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USS Charleston: Navy's newest ship formally enters the fleet in Saturday ceremony

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When the Navy's new warship USS Charleston is commissioned Saturday on the city waterfront, it will be just a few miles from the calm Atlantic.

But when the vessel's mission takes shape, it will be in the far-off Pacific, including exposure to an expanding China — America's growing global competitor.

More than 6,000 people are expected to attend the ceremony on the State Ports Authority waterfront. Tickets have already been distributed and no more are available.

A list of Pentagon and civilian dignitaries will attend, including Charlotte Riley, wife of former Mayor Joe Riley. She will give the formal decree officially putting the ship in the fleet after being chosen as the official ship sponsor several years back.

"Man our ship and bring her to life," will be the order.

Cmdr. Christopher Brusca, commanding officer of the Charleston, said during a media tour Thursday he was statistically disappointed to find out that none of his crew of 74 comes from South Carolina, saying he'd hoped a Palmetto State representative could have been part of the first watch.

The ship is home-ported in San Diego. It was built by General Dynamics/Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. 

The $440 million, 425-foot vessel is part of the new wave of Navy technology, joining the fleet’s group of “littoral ships,” fast, maneuverable and agile craft that can operate close to shore for combat duties. Unlike older conventional ships, the Charleston has no screws or propellers; it runs its trimaran shape on intake and water jets.

"It's like a giant Jet Ski," said Lt. Roman Metzger, adding the top speed of the 80,000 horse power available is more than 40 knots.

Other upgrades from the past include, in place of some ladders, there are easier-to-use stairs. Modern workout and treadmill machines are lined up in the bay. The crew was storing an assortment of meats and frozen chicken wings Thursday, as well.

The Charleston's mission will be part of the 7th Fleet, giving her patrolling duty off South America, into the Pacific and Asia, including the South China Sea where China is looking to expand its reach by building a string of man-made islands it claims as sovereign territory.

Brusca acknowledged the ship is a projection of U.S. defense policy.

"It's showing the flag," he said, adding, "Freedom of navigation is always the Navy's mission."

A key emphasis will be anti-mine warfare, detecting and removing such hazards. But there are a number of other assets it can handle, including helicopters and drones, and a rapid fire 57 mm cannon on the bow.

With a draft of about 14 feet, the Charleston can move into much shallower waters and closer to shore than other Navy ships.

"It can go places the rest of the Navy can't," Brusca said.

The new Charleston is actually the sixth Charleston to be designated a part of the Navy in the nation’s history. 

The first was a row galley that defended the coast of South Carolina during the Quasi-War with France. Others included a cruiser that received the surrender of Guam during the Spanish-American War; a St. Louis-class protected cruiser that performed escort and troop transport duties in World War I; an Erie-class patrol gunboat that served in the northern Pacific during World War II; and an amphibious cargo ship that served during the Vietnam War.

The ship is paying homage to South Carolina in different ways. One is its motto: "While We Breath, We Fight," which is a variation on the state motto: "While I Breath, I Hope."

Saturday's event will be live-streamed by the Department of Defense’s Public Affairs organization, and can be viewed at:

The link will become active approximately five minutes prior to the event, or 9:55 a.m. Saturday. 

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

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