Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Friday that a submarine to be christened with the name of his home state, Mississippi, will be a source of pride for a state that has "come back from a lot," including the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, will be the main speaker at a ceremony Saturday when a bottle of champagne is smashed across the side of the Navy's newest and most advanced nuclear submarine at a Groton, Conn. shipyard. It will be the fifth Navy vessel to bear the name of the Magnolia State.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mabus said he is happy to have a role in introducing a submarine that will carry the name Mississippi around the world.
"It honors the spirit and resilience and patriotism of the people of Mississippi," he said. "Mississippi has come back from a lot."
Attack submarines like the Mississippi were traditionally named for fish, and then for cities, before the Navy settled more recently on names of U.S. states. One exception came in January 2009, when then-Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter announced that a sub still under construction would be named for former U.S. Sen. John Warner of Virginia.
At the christening in the Electric Boat shipyard, the submarine's sponsor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Allison Stiller, will perform the champagne bottle-smashing duty to mark its transition from a construction project to a ship that is nearly ready to join the Navy fleet.
The submarine, which was named by Mabus' predecessor, is already a source of pride for many in Mississippi, where the state Legislature passed a resolution in March commending the crew for its service. The sub is to be commissioned as the USS Mississippi at a June 2012 ceremony in Gulfport, Miss.
Mabus said he has a personal connection to the battleship USS Mississippi that sailed with the Great White Fleet a century ago. As governor, he frequently looked at the figurehead from that ship, which was on capitol grounds.
The $2.6 billion submarine is the ninth in the Virginia class of ships, which have capabilities that allow them to perform better in shallow water than other subs and, among other features, a torpedo room that can be reconfigured to house large numbers of Navy SEALs.
The commanding officer, Navy Capt. John McGrath, said the Mississippi will operate undetected in even the most heavily contested waters.
"Wherever she sails, Mississippi will serve as a 7,000-ton example of our American values," McGrath said.
The 377-foot long submarine will be equipped with torpedoes as well as Tomahawk missiles. Its nuclear reactor, which is designed to eliminate the need for refueling during the planned service life of more than 30 years, will propel the sub at speeds in excess of 25 knots submerged.
Contracts have been issued for a total of 18 Virginia-class submarines, with Newport News Shipbuilding and Groton-based Electric Boat taking turns delivering the subs.
The Mississippi will be ready for delivery about a year ahead of schedule. The ability of contractors to find efficiencies in the construction of the Virginia-class subs was praised by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during a visit last month to the Groton shipyard.
Construction began in February 2007 and the submarine needs only final outfitting, sea trials and some other tests before it is ready for delivery.
"We're in the home stretch," said Robert Hamilton, a spokesman for Electric Boat.
In his remarks at the ceremony, Mabus said he planned to praise contractors and the workers for delivering the submarine ahead of schedule and under budget.
"I'm going to stress that particularly in times of fiscal concern, we have to do a very good job of managing the taxpayers' dollars, and this is a good example of how to do that," he said.