The U.S. Navy welcomed its newest littoral combat ship into service on Saturday, in a ceremony that garnered a crowd of nearly 2,500 people at the Port of Galveston, in Texas.

The USS Gabrielle Giffords marks a significant departure from previous generations of surface combat ships employed by the U.S. Navy.  While a ship this size would normally require a crew of 300 or more, the Gabrielle Giffords relies heavily on advanced technologies and automation, resulting in a crew requirement of only 73.  These changes require a dramatic learning curve, as the crew of the Gabrielle Giffords will be breaking new ground in how the U.S. Navy operates its fleet of littoral combat ships with no previous experiences to pull from.

“It’s not easy being an LCS sailor,” said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Dobrinin, a gunner’s mate. “We have to wear so many hats and be trained on systems and duties outside of our normal job specialty due to the small crew size. Every enlisted sailor here volunteered for the program and we’re excited to serve on USS Gabrielle Giffords.”

The command staff of the Gabrielle Giffords are aware of the challenges faced by their crew.  Because the 3,200 ton warship is part of a new generation of vessels, and is only the ninth to be built, the crew will have their work cut out for them.

“This is not just a new ship. This is a new class of ship and that makes it even more challenging for the crew,” Navy Cmdr. Keith Woodley said.  Woodly is tasked with commanding as the first ever commander of the Gabrielle Giffords.  “They have risen to that challenge, and performed exceptionally well in getting this ship ready for service.”

The ship was named after former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who shot in the head during an attack in 2011 that left six dead and 12 others injured.  Gifford now suffers from a language disorder and is partially paralyzed, though her recovery has been nothing short of impressive.

“I thought of you in my darkest days, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of the United States of America … You make me proud. You make America proud,” Giffords said standing next to her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who served in the Navy.

Former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

The Gabrielle Giffords is extremely fast for its size.  At 421 feet long and with a width at the waterline of 103 feet, the ship’s navigational draft is only 15 feet (meaning the ship sits with only 15 feet of hull beneath the waterline).  Because of this and its four powerful engines (two gas turbine and two diesel), littoral class vessels can use four steerable waterjets to propel them to speeds on excess of 40 knots.  The Gabrielle Giffords and its class of ships are designed for near-shore operations, and although their combat abilities have been questioned by some experts, they are truly intended to serve as a cog in a larger defensive strategy, rather than as singular offensive weapons as some other ships may be employed.