in 1921 followed by the USS Delaware in 1923.
The first USS Montana was launched in Newport News in 1906, but it was renamed the Missoula in 1920. Construction of the battleship Montana was stopped in 1922 because of an international treaty limiting the size of the U.S. Navy and other war fleets around the globe.
In the early 1940s the name USS Montana was to grace the lead ship in a new breed of battleships, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. But the class of ships never got beyond the design phase because by 1943 the Navy had recognized the need for more aircraft carriers, deciding "the battleship was no longer the dominant element of sea power."