Speaking at Gerald Ford's final memorial service yesterday, former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld let slip a little secret: the Navy's next aircraft carrier will be named for the nation's 38th president, ending months of speculation.
Eulogizing Mr. Ford, whom he served as White House Chief of Staff and Defense Secretary, Rumsfeld announced that he had given the former president a souvenir during a visit last summer. The souvenir was a Navy baseball cap, with the name "USS Gerald R. Ford" emblazoned across the top, affirming that the new carrier would be named for him. "How fitting it will be," Mr. Rumsfeld told the crowd, "that the name Gerald R. Ford will patrol the high seas for decades to come, in defense of the nation he loved so much."
The USS Gerald R. Ford will be the lead ship in the Navy's next generation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVN-21). Construction of the vessel will begin next year at the Northrup-Grumman shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. The new carrier is scheduled for completion in 2015, when it will replace the USS Enterprise in the U.S. fleet. Through improved, on-board systems, the Ford will have a smaller crew than existing Nimitz-class carriers, but generate more combat air sorties on a daily basis.
As the Newport News Daily Press notes, the name of the new carrier had been a closely guarded secret in Navy circles prior to yesterday's announcement. The service had planned to reveal the ship's name in mid-January, but Mr. Rumsfeld's comments accelerated that schedule. A group of carrier veterans had petitioned the Navy to name the first CVN-21 the USS America, a conventionally-powered aircraft carrier that was retired from the fleet, then sunk off the Atlantic coast in a 2005 test.
The carrier vets--many of whom served on the America, believe that one of the Navy's vessels should always bear the nation's name. If it's any consolation to the former sailors, there will be other carriers in the Ford class, and (hopefully) one of them will also carry the name USS America. Ditto for Enterprise, a storied name bestowed on one of the legendary aircraft carriers of World War II, and the nation's first nuclear-powered carrier, now in its fifth decade of service.
I will agree with the carrier vets on one issue. The process of naming U.S. naval vessels has become too politicized in recent years. While Mr. Ford, who served his nation honorably as a carrier officer in World War II, is deserving of the honor, you could also say the "fix was in" before the America veterans could make their case. Virginia Senator John Warner (a former Navy Secretary) and his Michigan colleague, Senator Carl Levin, inserted language into a recent defense appropriations bill, requesting that the next carrier be named for Mr. Ford. Rumsfeld, a key member of the Ford Administration, was only too happy to oblige.
For the rest of the Ford class, I'd like to see the Navy resurrect the names of legendary carriers from the past: Lexington, Saratoga, Essex, America and Enterprise, to name a few. There's a lot of naval history, tradition and pride reflected in those names, and they would be fitting monikers for the next generation of Navy carriers.
But, I'm only a retired Air Force puke, so I don't get a vote. But bringing back some of those names for the Ford class could help the Navy depoliticize the process. Over the past 20 years, the Navy has seemingly been on a crusade to honor former Presidents and Congressmen who helped the service over the years. That's how we wound up with the USS Carl Vinson and USS John C. Stennis as units in the Nimitz class.
Will more politicians see their names on the ships of the Ford class? That remains to be seen. But it's worth remembering that the names of three post-World War II Presidents have never been used on naval vessels: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. While Johnson was a naval officer during World War II, he was always viewed as a political hack and interloper, claiming a Silver Star for an air mission where he flew as a passenger. I don't think there's much of a groundswell in the Navy to name anything for LBJ. Nixon was also a WWII Navy officer, but his Watergate legacy is enough to disqualify him as the namesake for a naval vessel.
Which brings us to our 42nd President. I'm sure Mr. Clinton is acutely aware that the four men who occupied the Oval Office before him (George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and now, Gerald Ford) have navy ships or submarines named for them. As Mr. Clinton advances in years and begins searching for lasting "tributes," there will probably be a quiet campaign to get one of the Ford carriers named for him. That process would be accelerated by Hillary moving into the White House in 2009.
(FReepers, you're welcome to provide a link to that picture of a garbage scow that inevitably pops up in discussions about the type of vessel that should be named for Mr. Clinton.)