NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — VIRGINIA -- The Navy on Saturday christened USS Washington, the 14th Virginia-class attack submarine. The future SSN 787 is the fourth Virginia-class Block III submarine. Construction began on the future SSN 787 — is also the fourth Virginia-class Block III submarine — .  in 2011., The keel was laid 16 months ago, and commission is set for 2017.  

Ray Mabus, who is nearing the end of his tenure as Navy secretary, was on hand to congratulate ship builders for theis "technological marvel," which has The boat has improved stealth and sophisticated surveillance capabilities. A redesigned bow features a water-backed Large Aperture Bow sonar array, and two Virginia Payload Tubes are each capable of launching six Tomahawk cruise missiles. The sub is capable of Special Forces delivery, mine delivery, and minefield mapping. While such technology gives the Navy a powerful edge, Mabus was quick to identify its crew, which stood in formation between him and the sub, as providing Washington's true edge.

Vice Adm. Joe Tofalo, commander of Submarine Forces, told the crew it would operate in the most challenging environments on Eearth, "on scene, unseen." Combatant commanders are asking for more submarines, he said, and the proliferation of anti-access/area denial systems will only increase this responsibility. Subs such as Washington are the "key that unlocks the door, thereby significantly enabling a greater naval and joint force."

In the shadow of the sub and its sailors, Mabus reflected on the founding fathers, who in drafting the Constitution gave Congress the authority to raise an army, but mandated that it provide and maintain the Navy. That "not-so subtle difference" recognizes the need for naval presence "not just at the right place at the right time, [but] at the right place all the time," he said. Mabus said the ability to provide presence rests on four elements: the people who crew, the platforms they man, the power they carry, and partnerships with allies and industry. 

A bottle of American sparkling wine was then dipped in water from Puget Sound before it was broken across the ship's bow by Elisabeth Mabus, the ship's sponsor and oldest of the Navy secretary's three daughters. Her sister, Annie, is sponsor of the next attack sub, Colorado. Youngest daughter, Kate, will sponsor the attack sub Utah, Mabus told Navy Times after the ceremony.

Shipbuilding has been a hallmark of Mabus' seven-year tenure. The Navy had 316 ships when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. In the next seven years, the Navy built 41 ships but and watched its armada shrink to 278 ships. The Navy will have contracted 84 ships under Mabus' watch, while ship production increased from fewer than five ships per year to an average of 14. His biggest contract came in 2014 when the Navy allocated $18 billion in a bulk buy of 10 subs. 

"It's like having one of those punch cards: Buy nine, get one free," Mabus joked.

USS Washington christened in Newport News

USS Washington christened in Newport News.

To date, 12 Virginia-class submarines have been delivered, 11 are in construction, and five are under contract. Virginia-class submarines weigh 7,800 tons, and are 377 feet long in length, have a 34 foot beam, and can operate at more than 25 knots submerged. The reactor plant does not require refueling during the planned life of the ship.

The attack Washington will be the third U.S. Navy ship to be named in honor of the 42nd state. The last, a World War II battleship, was decommissioned in 1947, but she was a pioneer in her seven years of service. BB-56 was the first ship equipped with a fully operational radar, and has the distinction of being the only battleship to sink another battleship in one-on-one surface combat. The battleship earned 13 battle stars, was never hit, and never lost crew member.

"It's been 70 years since the USS Washington was decommissioned," Mabus said. "It's time for a new USS Washington, this great submarine, to carry on the legacy of the state of Washington, and the ships that bore her name."