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On the Naming of Ships

There seem to be as many ways of naming naval ships as there are Traveller campaigns. In real-life, navies often have a tradition or system for naming their ships.

Here are four "real-world" navies and their naming conventions, intended as a jumping-off point for Traveller navies:

Royal (British) Navy

From a small backwater island strategically located off the coast of Europe, the English built a major colonial empire and huge navy to control the seas in-between; through the Victorian Era (TL4), the British Empire was Earth's maritime superpower -- by law, the Royal Navy had to be bigger than the next two largest navies on the planet combined.

(The British were apparently proud to be a hereditary monarchy; almost all official organizations except for the Army were prefixed "Royal".)

Royal Navy ships were named according to one of several standard systems; class names varied according to the system:

  1. Capital ships (Battleships, Battlecruisers, and Aircraft Carriers) always bore traditional (often "inspirational") names -- HMS Dreadnaught, Agincourt, Iron Duke, Centurion, Conqueror, Thunderer, Valiant, Resolution, Repulse, Renown, Hood, Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Lion, Tiger, Courageous, Glorious, Ark Royal, Illustrious, Victorious, Formidable, Audacious, Colossus, Majestic, Vanguard.

    Classes were named after a "name ship" of the class. The British usually tried to give ships of a class similar names; for instance "Lion" and "Tiger" usually went together, as did "Couraegous", "Glorious" and "Furious" and (the quintessially British combination) "Invincible", "Inflexible", "Indomitable", and "Indefatigable".

  2. "Letter Classes", usually used for Destroyers and Submarines (though some TL5 light cruisers were also named this way): The class name is a letter of the alphabet; all ships in the class have names starting with this letter. Examples:
    • "B"-class destroyers -- HMS Basilisk, Beagle, Blanche, Boadicea, Brazen, Bulldog.
    • "D"-class cruisers -- HMS Danae, Dauntless, Dragon, Durban, Diomede.
    • "U"-class submarines -- HMS Upholder, Undine, Unity, Ursula, Unbeaten, Undaunted, Upright.
    • "C"-class cruisers (TL5) were the most elaborate of these letter classes, composed of several closely-related subclasses named after their first two letters:
      • "Ca" group -- HMS Cairo, Calypso, Cardiff, Calcutta, Capetown.
      • "Co" group -- HMS Colombo, Corsair, Coventry.
      • "Cu" group -- HMS Curacoa, Curlew
  3. "Generic Classes", usually used for Cruisers and some Destroyers. The class has some generic name and each ship in the class is named after a specific example of the class name. Examples:
    • Weapon-class destroyers -- HMS Battleaxe, Broadsword, Carronade, Culverin, Crossbow, Halberd, Musket, Tomahawk.
    • Tribal-class destroyers -- HMS Ashanti, Gurkha, Huron, Iroquois, Maori, Mohawk, Sikh, Zulu.
    • Town-class destroyers -- HMS Leeds, Campbeltown, Lancaster, Lincoln, Bath, Brighton, Newport.
    • Hunt-class escort destroyers -- HMS Berkeley, Exmoor, Southdown, Tynedale.
    • Cathedral-class cruisers -- HMS Exeter and York.
    • County-class cruisers -- HMS Cornwall, Cumberland, Kent, Dorsetshire, Shropshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Sussex.
    • Flower-class sloops -- HMS Foxglove, Lupin, Rosemary.

Once a ship had been named, the name was almost never changed. Remainder of an animistic belief that the ship's name was its "soul", changing the name was thought to bring bad luck to the ship. The major exceptions were of captured (or otherwise acquired foreign-built) ships, which were re-named if their name duplicated that of an existing British ship or sounded very "un-British".

British warships also were identified by a "pennant number" consisting of a single letter prefix and a two- or three-digit number such as "K.225" or "D.23". Theoretically, the letter identified the ship type, but frequent changes (and issuance of several letters to a type) meant there was no consistent numbering system, except that capital ships had no
prefix (just a number) and no numbers were duplicated within a prefix.

United States (American) Navy

A breakaway colony of the British Empire and "Earth's Largest Island Nation"; the United States had always dominated the American continents as a major regional power. With the crumbling of the British Empire in the two World Wars (TL 5-6) and the continuing rivalry of the Cold War (TL 7-8), America replaced Britain as Earth's maritime superpower.

When their navy first expanded out from coast defense at TL4-5, American ships were named according to rules established by Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt:

In addition, each ship type was distinguished by a type code of two to four letters; pennant numbers were always assigned consecutively within a ship type. American ship classes were always named after the "name ship" -- the first of the class counted by low pennant number. A shorthand form
of class name was the pennant number of the name ship -- "BB-61 class", "DDG-51 class", "SSN-21 class".

Some exceptions existed; one carrier was named "Shangri-La" after a fictional land, a cruiser was named "Canberra" after a foreign city. Originally armored (heavy) cruisers (CAs) were also named after States and Battlecruisers (CBs) after Battles and Famous Ships. (The first large American aircraft carriers -- Lexington and Saratoga -- were built on converted battlecruiser hulls, and later carriers followed this practice.)

Following the British tradition, once a ship had been formally named (at the launching of the hull), the name was normally not changed. Before this formal naming, names were often shuffled around during construction.

With the evolution of naval technology, new ship types replaced others, and the naming system changed accordingly. Originally new nomenclatures (and descriptive codes) were tacked on:

  1. At TL7 a new type of ship -- the Frigate (DL and DLG), an enlarged destroyer -- was introduced with Destroyer names; later reclassified as light cruisers because of their size, they retained their destroyer names.
  2. Also at TL7, the Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN), or "Boomer" -- able to launch nuclear missiles at land targets -- were introduced and named after historical statesmen: USS Lafayette, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin.

By TL8-9, the naming system was redone completely:

In addition, older ships remaining in service retained their names (and nomenclature), resulting in a confusing mixture of names. Adding to the confusion was the practice around TL9+ of occasionally naming any major combatant after a currently-living politician. At first, politician's names were limited to dead statesmen who had been involved with the Navy, but this soon broke down until by TL9, ships of all types were being named (and renamed) as political payoffs.

For a detailed ride through USN ship names, go to http://www.fas.org/dod-101/sys/ship/names.htm (This link appears to be defunct. Corrected info appreciated) or http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq63-1.htm

Japanese Navy (Nihon Teikoku Kaigun)

A string of volcanic islands off the coast of China, Japan was home to an isolationist, xenophobic culture until First Contact by the Americans in the early Victorian era. Shortly afterwards, a progressive faction around the Meiji Emperor ended their isolation and started a crash program (interrupted by a civil war with the traditionalists) to make themselves a modern superpower with their own colonial empire. Within a generation, Japan had pulled itself up from the TL3 Plateau to cutting-edge TL5. Over half a century later, during the reign of the Showa Emperor (Tojo Shogunate), their aggressive warrior cultural traditions led them into a suicidal war with the United States at TL6. It was during this period that their navy, the Nihon Teikoku Kaigun, reached its peak as the third most
powerful navy on Earth before being completely destroyed in the war.

(For over a century after losing this war, Japan remained in official denial about this part of their history, remembering only the American introduction of nuclear weapons at the very end of the war; "saving face" at the cost of dishonoring all those Japanese who put to sea in the warships of the Kaigun and never returned.)

Japanese warships were named according to their warrior tradition of "aestheticized violence" (explained in detail by "Zen and the Art of Divebombing" (http://www.friesian.com/divebomb.htm)), which looked upon combat as a work of (martial) art. Weapons and combat techniques were often given highly-poetic names, and warships were no exception.

A full list of Japanese warship names and their translations is found at http://www.combinedfleet.com/ijnnames.htm.

Again following British tradition, warships were never renamed once formally named. (With conversions from Battlecruiser to Battleship, Battlecruiser to Aircraft Carrier, fleet auxilliary to Aircraft Carrier, and Light Cruiser to Heavy Cruiser, the navy ended up with quite a bit of cross-naming.) The only exceptions were if merchant ships or non-combat auxiliaries were converted to combat ships; they would then be renamed to a proper warship's name.

Russian Navy

Covering the northern half of Earth's largest continent, the Russian Empire has always been primarily a land power. Despite this, at various times Russia has fielded a navy; the most powerful of these was the "Red Navy" (Krasniy Flot) during the Soviet era (TL5-8, between the two Russian Revolutions). At this time, Russia was ruled by an aggressive political cult which went all-out for expansion and world power; such power projection beyond their borders required a navy.

During this period, the Russian Navy only named major ships -- cruisers and capital ships. Smaller ships (including submarines) were only given pennant numbers such as "K-219".

Names were of three main types:

  1. Cities -- Kiev, Minsk, Moskva, Leningrad. (After the Second Russian Revolution, the largest submarines -- previously unnamed -- were named according to this tradition.) Some never-built TL6 battleships were to have been named after provinces -- Sovietski Soyuz (Soviet Union), Sovietskaya Ukrania (Soviet Ukrania) -- and one cruiser was actually so named -- Krasny Kavkaz (Red Causacus).
  2. Politicians (or "Heroes of the Revolution") -- Kirov, Frunze. (Before the First Russian Revolution, when Russia was a monarchy, capital ships were often named after Tsars of the past. This custom was revived after the Second Russian Revolution, when all surviving ships were renamed;
    Kirov became Pyotr Veliki -- "Peter the Great".)
  3. Naval Heroes (from times when Russia had a Navy) -- Admiral Senyavin, Vice-admiral Drozd.

Because of this period's bloodthirsty and volatile politics, the Russian Navy never developed a tradition of not changing ship names. Ships named after politicians were especially prone to renaming as their namesake "Heroes of the Revolution" were jailed, killed, or disappeared with the next power shift in the ruling cult.

The main peculiarity of Russian naval nomenclature is class names. All Russian ship classes were "named" by a two-to-four-digit "Project Number" assigned at design time. These Project Numbers were assigned completely at random as a counterintelligence measure. Subclasses (blocks) were distinguished by a decimal fraction or a letter suffix in the Project number. Examples:

Project Numbers were used only within Russia (a complete list can be found at http://www.warships1.com/Russian_projects1.htm); foreign powers assigned their own class names for identification; surface ships were given Russian-sounding (often nonsense) names beginning with "K" (Kashin, Krivak, Kresta, Kynda, Kola) and submarines names from the American phonetic alphabet (Foxtrot, Victor, Yankee, Alfa).

Feedback from a reader indicates that "often nonsense" is incorrect; that "...[a]ll NATO K code names did have a meaning; they were either a place/geographic name, or a diminutive of a name, or a real Russian term). (e.g. Kashin is a cape, northeast of the White Sea; Kola is a peninsula). This also ignores that the small vessels were not given K-names, but names that also had meaning, e.g. Osa = Wasp, or "Grisha" = diminutive of "Grigori"."