USS Missouri leading way for new wave of submarines
Groton - The commissioning pennant and American flag were raised on the USS Missouri Saturday, marking the first time in more than three years that a submarine has joined the fleet in a ceremony at the Naval Submarine Base.
It was only the second time in more than a decade that two submarines were commissioned in the same year. Another Virginia-class submarine was commissioned in March in Norfolk, Va.
That is about to change as shipbuilders Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman Newport News in Virginia ramp up to build two submarines annually instead of just one, starting next year.
Missouri (SSN 780) was built in 65 months. The goal is to cut the construction time down to 60 months, which means that in a few years there will be a commissioning ceremony at least every six months, said Vice Adm. John J. Donnelly, commander of the Navy's Submarine Force.
At the height of the Cold War, EB and Newport News delivered three or four Los Angeles-class submarines annually. Those submarines are now reaching the end of their service lives.
"That is what makes this ceremony so important," Donnelly said. "We're bringing a new capability to the force. And it's a magnificent ship."
The range of operations that a Virginia-class submarine can tackle is "awe-inspiring," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead. "It truly is the ultimate stealth weapon," he said.
More to come
EB and Newport News build Virginia-class submarines under a teaming agreement. The Navy signed a contract with EB in 2008 for the next eight submarines, one ship per year in 2009 and 2010 and two ships per year from 2011 through 2013.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said he hopes the service will stick to the increased build rate beyond that.
"It's an absolutely crucial part of fleet," he said in an interview. "We need to have sufficient numbers to do the things we expect the Navy to do all around the world."
With the addition of the Missouri, the Submarine Force has 72 submarines, including 53 fast-attack boats. But the vast majority of the fast-attack submarines are from the aging Los Angeles class.
Speakers at the ceremony touted the Virginia-class program's successes. Missouri, the seventh member, was delivered nine months ahead of schedule and under budget.
"The more efficiently we produce submarines such as Missouri, the better we can support the Navy's shipbuilding goals," said EB President John P. Casey. "That will benefit the Navy, supporting industrial base and our national security."
A recent publicized memo from the Pentagon's top weapons tester described "design and reliability deficiencies" for the Virginia class, including "fail to sail" issues, or material problems, that prevented submarines from going to sea when scheduled.
The memo draws heavily on historical data from the early days of the program, said Capt. Michael Jabaley, Virginia-class program manager. Reliability is determined by comparing the number of days a submarine is available to sail with the number of days it is in commission but not in a maintenance period. The percentage for the program is 97.7 percent, Jabaley said.
Both Mabus and Donnelly said in interviews that the submarines do not have a reliability problem. Donnelly said there were some "initial growing pains" but that "we've worked out most of those bugs."
"It's not really something that I'm very worried about," Donnelly said.
"We think we've got a very reliable submarine. We think it's the best submarine in the world," Mabus added. "Any time you get something like that you take a look at it, but we have a lot of confidence in the reliability of the Virginia class."
The third submarine of the Virginia class, the USS Hawaii (SSN 776), was the last ship commissioned at the base, in May 2007. The USS New Hampshire (SSN 778), the next submarine delivered by Electric Boat, was commissioned the following year at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as the fifth of the class.
Making it official
On Saturday, Becky Gates helped commission the Missouri by giving the traditional order: "Man our ship and bring her to life!" Gates, the wife of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is the ship's sponsor.
The officers and crew marched through the audience and onto the Missouri. It's an all-male crew but the first women submariners will start training this month to serve on ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines.
The Navy lifted its ban on women serving on submarines in April. Navy officials have said it may be possible to bring women aboard the smaller fast-attack submarines in the future, but often cite concerns about the lack of privacy.
Mabus was more definitive about the plans. He said Saturday that women will "absolutely" serve on the Virginia class subs.
"There should be no limits on what kind of vessel a woman can serve on or what kind of career she can have in the Navy," he said, adding that he hopes there will be a "fairly quick follow-on" for the Virginia class once women are brought onto ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines.
Donnelly also called allowing women on fast-attack submarines a "logical next step," as long as the initial integration goes well on the ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines.
The commissioning event drew about 3,000 people, including many military leaders and politicians. Defense Secretary Gates; U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; Gov. M. Jodi Rell; and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon attended. The principal speaker was U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo.
Skelton told the crew that they were following in the prestigious footsteps of four other ships named in honor of his home state. The battleship USS Missouri, the "Mighty Mo," fought in World War II and the Korean War and was the site of Japan's surrender to the Allies in 1945.
Cmdr. Timothy Rexrode, the Missouri's commanding officer, called it an honor to lead the submarine and "to bring to life again the proud name of Missouri in our fleet."
"The USS Missouri," he said, "reports for duty."