GROTON, Conn. (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama said she was "beyond proud" to take part in a commissioning ceremony Saturday for the U.S. Navy attack submarine named for her home state of Illinois.
The submarine officially became the USS Illinois, SSN 786, and began active service at a ceremony at the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut.
Mrs. Obama, the ship sponsor, gave the order to "man our ship and bring her to life" before the crew of about 130 men ran across the brow, onto the vessel.
"Thank you for giving me the incredible privilege of being associated with you and with your families and with the Illinois for the rest of my life," she told them. "I will continue to keep you in my prayers every single day and keep you in my thoughts, and know that you have a sponsor that cares deeply."
The first lady, who is from Chicago, has made supporting military families a priority. She's considered an honorary member of the crew, and will be involved in the lives of the sub's sailors and families.
"Working with our military community has been the biggest honor of my life," she said, before going on board and touring the vessel.
Cmdr. Jess Porter, the submarine's commanding officer, has compared having the first lady as the sponsor to having Babe Ruth on your team. He said her participation in the commissioning is "pretty monumental."
Porter said the crew has worked tirelessly as the sub was built and their families have sacrificed — the ceremony recognizes those efforts and accomplishments.
"This warship is absolutely ready to go," he said. "She's a wonder."
It took submarine supply businesses nationwide and thousands of shipyard employees in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Virginia to build the $2.7 billion submarine. Submarine builder Electric Boat, based in Groton, and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia build Virginia-class attack submarines under a teaming agreement and alternate the deliveries.
The USS Illinois is the 13th member of the Virginia class. Eleven more submarines are currently under construction. The last of the submarines under contract, the future USS Utah, is scheduled to be delivered in 2023 as the 28th member of the class.
Construction on the Illinois began in March 2011. The submarine was delivered to the Navy in August. The Navy has said the attack submarines are needed to replace those that were built during the Cold War and are retiring.
Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, gave the order to commission the submarine, telling the audience of about 2,500 that the "powerful warship" will strike fear into the hearts of the nation's enemies and bring warm reassurance to allies and partners. His flag and the submarine's commissioning pennant were raised, signaling that the submarine can be tasked to conduct Navy missions as an active member of the submarine force.
"You're needed on station and there's not a moment to lose," Richardson told the crew.
It will be about another two years before its first deployment. The Illinois will undergo additional testing in the shipyard before it begins the process of getting certified for its maiden deployment.
The submarine has a redesigned bow with two large tubes to launch Tomahawk missiles, instead of 12 smaller tubes. The larger tubes were designed so the Navy would have the flexibility to also launch future weapons and unmanned vehicles, according to Electric Boat.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, called the vessel "a technological wonder that will help keep us safe and safeguard our freedom."