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. US Navy commissions first in new class of attack submarines
WASHINGTON (AFP) Oct 23, 2004
The US Navy on Saturday commissions the first of a new class of nuclear-powered attack submarines, designed more for intelligence missions close to shore than its Cold War predecessors, navy officials said.

The USS Virginia, which is to be inducted into the navy in a ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia, can fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from a distance or it can be configured to slip a 50-member special operations force behind the lines, they said.

The two-billion-dollar submarine is the first of 30 that the navy plans to buy, eventually replacing the current fleet of Los Angeles class attack submarines made famous in movies like the "Hunt for Red October". Three others are under construction by Newport News Shipbuilding and Electric Boat Corp. of Groton, Connecticut.

"In the Cold War you'd ask, 'How fast and how deep can the sub go,' for fighting the blue ocean, deep water threats that we had in the Cold War," said Phil McGuinn, a spokesman for the navy's submarine force.

"Well, Virginia is still built to meet those threats, and so you could ask how deep and how fast, and we would still say greater than 25 knots and greater than 800 feet (244 meters). But the important question now for Virginia is, 'How close to a station can you maintain?'"

Unlike the Los Angeles class submarines, the Virginia has automated navigational controls that enable it to spend more time on clandestine missions in coastal areas without tiring the crew.

"If you're going to go sit off someone's coast and do an intelligence and surveillance mission, or be ready to insert some special forces, you want to be able to manage where your boat is and how it hovers in the water," McGuinn said. "You want to be able to really navigate, and fly your boat where you need to go and count on it getting there."

The Los Angeles class submarines can perform those special intelligence missions, but they require more manpower and a more intense effort by the navigation crew to manually keep the submarine on station, he said.

The new submarine has other features designed for special forces missions.

A full nine-member special forces team can get into or out of the submarine through its lockout chamber at a time, instead of only two as is currently the case.

The submarine can host an Advanced SEAL Delivery System mini-submarine, and in the future will be able to carry unmanned underwater vehicles, McGuinn said.

The old style periscope is gone on the Virginia, replaced by photonics and fiber optic sensors that relay images from the mast to large screen monitors in the submarine's command center.

"The captain can sit there with a joystick and a large panel display and get a heads up view of everything that would have been seen through the periscope," he said.

The new submarine's communications systems have greater bandwidth than the Los Angeles class subs, allowing it to communicate and send back more data at higher speeds.

"Its quietness with its ability to hover and maintain station allows it to be in position to be a basically 'big ears,' the ultimate eavesdropper," picking up a variety of signals, analyzing them and relaying them to other commands, he said.

The Virginia also carries Tomahawk cruise missiles, which it can fire either from vertical launchers on deck or through torpedo tubes. It can also fire MK-48 torpedos, or be configured to carry mines.

The submarine, which will be based in Groton, Connecticut, will spend about a year being worked up by its new crew, he said.

It should be ready for real world missions in 2006 or 2007, he said.

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