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USS VIRGINIA was christened on a slightly overcast day this summer in a ceremony that was familiar to anyone who has spent time around a shipyard. The red, white and blue bunting on the speakers’ platform. The 375 ml bottle of Korbel brut champagne smashing against the hull. The sponsor, Lynda Byrd Robb, the daughter of former President Lyndon Johnson and wife of former Virginia Senator Charles Robb, used the same words used on almost 200 other nuclear submarines: “In the name of the United States, I christen thee VIRGINIA. May God bless her and all who sail in her.”

But VIRGINIA represents a dramatic change in the way ships are built, the way they will be operated, and the way they will be maintained over the years. From the day that Electric Boat Co. in Groton began the design 12 years ago, everything about the process has changed. The christening of the SSN 774 marks a new era in undersea warfare.

At 377 feet long, displacing 7,835 tons and capable of carrying 40 weapons, commandoes and a variety of associated gear, this new class of submarine will represent the most robust platform for fighting in near-shore water the Navy has ever put to sea, and it has been designed to accommodate new technology quickly and easily. “America has good reason to be proud of its submarines, and its submariners,” said Vice Admiral John J. Grossenbacher, who at the time of the ceremony was Commander, Naval Submarine Forces. “That pride will increase substantially as the VIRGINIA enters the fleet next year. The Submarine Force has waited a long time for this submarine.”

He noted that over the last half-century submarines have evolved from being limited to torpedoes and deck guns to having cruise missiles that can strike targets 1,000 miles inland, and the ability to launch and control aerial, surface and undersea drones. Their role in special warfare operations has also increased significantly as the capability to deploy commandoes while still submerged has developed, an ability that will reach its peak with VIRGINIA. And VIRGINIA will be able to participate in network centric warfare better than any previous class. “We are now poised for the first time in history for submarines to reach their full warfighting potential,” Grossenbacher said. U.S. submarines, he said, hold an unprece¬∑ dented edge in undersea warfare anywhere in the world. “We should use that competitive position to confuse, confound, disrupt, discourage, and when that’s not enough, to defeat our enemies. This platform offers the opportunity not just for marginal superiority, but complete warfighting dominance.”

Acting Navy Secretary Hansford T. Johnson said VIRGINIA represented “a giant leap forward in capabilities,” with its design driven by the needs of the Navy in the coming century. He said the partnership between the Electric Boat shipyard, where the VIR¬∑ GINIA was assembled, and its partner Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, where most of the front end of the ship took shape, worked out as well as the Navy could have hoped. “They, together, have truly built a state of the art platform that will assure our submarines can dominate the seas for decades to come,” Johnson said. But the value of any Navy ship in history has been vested in its crew, said U.S. Senator George Allen, R-Va., who predicted VIRGINIA skipper Captain David J. Kem and his 132 men will bring honor to the Virginia name. He recounted the tale of John Paul Jones who wanted a fast ship because he intended to sail it into harm’s way.

“The reality is, USS VIRGINIA will go into harm’s way, and it will bring with it the technology it needs to do the job, and the people with the courage to do the job. Captain Kem and his crew represent the best of America,” Allen said. “We are the land of the free because we are the home of the brave.”

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, whose district includes the EB plant at Quonset Point, R.I., where all hull sections for Virginia.class submarines are made, said he rests easier knowing the young sailors standing on the deck of the ship have been well trained, and knowing how much care went into the ship’s manufacture.

“We are certain they will never fail us, and this ship will never fail them,” Reed said.

About 7,500 people crammed onto the EB waterfront for the August christening ceremony, which marked the end of a long dry spell for the shipyard. Michael W. Toner, president of the Marine Systems division of EB parent company general dynamics, noted that VIRGINIA rolled out of the building shed six years to the day after the last ship to emerge, USS CONNECTICUT in 1997.

Toner said former EB President James Turner reorganized the company starting in 1988 to survive the low-rate production of the 1990s, and then in 1991 completely overhauled the design process for the Virginia class.

Instead of having designers complete the blueprints and tum them over to the shipyard workers, the trades experts were invited in to provide advice on how to make the design better. So were the people who will operate, maintain, and eventually commission the ship.

“Everybody who will come to touch the ship at any point in its life would have a say in its design,” Toner said. In addition, Turner decided that VIRGINIA would become the first ship designed entirely on computers, and enforced that decision by removing all drafting boards in one weekend, forcing designers to learn the software to design ships.

“We knew there had to be a better way through technology, and we decided we would find it -and with lots of help, we did,” said Turner on the day of the christening. “Now, as you can see with the testimony before you, the vision was right.”

Retired Navy Captain David Burgess, who was the first VIRGINIA-class program manager, and his successor, Rear AdmiraJ Paul Sullivan, won kudos from the company for accepting the innovations that EB proposed.

“These guys took on the sacred cows, and slayed them whenever they could,” Toner said.

Burgess said no first-of-the-class nuclear submarine was ever delivered with so few problems, thanks to that design-build process that EB pioneered for warships.

He noted that more than eight years ago, before the detailed design work started, long before the first steel was bent for the hull, the Navy set a schedule that would see the ship commissioned by this year. Every goal was met or exceeded, he said.

“For a lead ship, that is absolutely an unprecedented achievement,” Burgess said. “It gives you goosebumps.”

“There’s almost always something that goes wrong, and from what I’ve heard there were some things that did not always go as we planned for VIRGINIA, but the team has pulled together every time,” Burgess said. “They’ve done a little re-engineering here and there, but they basically did not miss a step. They made it look so easy, but I don’t think most people have an understanding of the complexity of this undertaking. VIRGINIA is arguably the most complex thing that man has ever built.”

And the shipbuilders said it was done better than ever before. On commissioning day, VIRGINIA was 91 percent when the water started flooding in and the hull floated off, the most complete any ship has ever been at that point in the process, Toner said. He predicted VIRGINIA will be delivered to the Navy about 41 weeks from christening, compared to the best-ever record of 47 weeks for a Los Angeles class boat.

Toner said Virginia contingent at the christening was the largest ever from a namesake state, no doubt the result of the unique teaming arrangement reached with Newport News (Va.) Shipbuilding in 1997 to co-produce the Virginia class.

EB builds the command and control module, engine room and the main propulsion unit for each submarine in Groton, while the pressure hull sections are made in Rhode Island. Newport News builds the bow, sail, stem, living quarters, auxiliary machine room, and weapons handling module. Final assembly alternates between Groton and Newport News. With four ships underway -next year, Newport News will christen the Texas, the following year EB will christen the Hawaii, and so on.

“I never came close to predicting how well this would work,” said Newport News President Thomas C. Schiefelbein. “It has been absolutely phenomenal.”

He noted that Connecticut, Virginia and Rhode Island were three of the original 13 colonies, known for their pioneers, “People who were not afraid to push the envelope of possibility.” And USS VIRGINIA shows that spirit continues today, he said.

U.S. Rep. Edward L. Schrock of Virginia, a retired Navy captain and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the partnership between the two shipyards has strengthened the Navy and the nation, and he looked forward to it lasting “many, many years to come.”

Toner said all the lessons from the Trident and Seawolf programs guided the shipyards as they developed more than I 0,000 detailed drawings that comprise VIRGINIA plans. An example of how advanced the design is: USS NAUTILUS, the first nuclear submarine, had to be refueled after two years; VIRGINIA carries a reactor core that will last its entire 33-year life.

VIRGINIA has also made extensive use of commercially available technologies to reduce costs. The combat system for the USS SEA WOLF, for instance, cost $1.2 billion; VIRGINIA’s system cost one-sixth that amount, and will bring seven times the processing power to sea, and it can be refreshed so easily that its first major upgrade is planned for its post-shakedown availability repair period, in 2005.

Senator Allen observed that there have been eight other Navy warships bearing the name of his home state, most of them establishing the standards for the rest of the fleet. One of the first frigates authorized by the Continental Congress bore the Virginia name, and helped establish the United States as a maritime power. Virginia the ironclad of the Civil War era helped establish a new era in naval warfare, the battleship VIRGINIA was part of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” in the pre-World War II era, and the guided missile cruiser VIRGINIA helped fight Desert Storm, the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. He said he expects simi1ar historic achievements by the latest USS VIRGINIA.

“We christen a submarine that will help assure the United States Navy’s undersea supremacy well into this century,” Allen said. Several of the speakers also noted that while it was encouraging that the Navy is finally back in the business of christening submarines after a six-year hiatus, the fleet needs to get production up to more than one per year, which is all that is planned for at least the next four years.

“That’s good, but it’s not enough,” said Vice Admiral Grossenbacher. “We’re on the right course, but not at the right speed … we need to get to two a year.” The audience of EB workers and supporters responded with enthusiastic applause. Admiral Frank L. “Skip” Bowman, the head of naval Reactors, who was a platform guest but not a speaker, was similarly forthcoming during an interview after the ceremony.

“We need, as Admiral Grossenbacher said, to get to two a year as soon as possible,” Bowman said. “And we absolutely need this submarine in the worst way right now. There is no question that this ship is needed today, and we need to get out there as quickly as possible.”

VIRGINIA will be put into commission next year after work is finished and it has undergone sea trials.

Grossenbacher observed that during Operation Iraqi Freedom the Navy had 17 submarines at sea, 12 that took part in combat and five more keeping a watch on other potential trouble spots. Some of those boats deployed right after they had returned from six-month missions, and some of them were extended on station for as much as three months beyond their normal six-month deployment.

Submariners are growing increasingly worried about the ability of the force to sustain the pace of operations that has been demanded of them, and the new Seapower 21 plan promulgated by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vern Clark, will likely demand even more of submarines.

Admiral Bowman noted that submarines are going to play a key role in all three themes of Seapower 21: Sea Strike, using its precision guided missiles for offensive operations; Sea Shield, using its advanced sensors to detect threats and employing its weapons to protect friendly forces; and Sea Base, using its inherent stealth to provide a command and control platform in areas where surface craft might be at too much risk.

“In denied areas, submarines may be the only platform that can get in and out safely at any time,” Admiral Bowman said.

Admiral Bowman said opponents of boosting the rate of submarine production claim that VIRGINIA is an untried design, and the Navy and its shipbuilders need more time to work out the bugs in it.

But Admiral Bowman said VIRGINIA is being built in a more modular fashion than any previous ship, so that each module is fully tested before it is installed in the ship. Sea trials on VIRGINIA will be more to validate the initial results than to gather test data, because it will be the most fully tested ship ever to go to sea for the first time. “Unfortunately, some in Washington are missing that point,” Admiral Bowman said. “They don’t understand how much testing has already gone on. We think VIRGINIA is worth every single penny of the taxpayer’s money that will be spent on it. We need her, and we need every one of her sister ships, and we need them faster than we’ re buying them today.”

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