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Top Navy ship in attack-submarine class set for duty

NORFOLK, Va. -- With bells ringing and horns blaring, the Navy yesterday commissioned the lead ship of its latest class of fast-attack submarines specifically designed for post-Cold War security threats.

The $2.2 billion, nuclear-powered USS Virginia differs from other submarines because it can not only roam the deep blue ocean, but also get close to shore in shallow water, which Navy officials say is important in fighting terrorism.

Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson and wife of former Senator Charles Robb, Democrat of Virginia, gave the traditional order to ''man our ship and bring her to life" in ceremonies at Norfolk Naval Station, the world's largest Navy base.

''Aye, aye, ma'am," the crew of about 130 responded. They then raced up both ends of the sub and lined up on deck as a Navy band played ''Anchors Aweigh."

The 377-foot submarine is the first to be built without a periscope, using a high-resolution digital camera instead. That meant the control room, which always had to be directly below the periscope, could be moved to a larger space in the submarine's lower deck.

The Virginia also can launch unmanned undersea vehicles. Other improvements include a computerized autopilot designed to reduce stress on the crew and a reconfigurable torpedo room that can hold extra beds for special operations forces.

In his keynote address, Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia, said the USS Virginia will help lead the fight against terrorism.

''We cannot ever blink. We cannot ever flinch. We cannot yield," said Warner, a former Navy secretary. ''This ship will very definitely play a role in that war on terror."

The submarine is the first of 10 Virginia-class submarines scheduled to be built through a partnership between Northrop Grumman Newport News and General Dynamics Electric Boat. The class is projected to have 30 submarines.

Laura Bush, the president's wife, christened the USS Texas, the second submarine in the class, at the Newport News shipyard in July.

Ralph Folger, 81, of Troy, N.Y., was among more than 4,000 invited guests at the ceremonies yesterday. He served on three submarines during World War II.

Crew members were excited about the commissioning.

''We are joining the ranks of the rest of the warships," said Lieutenant Commander Luis Molina, 34, of Jacksonville, N.C.

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