The USS Oregon, by the numbers

Hull number: SSN-793

Class: Virginia, Block IV

Cost: $2.6 billion

Operating cost: $50 million per year

Length: 377 feet

Beam: 34 feet

Displacement: 7,800 tons submerged

Speed: 25+ knots (28+ mph)

Maximum depth: 800+ feet

Crew: 132-117 enlisted and 15 officers

Powerplant: S9G nuclear reactor generating 40,000 shaft horse power. The nuclear core life is estimated at 33 years.

Armament: Two multipurpose Virginia Payload Tubes (VPT) launching UGM-19 Tomahawk cruise missiles and UGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Four torpedo tubes can launch Mk 48 heavy torpedoes with a top speed of 50 mph.

Website: ussoregonssn793.org

Source: Department of Defense

At noon on a late October day, more than 20,000 people came to the Union Iron Works shipyard on Mare Island to watch the latest addition to the U.S. Navy slide into San Francisco Bay. “The Oregon In Her Element” The New York Times wired across country. It was 1893.

The USS Oregon was the Navy’s third battleship. It was the first American warship to be launched bearing the name of the 33rd state.

For nearly a century, it looked like it would be the last.

That should end this fall when a bottle of Champagne is smashed against a new USS Oregon — this one a submarine — during a christening held by the firm that built it, Connecticut-based General Dynamics Electric Boat.

A Virginia-class fast attack submarine, the main role of the USS Oregon will be to hunt and, if necessary, kill Russian and Chinese submarines that could launch nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles capable of destroying American cities.

The USS Oregon could also fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets on land, Harpoon anti-ship missiles at distant vessels and Mk 48 torpedoes to sink ships and submarines. The submarine can also deploy Navy SEAL commando teams.

Just as the big guns of the battleship USS Oregon were considered the key to seapower at the end of the 19th century, attack submarines that can shadow other submarines are the key in the current century, the Navy says.

Advocating funding that would include the USS Oregon during an appearance before Congress in 2015, newly retired Vice Admiral Michael J. Connor said the USS Oregon and its sister boats were “game-changers” against rival military superpowers and rising, aggressive nations.

“The undersea arena is the most opaque of all war-fighting domains,” Connor said.

“It is easier to track a small object in space than it is to track a large submarine, with tremendous firepower, under the water.”

Quieter killer

USS Oregon comes with innovations in propulsion and weapons. It will move through the water powered by pump-jet propulsors instead of traditional screws with blades — cutting the amount of bubbles and noise that can be heard on sonar.

It has four torpedo tubes to fire the Mk 48 torpedoes that can travel at up to 50 mph. Instead of exploding against the side of a ship, the Mk 48 dives under the hull and detonates at the keel, the blast breaking the back of the ship.

The USS Oregon doesn’t come cheap. The battleship USS Oregon cost $4 million in 1893 — about $113 million in today’s dollars.

The submarine USS Oregon has an estimated cost of $2.6 billion. The Navy has 17 Virginia-class submarines on active duty, with the USS Oregon among 11 at some point in construction. At least 10 more are on the Navy’s procurement wish list.

An earlier Oregon

Five years after its launch in 1893, the battleship USS Oregon began to earn a reputation as the most famous ship in the fleet. It was given the nickname “Bulldog of the Navy” for the way its bow thrashed through open seas.

In 1898, it galvanized national attention when it steamed more than 15,700 miles from San Francisco, around Cape Horn, to Florida — arriving 66 days after it left, just as the Spanish-American War broke out.

At the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, USS Oregon chased down a Spanish cruiser, forcing it to lower its flag and intentionally run aground as a sign of surrender.

USS Oregon and its crew were showered with celebrations upon their triumphant return from the four-month war. The New York Herald newspaper published a poem about the battleship on its front page.

But battleship design was evolving so rapidly that less than 10 years after it was commissioned, the USS Oregon was obsolete — too slow, too lightly protected and carrying too many small guns.

The USS Oregon was reduced to ceremonial and transport roles, then decommissioned in 1919 and docked at the Portland waterfront as a tourist attraction.

The USS Oregon was officially struck from the list of Navy ships in 1942 so that it could be gutted during a World War II scrap metal drive. It was now just IX-22, an “unclassified miscellaneous vessel.” The hull was used as an ammunition barge towed to the battle for Guam, then abandoned after the war. The last remnants were sold for scrap to Japan in 1956.

All that remains of the USS Oregon is the ship’s mast and a bow shield, which since 1956 has served as the Battleship Oregon Memorial in what is now Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland.

A new namesake

Battleships were named for states. But the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor showed the lumbering battle-wagons could be sunk from the air. As the war progressed, the Navy’s premier ship became the aircraft carrier. After the USS Missouri was completed in 1944, the Navy stopped building battleships.

The political prestige in Congress of having a ship named after a state moved the Navy in the 1960s to give state names to six guided missile cruisers.

The state naming issue with vessels ramped up in 1992. Attack submarines had traditionally been named after sea creatures. Later nuclear-power classes, such as the Los Angeles-class, carried the names of major cities.

But when the new Seawolf-class fast attack submarine was introduced to the fleet, one was named USS Connecticut. Later, with the introduction of the Virginia-class submarines, nearly all have been named for states.

In 2011, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., received a letter from a constituent, who was also an active-duty Marine, who pointed to the lack of a USS Oregon in the fleet.

Merkley wrote a letter to then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus asking him to remedy the oversight.

“It would be a great honor to the sailors, marines, military service members as well as citizens of Oregon to have one of the newest naval submarines named in their honor,” Merkley wrote.

In October 2014, Mabus came to the Battleship Oregon Memorial in Portland to announce that one of those boats — the 20th Virginia-class fast attack submarine, with hull number SSN-793 — would be named the USS Oregon.

Coming out party

With the boat closing in on its unspecified christening date this fall, Navy League volunteers in Oregon are raising $200,000 for the ceremony and party.

They’ve created The USS Oregon Commissioning Committee, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to take donations.

Johnny Corbin, of Redmond, who served on attack submarines during his Navy service from 1967 to 1971, is point man for the fundraising in Central Oregon.

“Whatever is left over from the christening and party will go to the recreation fund for the crew of the USS Oregon,” Corbin said. “It will be a gift from all over Oregon.”

The future of any one weapon is uncertain. When the battleship USS Oregon was launched in 1893, the Navy didn’t intend on it becoming outclassed and outgunned a dozen years later.

The Navy is forecasting a long life for the new USS Oregon and plans on buying Virginia-class submarines through 2043.

The USS Oregon is expected to remain in service until the mid-2050s.

The Navy so far is happy with the design and is considering extending modifications used in the USS Oregon instead of a planned mid-21st-century replacement, the SSN-X.

— Reporter: 541-640-2750, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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