By Chris Vaughn
FORT WORTH -- The countdown for the champagne-bashing has begun.
Next Saturday, on the banks of the Menominee River north of Green Bay, Wis., U.S. Rep. Kay Granger will swing a bottle of bubbly against the bow of what will become the USS Fort Worth, the first time a Navy warship will have ever borne this prairie city's name.
"Standing on the platform 35 feet up waiting to hear the charge so I can swing, I'm sure there will be some butterflies," said Granger, who is the ship's "sponsor," who by tradition is always a woman.
More than 60 civic, political and business leaders are flying on a chartered jet to Wisconsin for the festivities, which also include a centuries-old ceremony to place items symbolic of the city at the base of the mast.
The group includes Mayor Mike Moncrief, former Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, Chamber of Commerce President Bill Thornton, Chesapeake Vice President Julie Wilson, lawyers Albon Head Jr. and Rice Tilley Jr., and former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, who is chairman of the commissioning committee.
"This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Williams said.
The 389-foot ship, reportedly costing $480 million, will be the third littoral combat ship to enter the Navy's inventory and the second produced by Lockheed Martin and its contracting partners, including the shipbuilder, Marinette Marine Corp.
Littoral combat ships, a new post-9-11 concept envisioned by England, are comparatively small and light ships, designed for speed and agility around coastal areas and strategic shipping points. The littoral ships displace 3,100 tons, compared with a cruiser and a destroyer, which displace more than 9,000 tons.
Staffed by small, 70-person crews relying on extensive automation and technology aboard, the ships can be used for a variety of missions -- anti-piracy, mine warfare, insertion of special operations troops ashore and narcotics intercepts.
More than 70 percent complete, with only some interior work and outfitting remaining, the future USS Fort Worth will begin sea trials on Lake Michigan for several months as the company tests components, electronics and other features. Then the ship will be delivered to the Navy for more testing.
In the spring of 2012, the ship will be commissioned at another ceremony, when it formally earns its USS Fort Worth title. The Navy plans for the ship to be based on the West Coast after commissioning.
The ship, whose new motto is "Grit and Tenacity," will be commanded by two officers, Cmdrs. Warren Cupps and Randy Blankenship. Unlike most naval vessels, the ship will have two crews, and those crews will rotate every few months while the ship stays forward-deployed.
"The new technology aboard the LCS, the way the modules are designed to go on and off the ship for missions, the way it can move in shallow waters makes these ships important to our nation's future," Granger said. "All of that is even more important than getting a ship named after our city."
Other Texas ships
Fort Worth may be 300 miles from an ocean, but that rarely matters in ship-naming.
The nation already sends the USS Dallas, USS Houston, USS San Antonio and USS City of Corpus Christi across the globe, and Granger noticed what was missing from the naval lineup.
She started a public relations campaign in 2006 to persuade then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter to name a littoral combat ship after Fort Worth, and thousands of people in Cowtown supported it with letters, e-mails, cards and phone calls. Winter granted the wish in March 2009, even though the first two names of the littoral combat ships -- USS Freedom and USS Independence -- suggested concepts, rather than city names. (Each ship classification carries different naming principles.)
The first littoral combat ship, the USS Freedom, also built by the Lockheed Martin team, is in service in the Navy and completed its first deployment this year. The USS Independence, a markedly different-looking version produced by a team led by General Dynamics, was also commissioned this year.
The Navy originally intended to try both the Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics versions and then choose a single winner for the long-term contract for as many as 55 littoral combat ships.
But this month, the service signaled to Congress that it would now prefer to award a six-year contract to both companies to produce 10 vessels each because bids for both came in under what was expected. But the Navy must have an answer from the lame-duck Congress by mid-December.
"This option is good for the taxpayers because it enables us to buy more ships for the same money and allows us to lock in a lower price for all 20 ships," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a news release.
Saturday's christening of the ship is largely paid for by the shipbuilder. But the commissioning ceremony budget in 2012 will largely come from what Williams can raise from the Fort Worth area.
He's been out selling the ship locally in an effort to "front-load" his fundraising efforts, which he has not publicly pinned a number on. "If Roger Williams calls you, you can pretty much guarantee he's going to want money," he joked.
The money will not pay for just the commissioning ceremony, Williams said.
The group is also going to fund a college scholarship in the names of the three former Fort Worth men who served as Navy secretaries -- John Connally Jr. and Fred Korth during the John F. Kennedy administration and England during the George W. Bush administration.
The funds will also pay to bring USS Fort Worth officers and sailors to the city for special events and will pay for upgrades to the ship's recreation facilities.
"This is going to be their home away from home," Williams said. "We want to include them in as many things as possible -- throwing out a first pitch somewhere, going to the Stock Show rodeo, riding in parades."