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What’s In A Name? The Politics Behind America’s Newest Aircraft Carrier

A future aircraft carrier will be named after Navy hero Doris “Dorie” Miller U.S. Navy Yesterday, the U.S. Navy broke from convention, naming an a

Yesterday, the U.S. Navy broke from convention, naming an aircraft carrier after Ship’s Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller, a humble, enlisted naval hero of no particular political achievement. In recent memory, naming honors for modern U.S. carriers—the centerpieces of the U.S. Fleet—were reserved for the maritime elite: U.S. Presidents, congressmen, or admirals. A few more were named for America’s earliest aircraft carriers, the proud flat-tops that held the Pacific front in early World War II. 

Why such a dramatic departure from established tradition?

Well, there are plenty of persuasive reasons to name the future Ford class “CVN 81” for a hero like Dorie Miller. A recipient of the Navy Cross after heroics at Pearl Harbor, naming a ship after Mr. Miller honors the last remaining World War II veterans. An African-American, Mr. Miller’s example (both on and off the field of battle) paved the way for desegregation of the U.S. Navy, and helped set the stage for Martin Luther King’s epic “I have a dream” speech on the National Mall. And, finally, a big ship named for Dorie Miller re-emphasizes for all that the real linchpin of the American Navy is the often-overlooked heroism of the enlisted sailor.

In essence, Doris Miller a great choice for an aircraft carrier name, and accolades for Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly are rolling in. But don’t think for a second that the naming of the future USS Doris Miller was a selfless or symbolic act by an Acting Secretary who has nothing left to lose. This was an epic example of how, in Washington, DC, symbolism can be harnessed by a military service for political advantage.

When all the worthy symbolism is stripped away, ship naming is merely an act of political theatre, an opportunity to bolster a program or a particular vessel’s chances in Congress. And by naming CVN 81 the USS Doris Miller, Acting Navy Secretary Modly has done an amazing thing, burnishing his image as a forward thinking risk-taker while quietly cementing his reputation as a friend of America’s big naval shipbuilders.

With this creative naming, Mr. Modly has guaranteed the future of the Ford class aircraft carrier. In the tough budget times to come, nobody in the Department of Defense or Congress will dare to cancel this ship.

The name has made CVN 81 untouchable.

What’s In A Name?

CVN 81, the future USS Doris Miller was at real risk. Awarded a year ago under a controversial two-ship block buy contract, this enormous 10-12 billion dollar line item has already been a target for budget hawks, strategic pragmatists and a cast of other characters eager to reallocate defense dollars. The pressure to cut the carrier will only increase. In the 2020’s, as the future USS Doris Miller is funded, shipbuilding money will be desperately hard to find—the Columbia class ballistic missile submarines will be hovering up the lion’s share of the Navy budget, and a new stealth bomber other critical Defense Department initiatives will all be demanding cash.

But now, nobody in Washington will dare to suggest cutting a carrier with such a unique and special namesake. Even if future global maritime developments make all the Ford class aircraft carriers obsolete, any effort to cut the platform would be an act of political (or career) suicide. For better or worse, America is now locked-in to at least four Ford class carriers.

In naming CVN 81 for Dorie Miller, Acting Secretary Modly has crafted a political masterpiece—an enormously charitable gesture wrapped around a hard Machiavellian core of Service self-interest.

Now, such “tactical” ship naming is a well known bureaucratic maneuver, most recently practiced by John Lehman, a legendary Reagan-era Secretary of the Navy. Lehman, in the space of a day, maneuvered to have President Ronald Reagan prematurely approve and publicly acknowledge that the President Reagan’s heroes, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were to be the namesakes for America’s next two carriers. That step hamstrung an emergent Defense Department effort to cut one of Lehman’s two proposed aircraft carriers, and with premature Presidential backing, the two carriers were fully funded. They are both in service today.

The naming of CVN 81 is an equally fascinating political gambit. The future USS Doris Miller will be delivered to the Navy in early 2032. To procure the vessel, the Navy will need to find support from—at a minimum—a diverse Democratic House, and, potentially, a Democratic president who will be loathe to cut this uniquely-named platform. In such an environment, things might not look good for Navy funding. But, if adroitly managed, efforts to fund the USS Doris Miller has the potential to drive an amazing coalition of supporters ranging from the powerful Congressional Black Caucus to the usual mix of defense hawks, and it could potentially serve as a means to shape and build Congressional support for the Navy over the next decade.

It is wonderful to know that Dorie Miller’s heroic legacy will, again, be enlisted to defend his Navy—but it is also wise to acknowledge the potential value Mr. Miller’s legacy has for both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Navy’s ever-hungry industrial base.

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