August 31, 2018

Understanding Hull Symbols

Ships and ship types are often talked about using a set of shorthand letters to designate types. DDG. CVN. LHA. SSBN. DLG. While there are some good guides to the system online, I figured I should explain them here as well.

These codes originate in a standard set by the USN in 1920, to overhaul the designations then in use. All ships were assigned a two-letter code, and numbered sequentially within the code for their type. Around the time of WWII, three-letter codes became necessary to designate the bewildering array of ship types developed for a global naval war. It's continued to evolve since that day, and many of the rules have changed at some point or another over the past century, but the bones of the system are still identifiable.

The most important information is the first letter or two. This will tell you the broad type at a glance, with later letters giving more information.

AAuxiliary Ship
C (unless second letter is V)Cruiser
CVAircraft Carrier
LAmphibious Warfare2
MMine warfare
PPatrol, including most small boats
T-Ship operated by MSC3
WCoast Guard Cutter4
YYard craft

Certain letters hold very specific meanings, regardless of where they are in the code. The most important of these are G, N, and V. Within the USN, V is identified with all things having to do with fixed-wing aviation.5 So an AV would be an auxiliary for fixed-wing airplanes, which in practice was a seaplane tender. For combatant ships (first letters of B, C, D, F and S) N means that the ship is nuclear-powered, while G means that it carries guided missiles. In practice, all ships these days have at least some guided missiles for self-defense, and G is reserved for ships with either an area air-defense system, or lots and lots of cruise missiles. H is usually used for helicopters, but appears in designations more rarely. Lack of an H does not mean the ship doesn't have a helicopter.

Unfortunately, at this point the system starts to lose coherence. Almost all of the choices made in the system are logical, in the sense that the first letter of an appropriate word was used, but the same letter can be used for different things in different places. There are some fairly common ones (E for (ASW) escort, K for ASW hunter, R for radar pickets, M for mine warfare-related ships) but none of these are guaranteed to always work.

The situation is made even more complicated by the overhaul of the system done in 1975. Before that date, the USN had a classification of "frigate" with the hull symbol DL(G), which can be read as "destroyer leader" or "destroyer, large". These were ships that were bigger and better-armed than destroyers, but not up to the traditional standards of cruisers. The cruiser title was reserved for ships of the traditional cruiser size and type, which were coded as CLGs, all the heavy cruiser conversions having been retired. In most of the rest of the world, the frigates would have been called cruisers, while the term frigate was used for what the US called ocean escorts or destroyer escorts (code DE).

On June 30th, 1975, the US system was brought in line with that of the rest of the world. Most of the DLGs became CGs, while a few early ones became DDGs. The remaining CLGs became CGs, too. DE(G) was changed to FF(G), and the ships using that code became frigates.

Here's a chart of the major designations in surface combatants that aren't covered by the above table and the hard-and-fast rules. There are variations on these, but it should make it possible to understand a fairly typical ship list.

CAHeavy Cruiser6Cruiser with 8" guns
CBLarge Cruiser7Alaska class
CCBattlecruiser8Lexington class
CGGuided missile cruiserPost-1975
CLLight CruiserCruiser with <8" guns
CLAAAnti-aircraft cruiserCruiser with primary AA gun armament
DDDestroyerDesignation for normal destroyers
DEDestroyer escortLater called Ocean Escorts
DLFrigateLarge destroyer or destroyer leader

Submarine designation is, thankfully, relatively simple. The bare SS designation was common before the 1950s for diesel submarines, although SSK is more common for that purpose these days, to avoid confusion over whether SS is being used as a generic for all submarines or only for diesel attack boats. SSNs are nuclear attack submarines, while SSG(N)s carry cruise missiles and SSB(N)s carry ballistic missiles.

Auxiliaries and amphibious warfare vessels have their own set of rules, which are only loosely related to the combatant system. There is some cross-pollination, as a number of vessels have been transferred back and forth between the A and L designations. The following table has the more important codes for auxiliaries.

ADDestroyer Tender
AEAmmunition Ship
AFStores (Supply) Ship
AFDFloating Drydock
AGMiscellaneous Auxiliary9
AHHospital Ship
AKCargo Ship
AKEDry Cargo Ship
AOEFast Combat Support Ship
APPersonnel Transport Ship
APDFast (Destroyer) Transport
ARRepair Ship
ASSubmarine Tender

Note that in many cases, three-letter codes are built up from several two-letter codes, so an AOE is essentially an AO (oiler) plus an AE (ammunition ship) in a single vessel. Most of these types have several subvariants, which can be found on more comprehensive lists.

Amphibious warfare designations are rather interesting, as they are mostly later additions to the system. The majority take the form of LS for landing ship or LC for landing craft. The third letter determines the type. Other forms are found on a few ships.

LCACLanding Craft, Air Cushion
LCILanding Craft, Infantry
LCMLanding Craft, Mechanized
LCTLanding Craft, Tank
LCULanding Craft, Utility
LCVPLanding Craft, Vehicle and Personnel
LHA/LHDLanding Ship, Helicopter and Dock11
LPDLanding Ship, Personnel, Dock12
LPHLanding Ship, Personnel, Helicopter13
LSDLanding Ship, Dock
LSTLanding Ship, Tank

This system is only used officially by the USN, but it is also used in slight variations by reference books and naval geeks worldwide. This post should have given enough of a background to be able to use that version, and if you want the full list, including never-used, massively obsolete, and very specialized designations, check out the comprehensive list on NavWeps.

1 This is a recent addition to the chart, and covers a few odds and ends that are somewhere between transports and amphibious warfare vessels.

2 An exception is the littoral combat ship, which has a hull code of LCS.

3 Military Sealift Command is the civilian auxiliary to the USN. Its ships have hull codes that start with T-, and then have a standard hull code, usually that of an auxiliary.

4 All Coast Guard ships have hull codes that start with W. A more detailed examination is out of scope here.

5 It apparently comes from the French volplane, to fly. It is not the V in aviation, chosen because A was taken. V has been fixed-wing aviation from the start.

6 When the system was first introduced, CA was used for the remaining armored cruisers, and 8" treaty cruisers were designated as CLs. Later, after the armored cruisers were retired and the London Treaty mandated a limit of 6" on new cruisers, the 8" cruisers were designated CA. Armored cruisers had previously been ACRs, which is still the standard abbreviation for that type.

7 This does not stand for cruiser, battle. At the time, the USN was using B to mean large. The Midways were designated CVB for aircraft carrier, large.

8 Also used for command cruisers in the 1950s and 60s.

9 This covers a bunch of different types of ship, everything from torpedo-boat tenders to survey ships and icebreakers.

10 AT is never used by itself, always with a third letter, but all variations are types of tug.

11 LHAs and LHDs are very similar, and the LHD designation was essentially due to the huge cost overruns on the LHAs. The LHA designation returned when no dock was fitted to LHA-6 and LHA-7.

12 This is commonly read as Landing Platform, Dock, but this is incorrect. The APA assault variant of the AP personnel transport was later redesignated LPA, and the LPD was the dock version of that.

13 LPHs are distinguished by their lack of a well deck.


  1. September 01, 2018Cassander said...

    You've left out the recently created E designation for expeditionary support ships of various stripes.

  2. September 01, 2018bean said...

    I'd forgotten about that abortion of Mabus's. Yes, it exists, even though it should be under L. But it's still pretty uncommon, so I probably won't add it.

  3. May 24, 2022Mike said...

    I believe that prior to 1977 most carriers were CVA or CVA(N) The A (Attack) was dropped When the Navy became a "Peacetime" navy. Also There were AOR's (Oiler Replentishment), they all may be decommissioned now.

  4. May 24, 2022bean said...

    Not exactly. From the 50s through the mid/late 70s, the USN operated two separate sets of carriers, designated CVA (Carrier, Attack) and CVS (Carrier, Anti-submarine). IIRC, the plan was that a typical carrier group would be 2 CVA for nuclear strike and a CVS for ASW cover. This worked so long as they had lots of surplus Essexes laying around to fill the CVS role, but even the best-upgraded of those were getting too old, and so they modified the bigger carriers to carry ASW detachments and got rid of the CVA/CVS split.

    More broadly, this list isn't intended to be 100% comprehensive, because [](other people have done that already). It's intended as a "good enough" list that focuses on the basic logic so people can understand the system and figure out most of what they'll see in the wild.

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