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Navy’s Evolution of Power: Improved Combat Capability and Operational Flexibility

By Annalisa Underwood, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division.

Adoption of cutting-edge energy use isn’t a new concept for the U.S. Navy, and the Navy has never been shy about embracing more efficient ways to power its ships. From sails to advanced alternative fuels, the sea service continues to transform its fleet with technological innovations. As true as it was in 1775, the energy that powers our ships increases Navy’s flexibility and enables our platforms to go farther, stay longer and deliver more firepower.

Today’s Power Mission

In January, the Department of the Navy (DON) kicked off the Great Green Fleet (GGF). The purpose of the GGF is to showcase how energy efficient systems and procedures and the use of alternative energy contribute to combat capability, resiliency, and flexibility in an operational environment. The centerpiece of the GGF is a carrier strike group (CSG) using energy conservation technologies, operating procedures, and/or alternative energy in the course of its normal operations. Other platforms, aircraft, amphibious and expeditionary forces, and shore installations are participating in the GGF by performing planned mission functions while using energy conservation measures (ECMs) or alternative energy.

Better Power Equals Better Presence

Since the beginning of our Navy, its mission has been to provide the global presence necessary to ensure stability, deter potential adversaries and present options in times of crisis. Each of the below ships adopted the best technology of their time to ensure they could be where it mattered, when it mattered.

USS Constitution with eight sails set while underway in Boston Harbor, 2005.
USS Constitution with eight sails set while underway in Boston Harbor, 2005.


Constitution: The wooden-hulled ship was launched more than two centuries ago on Oct. 21, 1797. If the wind and rigging was right, the frigate could zip along at 13 knots. But when the wind died down, well, so did Constitution. Still, the nearly 219-year-old frigate, currently undergoing restoration, remains the oldest commissioned ship in the world still capable of sailing under its own power.

Demologos: In search of a steadier power source than wind, the one-and-done Demologos featured a steam-driven paddlewheel flanked by two catamaran-like wooden hulls. Demologos was the first steam-driven warship for the U.S. Navy and was capable of six knots. Designed by inventor and engineer Robert Fulton, the floating battery was built to protect New York Harbor from the British toward the end of the War of 1812, but the war ended before the battery was launched in 1816 and renamed Fulton to honor her inventor, who died the previous year.

USS Atlanta underway
USS Atlanta underway


Atlanta: The protected cruiser was the lead ship of the “New Navy” in the late 1880s, the first of the steel-hulled ABCD (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Dolphin) ships. Commissioned July 19, 1886, Atlanta could reach more than 16 knots, powered by eight boilers of coal-fired steam. In order to increase her cruising distance, and thus extend her presence, Atlanta kept her sails, but they were removed when the ship upgraded its propulsion system to a triple-expansion engine in 1899.

Nevada (BB 36): The U.S. Navy underwent rapid growth under President Theodore Roosevelt, building 11 coal-fired, steam-driven battleships from 1904-1907. By the time they returned from the 14-month cruise known as the Great White Fleet, ships were already beginning to transition to oil-fired steam-driven turbines. Nevada, commissioned March 11, 1916, was the first of her class of super-dreadnought battleships that featured 12 oil-fired, geared, steam turbines to reach speeds of 20.5 knots. The super-dreadnoughts also had triple gun turrets and the “all-or-nothing” armor principle of providing heavy coverage in high-risk areas, and virtually nothing in other areas.

New Mexico (BB 40): The Navy had barely adopted the oil-fired steam turbines for USS Nevada (BB 36) when another lead-ship of her class, Mexico (BB 40), was commissioned two years later. The new battleship featured the Navy’s first turbo-electric transmission, which eliminated the need for a gearbox to power high-speed turbines and the slow spinning propellers. Another advantage was increased energy efficiency; New Mexico provided enough power to run the ship’s electrical systems.

US New Mexico (BB 40) underway during the fleet review off New York City, 31 May 1934.
US New Mexico (BB 40) underway during the fleet review off New York City, 31 May 1934.


Lexington (CV 2): On Dec.14, 1927 the Lexington-class aircraft carrier, USS Lexington (CV 2) was commissioned. Originally designed as a battlecruiser, Lexington sported the bulbous bow that reduced water resistance, supported the forecastle and reduced bending stress on the hull, allowing the ship to reach speeds of 34 knots (38 mph). The carrier’s four propeller shafts were driven by eight electric motors powered by four turbo-electric generators. Two years after her commissioning, Lexington’s turbo-electric propulsion system provided supplemental electricity to the city of Tacoma, Washington during a drought between late 1929 to early 1930.

Nautilus (SSN 571): The Navy’s first ship to harness nuclear power was the submarine Nautilus (SSN 571), thanks to the determination and drive of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover. Although commissioned Sept. 30, 1954, it wasn’t until Jan. 17, 1955 when the sub pulled away from its dock in New London, Conn. Headed down the Thames River, she announced to the world “UNDERWAY ON NUCLEAR POWER.” In the first year, the submarine shattered submerged speed and distance records. In 1958, Nautilus made news again after reaching the geographic North Pole. Nautilus was joined by three surface ships operating under nuclear power — aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN 65), guided-missile frigate Bainbridge (DLGN 25) and guided-missile cruiser Long Beach (CGN 9). In 1964, the surface ships formed the first all nuclear-powered task force for Operation Sea Orbit, which circumnavigated the world to demonstrate the force’s strategic mobility without normal fleet logistic support. The surface ships sailed 30,216 miles without taking on fuel or provisions.



Nimitz (CVN 68): A new class of supercarriers was created when USS Nimitz (CVN 68), the lead of her class, was commissioned May 3, 1975. Nimitz-class carriers utilize only two nuclear reactors compared to eight on Enterprise, which allows the supercarriers to carry 90 percent more fuel for aircraft and 50 percent more ordnance while still reaching speeds of 30-plus knots. The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group used alternative fuel sources during the 2012 Rim of the Pacific exercises in Hawaii, part of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ initiative to demonstrate a Green Strike Group in local operations by 2012 and sail it by 2016.

Makin Island (LHD 8): Yet another new technology was adapted on the Navy’s newest amphibious platform upon the commissioning of Makin Island (LHD 8). Featuring an auxiliary propulsion system (APS) and the gas turbine engines (a first for a large deck amphibious ship), Makin Island is able to use less fuel at slower speeds by drawing electrical power from the ship’s service generators, which saves fuel for high-speeds. Operating on a hybrid system allows ships to travel greater distances with less need to refuel, improving response times.

USS Makin Island (LHD 8) moves into position to receive amphibious assault vehicles from the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, Alpha Company, 1st Platoon. Makin Island is conducting operations off the coast of Southern California. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Robin W. Peak/Released)


Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) Flight IIA class: The next generation of hybrid propulsion is the Hybrid Electric Drive Electric Propulsion System (HED EPS), which attaches an electric motor to the propulsion plant to enable the ship to draw power from the ship’s electric generators and shut down main propulsion engines.  It is planned to be installed on Flight IIA Arleigh Burke-class destroyers beginning in 2016. The destroyers rely on their feature four gas turbines to get them up to their top speed of 30-plus knots, but they will draw power from their electrical systems at slower speeds. The reduction in fuel consumption at steaming speeds will allow the destroyers greater range and more time on station between refueling.


For more information about naval history, please contact the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Communication and Outreach division at 202-433-7880 or via email at NHHCPublicAffairs@navy.mil