MOBILE, Ala. — In a burst of bubbly, the U.S. Navy on Saturday sealed a bond with the city of Omaha that is expected to last for decades.

Philanthropist Susie Buffett smashed a bottle of Champagne against the bow of the Navy’s newest littoral combat ship and named it the USS Omaha, following a centuries-old tradition.

“I christen thee USS Omaha!” said Buffett, the ship’s sponsor, just before striking the blow. “May God bless this ship and all who sail on her.”

About 20 Nebraskans were among the 500 people attending the pier-side ceremony at the Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, where the ship had been under construction since the keel was laid down last February.

“It was a very impressive sight,” said Rick Holdcroft, a retired Navy captain from Bellevue, who is vice president of Nebraska’s chapter of the Navy League support group.

“It brings tears to your eyes,” added Walter “Butch” Kirkland, the group’s president. “This is not just any ship, it’s a special ship.”

The group of Nebraska natives included Brent Hutfless, an information technology specialist for Austal who graduated from Omaha South. He served in the Navy from 1992 to 2000 before settling in Mobile, where his wife’s family lives.

He was thrilled when he learned his company was building a ship that would be named for his hometown.

“I was thinking it was a ship I would have liked to have served on,” said Hutfless, 42, whose parents, grandmother and brother still live in Omaha.

The ship is the fourth naval vessel to bear the city’s name, a chain dating back to the commissioning of a sloop-of-war in 1869. The last USS Omaha was a nuclear attack submarine that served in the Navy from 1978 to 1995.

It’s the sixth in a line of Independence-class littoral combat ships with a futuristic trimaran design that sits high above the water. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work once compared it to a Klingon Bird of Prey ship in “Star Trek.”

[ Photos: USS Omaha christening ] 

“We built you a great ship, the coolest ship on the planet,” said Craig Perciavalle, Austal USA’s president. “Fair winds and following seas.”

The ship incorporates many labor-saving devices, allowing it to run with a crew of just 50 sailors. It also has replaced the customary twin-screw, twin-propeller propulsion system with a group of water jets. They can propel the Omaha and its sister ships sideways or around sharp turns.

“She can sit in the water and spin like a top,” said Command Senior Chief Christopher Farrar, the Omaha’s senior enlisted sailor.

Saturday’s christening was a joyous day for a ship program that’s been beset with controversy throughout its 15-year history. In its early days, LCS was plagued with cost overruns, and some of the first models of the ship suffered engine and corrosion problems. Last weekend the USS Milwaukee — a littoral ship of a different design, produced in Wisconsin — broke down en route to its first home port. And on Thursday, news broke that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had directed Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to cut the planned number of LCS vessels from 52 to 40, and to choose one of the two manufacturers to produce it.

Mabus took a wait-and-see approach. But Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., who represents Mobile and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, offered a full-throated defense of the LCS program.

“There’s going to be a broad-based coalition in Congress to push back against what the Secretary of Defense has proposed,” Byrne said. “This will not stand.”

The Omaha has been in the water only a few weeks, but its crew — which doesn’t include any Nebraskans — already is working together in the ship’s future home port of San Diego, said Cmdr. Matt Scarlett, who will be the ship’s commanding officer.

They are honing their skills aboard the USS Coronado, another ship in the Independence class, as part of a new manning concept the Navy has developed for LCS that rotates three crews between two ships. That allows the ship to stay at sea longer.

Three members of Scarlett’s crew, called the Vikings, joined him in Mobile for the christening.

“We’ll always be tied to Omaha because we’re plankowners,” said Scarlett, 43, using the Navy term for sailors on a ship’s first crew.

Landlocked Omaha may seem an odd choice for the name of a Navy ship. Mabus has named many LCS ships after cities in the U.S. interior. An LCS under construction in Wisconsin is scheduled to be named the USS Sioux City next month.

“One of the ways we connect our nation to the ships of the Navy is through their names,” Mabus said. “The name ‘Omaha’ will be carried throughout the world for decades.”

It was Mabus who selected Buffett as the ship’s sponsor. Buffett is well-known in Omaha for her philanthropic efforts involving children, education and families.

On Friday, Buffett’s party toured Austal, the fifth-largest shipbuilder in the nation, and the largest builder of aluminum ships in the world, Perciavalle said.

The Omaha group viewed the Module Manufacturing Facility — larger than a dozen football fields — where the blue-green glow from torches illuminated the masks of welders working on pieces of future ships. They also saw the building where the modules are assembled into a complete ship a few blocks away.

They also got a rare tour of the ship’s interior, which is still largely unfinished. Foil-backed fiberglass insulation lines most of the walls. Pink sheets of canvas cover equipment in the engine room and on the bridge. Interior work will be completed before the ship is delivered to the Navy — probably in about a year, Perciavalle said.

“It’s almost impossible to describe how amazing this is,” Buffett said. “It’s even cooler than I thought it would be.”

She has warmed to the job of ship’s sponsor, a role in which she will serve as a permanent link between the city and the ship. The city is expected to organize a sizable celebration for the commissioning ceremony in 2017. She is looking forward to spreading the word back home about the new ship.

“Omaha is full of people who would be really excited about this sort of thing,” Buffett said. “I hope everybody is really proud of it.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1186, steve.liewer@owh.com

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