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Bob Hamilton is a newspaper reporter who has covered the Defense beat for a number of years. He currently works for The New London Dav.

On a warm midsummer Friday afternoon, the PCU VIRGINIA sailed up the fog-shrouded Thames River at New London, and into the history books. Over three days ending July 30, the first U.S. Navy warship designed from the keel up for the post-Cold War period was put through its paces. It was run at maximum speed, taken to its test depth, run through a series of casualty drills, and came through it with a broom on the sail, signifying a clean sweep on its Alpha trials, a performance that impressed people who had set very high standards for VIRGINIA-the men who will operate her at sea.

The submarine wasn’t particularly pretty as it finished Alpha trials. There were cable trays missing or dangling from the hull and some sections of temporary hull coating material had ripped loose. But even those shortcomings were a point of pride, a testament not to sloppiness, but to speed. After Virginia screamed along at maximum power for six hours, the water flowing over its hull tore off some of the temporary test gear.

“The first dive, in itself, is an event, taking a ship of this complexity underwater for the first time,” said Adm. Frank L. “Skip” Bowman, the director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion said during a press conference after the Virginia pulled up to a pier at Electric Boat. “We ran it at its maximum power at a flank bell, reversing that ahead flank to a stem bell in as rapid a fashion as possible to prove that the machinery will take that kind of stressful action. The sonars were tested, the radars were tested, the people were tested, and the electronics were all tested. We did emergency blows, in the highly unlikely event that that ever becomes necessary, we did three of those in fact on this cruise. We took the ship down to test depth, maximum operating depth, three times.”

Although the speed it reached is classified, officials were clearly pleased with Virginia’s accomplishments.

“She performed as expected, and more,” said a grinning Captain David Kern, commanding officer of VIRGINIA. “Everything went great.” As impressive as the machinery, though, were the accomplishments of the crew, he added quickly, who had worked nonstop for months before Alpha trials, training to make sure they could handle any contingency while underway.

“Most of these crew members have worked day and night to prepare for sea, and they performed flawlessly along with the ship,” Kern said. “VIRGINIA is powerful, maneuverable, and I was particularly impressed with the fine control for depth and speed-the kinds of things we’re going to need to fight in the littorals. I’m excited about taking VIRGINIA to sea, future sea trials, and taking her to commissioning later this year.”

At press time, VIRGINIA was scheduled to be commissioned October 23 in Norfolk, Va. It had already completed Bravo trials, in which the crew fully tested its revolutionary fly-by-wire system to make sure the ship will be safe when the controls are placed on autopilot, it performed angles and dangles, moving sharply up and down through the water, and it validated the hydrodynamic models, in which the crew looked for any problems at any speed, such as snap rolls in a sharp turn.

“The ship just performed marvelously,” Admiral Bowman said. “It will give us a new edge in this war on terrorism, as we marry up even more with the Special Forces. Now we know that this ship is going to be just as good as we could have hoped. We now know the fly-by-wire control system is going to work just fine. This ship is waiting and raring to get out into the fleet.”

So well did the VIRGINIA perform, in fact, that it accomplished during Alpha and Bravo trials what other submarines had to do over Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Kern noted that VIRGINIA spent three days at sea Alpha trials, conducting 33 major tests over 77 hours, then returned to port for less than two days and departed on a second round of intensive assessment, Bravo Trials, during which it conducted 6,000 hours of tests over 24 days.

That means after taking it to sea for the first time, it spent 27-of 30 days underway. Previous classes of submarines generally did a one-day Alpha Trial, returned to port with a list of items to be fixed or recalibrated, and went out weeks or months later on Bravo Trials, which generally lasted days rather than weeks.

“That’s unprecedented-that the ship is that seaworthy, that the design is that mature, this early in the process,” Kern said in a telephone interview from Norfolk (Va.) Naval Base on Thursday, as he prepared for the acceptance trials. “We were able to test every-thing that needed to be tested at sea to present the ship to the Board.”

Even more impressive, he said, are the capabilities that the VIRGINIA demonstrated during Bravo Trials, particularly with the automatic, fly-by-wire control system.

“I could do things on my first or second try on VIRGINIA that I was never able to do on a (Los Angeles-class submarine) because you just could not control the ship, could not take that 7 ,000-ton 688 and just control her at half a knot with one foot precision, whether you were submerged or at periscope depth,” Kern said.

“We have some real capabilities we’re going to bring to the shallow water fight in the littorals, and it’s exciting,” Kern said.

If the Board shares his enthusiasm for the ship, the planned commissioning the ship on October 23 in Norfolk will go off without a hitch.

Most of its first year at sea will be spent on assessments of its sonar, fire control, communications and weapons system, and on sound trials, as the Navy tries to determine just how good its new submarine is, before it gets plugged into the operations calendar.

VIRGINIA traces its roots to the early 1990s, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it became clear that the Navy would face a far different challenge in the 21″ century, and Electric Boat began the design of a smaller, less-expensive alternative to the Seawolf class of submarine, something that would be more capable in the near-shore littorals, support Special Forces, launch pinpoint accurate strikes and do ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) better than anything before it.

EB won the contract in 1998 to co-produce the VIRGINIA in a special teaming arrangement with Northrop Grumman Newport News in Virginia. Each shipyard built half of the submarine, and the first one was assembled at the EB yard in Groton; the second, USS TEXAS, is scheduled to be commissioned next year at Newport News.

EB had been working feverishly to support the planned July 27, 2004, start of the sea trials, and on a Wednesday less than two weeks before the deadline shipyard Vice President Frederick Harris was meeting with some key executives involved with the process when he dropped a Shipyard Discrepancy Report on the table before them. For weeks it has been filled with 500 to 1,000 items, details that had to be addressed before VIRGINIA could go to sea. On that morning though, the first two words on the report, in bold type, stated flatly: “No items.”

“It was a little hard to believe,” said Thomas C. Berl, the ship’s manager, who had worked until I 10:30 the night before he felt confident putting those words on paper. “To watch this work list dwindle to nothing was just amazing -it beats every lead ship we ever built.”

To be sure, there were some surprises in the process, as there is whenever the Navy attempts such a large, complex undertaking. VIRGINIA fell a few months behind the schedule that had been set for it 10 years earlier, but that compared with 25 months for SEAWOLF, 26 for LOS ANGELES, and 30 for OHIO. It had required about 20 percent more man-hours than originally estimated, but SEA WOLF missed the mark by 65 percent, and OHIO by 80.

Key EB personnel credit the design-build process that was employed on VIRGINIA for keeping it so close to the plan. In the past the designers and engineers considered it their job to design the ship, then they would toss the blueprints over the wall to the trade professionals to build it.

On VIRGINIA, that all changed. The trades workers, vendors who would supply parts, the sailors who would drive the ship, even the naval shipyard personnel who would eventually decommission it were involved with the design process to make sure the ship was easy to build, maintain, operate and repair.

“On this job, there was a lot of ownership, a lot of pride, across the company, and across the team,” said Lennon, the program manager. “I’ve never seen that demonstrated to the extent it was on this program, and the proof is the product sitting out at the pier, ready to go to sea.”

Lennon has been involved with VIRGINIA program in one way or another since it was a concept 14 years ago, when it was known as the Centurion. He was on the dock when the first cylinder arrived from Quonset Point in February 2000, celebrated the completion of its pressure hull in November 2002, cheered as it floated off in August 2003, and is ecstatic to see how closely it is tracking to a schedule set before the first steel was bent.

“Everyone had their eye on the ball, getting this ship ready for sea,” Lennon said. “When it required working through the night, everyone worked through the night-designers and engineers, vendors, sailors, and people from other government agencies. Watching this ship come together gives you all the adrenaline you need to keep going.”

David McCall, the director of Combat Weapons Systems, agreed: “If a job needed to be done, there was no lack of people ready to raise their hand and take on the responsibility and then go do it.”

And so, just after dawn on Tuesday, July 27, VIRGINIA slipped away from its berth at Electric Boat, and set out to sea. Three days later, it returned through the fog, as shipyard workers and sailors craned their necks to look at the sail, and were pleased to see a straw broom strapped to its uppermost mast.

Admiral Bowman had a spring in his step and a broad grin on his face as he strode to the podium and addressed the assembled shipyard workers who wanted to know how their handiwork had performed.

“We shut down the reactor with casualty training, drill training, twice, and demonstrated the capability to rapidly restore the reactor and rapidly restore propulsion and electrical power to the ship,” Admiral Bowman said. “Virtually everything short of demonstrating the combat system and the weapons system is accomplished on the initial sea trial, and it came through with a broom on the sail.”

Admiral Bowman said he couldn’t comment in detail about the performance of the nuclear plant that his office designed, since that gets into classified material, but he offered this comparison: “It ran like a sports car hepped up on high-test gasoline.”

“I will tell you that this propulsion plant is an extremely user friendly plant,” Admiral Bowman continued. “Automation that has not been incorporated into propulsion plants before has been incorporated into this, giving us the ability to reduce watch standing requirements on this ship, that has reduced the number of watch standers required to take care of the plant. It’s very, very resilient, more resilient than previous plants. It’s built in a modular fashion that will make it much quieter, we believe, and we’ll find that out on acoustic trials when those take place. It incorporates an energy density never seen before which is good, it means the propulsion plant takes up that much less volume that can be used for payload. It’s a completely new design, and it brings the Submarine Force into the 21st century, with electronics, with micro processing, with digital analysis and displays that have not been used to this extent before on submarine designs.”

“Every test was completed successfully (and) we were not disappointed at all with any of the tests,” Admiral Bowman said.

VIRGINIA, designed to carry 134 officers and crew, conducted sea trials with 206 people aboard, which made for some cramped conditions. Among the riders were personnel from EB and Navy officials such as Rear Admiral John D. Butler, Program Executive Officer for Submarines, and Rear Admiral Jeffrey Cassius, Commander of Submarine Group Two in Groton. It was also, coincidentally, the day before Newport News christened the second ship of the class, TEXAS.

Berl, the ship’s manager, said this was the first submarine he has seen through sea trials, “But most of the veterans on my team are very impressed with the small number of items that need to be addressed.” As EB welcomed VIRGINIA back to its dock in a brief ceremony following the trials, dozens of Bert’s crew were streaming aboard the ship to being to fix the problems that had been noted, to get it ready for sea again.

“It’s good to know we’re almost to the end,” Berl said. VIRGINIA will be delivered to the Navy after more trials and some final touches. “It will be with some sadness that we see her leave for good, but it’s also good to know we did it.”

Sonar Technician 2nd Class Joshua Fredrick, who has been in the Navy six years and was assigned to VIRGINIA two years ago, said normally when you take a submarine to maximum depth there are others on board who can reassure you that it has been done before. On VIRGINIA, it was a little unnerving to realize nobody on board had done it yet.

“It was pretty tense,” Fredrick said. “I was kind of excited. It was good to know we could go down that far.”

But Fredrick said he volunteered for VIRGINIA “because it is the first of a class. It’s something new, nobody had done it before, so you get a chance to go do something nobody has done before.”

Machinist Mate 111 Class Derrick Jones said most people on board were too busy to be overly worried about testing a new technology.

“You’ve got a million things that go through your mind, a million different casualties that can happen, and what you’re going to do if they happen,” Jones said.

Fire Control Technician 2nd Class Patrick Powers said heading out of the Thames and coming back, in particularly, were busy periods, because of all the summer traffic on the water, including about a dozen pleasure and ferry boats that came in as VIRGINIA was maneuvering into the dock.

“But everything came together, and it worked well,” Powers said

“This ship is exactly what the Navy needs, when it needs it,” agreed EB President John P. Casey, who was on board during the trials. “There is no substitute for the VIRGINIA-class submarine.”

Before he departed for his flight home, Admiral Bowman slipped Kern one of his personal challenge coins, and confided that it was only the third one he had ever given anyone. Kern beamed and thanked the Admiral, but as he turned to address the press, his demeanor became more serious.

“VIRGINIA can do everything that a 688 can do, but we have more capabilities. We have sensors that the 688 class does not have on board. We have the lockout trunk for Special Forces on board. We are much more modular, so when we advance technology it can be put onto VIRGINIA quickly and easily-Commercial-Off-The-Shelf is what took us out to sea and what brought us back,” Kern said. “We need enough VIRGINIA’s to replace the 688s. We need VIRGINIA’s built, and we need two of them a year so we have enough, to fill the needs of the future.”

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