Know Your Military

Ships, Subs, Cutters and Whatever Floats Your Boat

April 17, 2019 | BY David Vergun

The military uses ships to move supplies and people and to project power around the world. Here's a look at who has these vessels and what they're used for.

U.S. Navy

The Navy has around 430 commissioned ships of all types, from aircraft carriers and destroyers to submarines and amphibious warfare ships.

Sailors walk on ship
USS McFaul
Sailors prepare to get the guided missile destroyer USS McFaul underway in Norfolk, Va., Jan. 25, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Will Hardy
VIRIN: 190125-N-RG171-0052

All aircraft carriers and submarines are nuclear powered. Submarines also carry nuclear weapons and constitute one leg of the nuclear triad — the other components being bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The oldest Navy ship is the USS Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides," a three-masted heavy frigate launched in 1794. About 60 sailors man the ship, which is used for ceremonial and special events and education tours.

The USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute in honor of America's 237th birthday during the ship's annual Fourth of July turnaround cruise in Boston Harbor on July 4, 2013.  More than 500 guests got underway with Old Ironsides for a three-hour tour of Boston Harbor in celebration of Independence Day.
The USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute in honor of America's 237th birthday
The USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute in honor of America's 237th birthday during the ship's annual Fourth of July turnaround cruise in Boston Harbor on July 4, 2013. More than 500 guests got underway with Old Ironsides for a three-hour tour of Boston Harbor in celebration of Independence Day.
VIRIN: 516091-Y-IBV20-866

The Military Sealift Command has about 130 noncommissioned ships, mostly used to transport munitions, equipment, fuel and supplies for the military, wherever needed. The ships are owned by the Navy, but manned mostly by civilians, not Navy sailors.

Men prepare pallet loads to be hoisted
Supply Stock
Civilian mariners onboard fleet replenishment oiler USNS Guadalupe, a Military Sealift Command ship, provide Navy guided missile destroyer USS Stockdale with supplies during an underway replenishment in the Indian Ocean, April 12, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class David Wyscaver
VIRIN: 190412-N-WF604-117C

U.S. Army

The Army has its own fleet of ships, including landing craft, tugs, barges, dredges, logistic support vessels and even aircraft repair ships.

The General Frank S. Besson-class logistic support vessels are the Army’s largest ships at 273 feet long. They can even haul heavy Abrams main battle tanks. Soldiers who man these vessels like to be referred to as Army mariners, not sailors.

A crane lifts a fuselage to a ship.
Fuselage Transport
The fuselage of a C-17 cargo aircraft is lifted onto the Army transport ship SSGT Robert T. Kuroda at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, Calif., July 22, 2009.
Photo By: Gregg Smith, Navy
VIRIN: 090722-N-MQ132-040C

U.S. Air Force

The Air Force has the fewest number of ships among the services — just two: the 71-foot-long Rising Star, a tugboat based at Thule Air Base, Greenland, and the 120-foot 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron drone recovery watercraft. Like all of the services, the Air Force has a fleet of small boats not referred to as ships, including patrol craft and inflatables.

Sailor adjusts ropes on a boat.
Drone Duty
Byron Howle, an 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron contractor, secures a rope on an Air Force drone recovery watercraft as it leaves the docks at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. where it’s based, July 22, 2009. The 120-foot ship is used to recover drones after live-fire exercises over the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo By: Samuel King Jr., Air Force
VIRIN: 090723-F-7814K-113C

U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard has a fleet of ships that it refers to collectively as cutters. To qualify as a cutter, the vessel has to be 65 feet or greater in length; otherwise, it’s a boat.

The longest cutter is the USCGC Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker. The shortest cutters are the 65-foot inland and river buoy tenders and small harbor tugs.

Small boat floats beside large boat
Boat Launch
Crew members from the Coast Guard Cutter Munro launch the cutter's 35-foot boat to conduct fisheries boardings in the Central Pacific, Dec. 4, 2018. The Munro was on its first operational patrol and was en route to Fiji to conduct operations with the Fiji navy.
Photo By: Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew West
VIRIN: 181204-G-NO310-663C