Illinois’ namesake submarine is getting closer to reality, a date which ironically will mark the day it disappears beneath the waves.
The boat, officially known at this point as PCU-Illinois, standing for pre-commissioning unit, is currently housed in a giant building at the sprawling Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut.
But she has her crew, and about four months from now, the Illinois will make the short trip to the water for formal christening ceremonies.
“Later this year we’ll go on sea trials in the fall,” said Commander Jesse Porter, the Illinois’ skipper. “And we’re scheduled for commissioning in December.”
The Illinois is the latest of the Virginia class of nuclear submarines, a $2.7 billion wonder which is expected to enter three decades of service when handed over to the Navy at year’s end.
Three decades, because that’s how much fuel she carries. The nuclear core of Illinois has already been installed and it will last, to be precise, 33 years.
To a layman the boat appears enormous, but it’s home to more than 100 men.
“It’s cramped, it’s a tight space, but it’s busy!” said Chief of the Boat David DiPietro, who is working to train the boat’s new crew, about a fourth of whom have never been to sea. “I have to take 130 guys and get them ready to take the ship to sea for the first time together as a team."
During a breakfast meeting at Chicago’s Union League Club, Porter and members of his crew extolled the virtues of the new boat, and the role it will play in addressing challenges around the world.
“It’s mobile, it’s covert,” Porter said. “And I can get into places where other platforms cannot be, and I can do missions that are right on the doorstep of the opponent.”
And to those who question the relevance of nuclear submarines in a frightening world where opponents are often terrorists working far from any shore, Porter notes his vessel carries sophisticated reconnaissance capability, the ability to deliver Navy Seals to covert targets, and to launch weapons over a thousand miles inland.
"Congress approved the building of 10 Virginia-class submarines,” he noted. “And that’s the biggest shipbuilding contract in the history of the United States.”
The Union League Club already plays host to the support organization for another namesake submarine, USS Chicago.
That boat’s support organization, the 721 Club, has been based at Union League since she was commissioned in 1986. The Club is now backing the Illinois christening committee, which will become its support group once the sub is turned over to the Navy in December.
“It’s an opportunity for the public, the civilians, to show their appreciation for the service these men provide,” said Union League’s Mark McClain. “The boat is nothing without that crew, and these sailors, these men, go into some incredibly dangerous situations…for us.”
The Illinois is scheduled to be christened this summer.
First Lady Michelle Obama, the boat’s sponsor, will smash the ceremonial bottle of champagne on the boat’s sail in June.