$1.3 billion warship sets course for city

USS Sterett to be commissioned at South Locust Point

July 04, 2008|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,SUN REPORTER

The vessel's radar picks up objects as small as a fly, sensing potential hazards more than 100 miles away. Its 100,000-plus-horsepower jet engines go from full speed ahead - about 45 mph - to a dead stop in less than a length and a half of the 510-foot ship. And the systems that fire its Tomahawk missiles and torpedoes are wired with high-speed optical fiber.

The new USS Sterett, a $1.3 billion missile destroyer, ranks among the world's most technically advanced warships. It officially starts duty in Baltimore in early August, the first major naval ship to be commissioned here in nearly a quarter-century.

"The crew's very excited about bringing the ship home to Andrew Sterett's birthplace and bringing our ship to life in a city with such a rich nautical tradition," said Cmdr. Brian Eckerle, the Sterett's captain and a Charles County resident. "Without the crew, the ship is just a hunk of steel and wires. The crew provides the life and vitality."

Named for a Baltimore-born 19th-century naval officer, the Sterett DDG-104 comes to port Aug. 2 for a week of festivities before its official commissioning at the South Locust Point Cruise Terminal. It is the Navy's 54th of 62 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, considered its most potent warships. The vessel is also the fourth naval ship to bear the storied Sterett name.

The warship, which took four years to build, left its shipyard in Bath, Maine, last week for a month of at-sea testing. It will dock in Newport, R.I., and Norfolk, Va., before sailing up the Chesapeake to Baltimore.

Now the Sterett's green crew will learn how to man its Aegis air defense weapons system and how to refuel the vessel from an adjacent oil tanker on open water. The sophisticated ship can simultaneously fight air, surface and underwater offensive and defensive battles. Its MK 41 vertical missile launchers were locally made at Lockheed Martin's Middle River facility, company spokesman James Gring said.

Among the Sterett's crew of 285 sailors and officers are several recent Naval Academy graduates. Only a quarter of the crew has ever been assigned to a naval ship before, Eckerle said.

"It's a brand-new crew," said retired Navy Vice Adm. Kenneth C. Malley, an Edgewater resident and chairman of the Sterett commissioning committee. "A lot of them are right out of boot camp. Some have never been to sea before."

The Aug. 9 commissioning will be a big day for the crew and its host, the port of Baltimore. The Sterett will berth at the port's cruise ship terminal next to the historic backdrop of the USS Constellation, which will be transported from its usual Inner Harbor mooring for the ceremony.

"Captain, bring your ship alive!" the secretary of the Navy will order Eckerle to complete the official commissioning. The crew members, in their dress whites, will suddenly appear and stream on board. They will raise the ensign on the stern and the "Don't Tread on Me" U.S. Navy Jack on the bow. The gun barrels will cycle up and down and the ship's horn will sound.

"The commissioning of any Navy ship is a thrilling event," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and now a consultant to the Maryland Port Administration. "It will focus attention once more on the port of Baltimore." The day of the ceremony, the Coast Guard will establish a security zone to restrict activity on the surrounding Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. The Navy Leagues from Baltimore and Annapolis will help control attendance at the week's events to comply with homeland security restrictions at the marine terminals.

Organizers expect as many as 5,000 will attend the commissioning. It is a boost to the local tourism industry, but nothing compared to the Otakon 2008 anime convention expected to bring 20,000 fans of Japanese animation to the Baltimore Convention Center that same weekend, Malley said.

"It will definitely be a busy weekend in Baltimore," said Nancy Hinds, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "It's a great way to showcase the city."

To drum up business from meeting planners and attract travel media, BACVA will be the host for a reception on the Constellation the same day as the Sterett commissioning, Hinds said.

To attend the commissioning or tour the vessel, guests must sign up for security clearance close to two weeks in advance. They will park at the Northrop Grumman lot near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport that day for security screening and will be shuttled by rented buses to and from the Locust Point terminal. Parking is unavailable at South Locust Point, because a cruise trip also departs from there Aug. 9.

A reception at Fort McHenry, a flag football game for the crew at the Ravens' stadium and tours of the Sterett for the public are among the activities planned for the week.

And then the crew is off. The ship will sail through the Panama Canal to the Sterett's home port of San Diego.

"It's all part of the Navy adventure of getting a new ship under way," Eckerle said.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

To attend the Sterett commissioning, e-mail retired Vice Adm. Kenneth Malley at kcmddg104@comcast.net

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