MARINETTE, WIS. – The Navy's newest combat ship, named in honor of the Twin Cities, will launch Saturday — in Wisconsin, of all places.
The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul, a steel-hulled combat ship a bit longer than a football field, is designed to be fast and agile enough to locate mines and disarm other threats near the shoreline. It includes a flight deck for helicopters and drones and a bay to launch smaller watercraft.
The ship will be christened at a shipyard in this city on the Wisconsin-Michigan border and then literally dropped sideways into the Menominee River near the churning waters of Green Bay.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech during the ceremony at Fincantieri Marinette Marine, the only naval shipyard in the Midwest and about an hour north of the city of Green Bay.
"We are building Naval combat ships that travel around the world and we are building them right here in the Great Lakes," said Jim Murdoch, a retired Navy admiral who works as director of business development for shipbuilder Lockheed Martin. "We are proud to be part of the team building the next namesake of the Twin Cities."
Jodi J. Greene, a deputy undersecretary of the Navy and a Northfield native, has been selected as the ship's sponsor and will smash a bottle of sparkling wine against the ship's bow to christen it.
Then the ship will be plunged into the water, listing dramatically from side to side until it rights itself. Bystanders typically line the opposite banks of the river to see the ship splash down.
"It's exciting. It's one of the few times we get to put 300 tons of steel in the water," Murdoch said during a Friday morning tour of the shipyard.
More than a dozen construction workers in hard hats and steel-toed boots were still going in and out of the ship, which had been dressed up with red, white and blue bunting and signal flags for Saturday's ceremonies.
"She looks great all decked out," said Murdoch, gazing up at the massive steel structure sitting in cradles on the riverbank.
A fast ship
This is the first ship and only the second naval vessel to bear the name Minneapolis-St. Paul. A Navy submarine served as the first USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul from 1984 until it was decommissioned in 2008. Going back more than a century, there have been two ships named USS Saint Paul and two named USS Minneapolis.
The secretary of the Navy typically selects names for vessels according to long-held conventions. Aircraft carriers are usually named after presidents and occasionally congressional members, destroyers are named after Navy, Marine and Coast Guard leaders, and battleships are named after states.
Smaller ships are named after American cities. Other cities recently bestowed the honor include St. Louis, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul will be the Navy's 21st littoral (meaning that it will operate near shore) combat ship, and the 11th built in Wisconsin. The other 10, all with aluminum hulls, were built by an outfit in Mobile, Ala. It takes about four years to build a ship, from the first cut of steel to delivery.
The Minneapolis-Saint Paul is nearly 400 feet long and can accommodate as many as 100 sailors, less than half the length of an aircraft carrier that can stretch more than 1,000 feet and carry thousands of crew members.
It's one of the fastest combat ships in the Navy, reaching a speed of 40 knots, which is more than 50 miles per hour. And it's designed to defuse threats including mines, submarines and fast surface craft, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
"It's the most automated ship in the Navy," a Lockheed spokeswoman said.
When it's completely outfitted, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul will travel more than 1,000 miles through the Great Lakes and will go into port at Mayport, Fla. From there, it could be deployed for more than a year in the Middle East, the Mediterranean or the Gulf of Mexico. The Navy rotates crews on and off the ship during long deployments, Murdoch said.
About 2,500 workers, including welders, pipe fitters, electricians and engineers, pass through the Wisconsin shipyard's gates to build combat ships. The shipyard has been around since the 1940s, when smaller minesweeper vessels were built there.
"They are fine shipbuilders with a proud history. We love them," Murdoch said.