ABOARD THE U.S. NAVY SUBMARINE TEXAS (AP) – The big red panic button here is on a computer touch screen, the steering instruments a couple joysticks instead of two cumbersome hydraulic yokes.

Its periscope projects sea-level surroundings onto a 30-inch monitor instead of a lookout sailor’s eye, and the expanded payload is made to carry and deploy special forces teams anywhere in the world.

The Navy debuted its newest nuclear-powered submarine Friday in an Atlantic Ocean swing off the Florida coast, the second in the latest fast-attack class that marks a broad departure from the Cold War-era deterrence boats.

The Texas, which will officially earn a “USS” designator in a commissioning ceremony in two weeks, weighs 7,800 tons, measures 377 feet long and can remain submerged on covert surveillance up to three months. It travels faster than 25 knots underwater and dives farther than 800 feet.

“It’s much more effective than any ship I’ve been on before,” said Capt. John Litherland, who has been on more than 50. “It’s not the fastest, but the difference is that it’s quiet even at its top speed.”

Perhaps the biggest improvement is the ability to travel with a small special forces submarine, nine commandos and their gear. Previous subs would have carried only three Navy SEALS.

That kind of space is premium on a vessel designed to hide and spend most of its life underwater. Its maximum time submerged is limited only by the amount of food it can carry, because the boat generates its own power and oxygen.

Sailors sleep twelve to a room, on 6-foot beds with about 3 feet of top-to-bottom sleeping space, the 4-inch deep compartment under it the only place to stow belongings.

That’s why they spent four weeks in basic training learning how to fold, crew members joke. And they’ve grown to carry less stuff, after training to spend up to six months at a time in the middle of the ocean.

More than 130 sailors will staff the sub when it begins serving missions, which after further trials might not be until 2008.

The boat carries sea-to-shore Tomahawk missiles, advanced capability Mark 48 torpedoes and mobile land mines. But one of its most critical missions is covert intelligence and surveillance.

The second of the so-called Virginia boats, following the USS Virginia, the Texas also features advanced navigation and computer systems that only require two sailors piloting. The periscope is fiber optic, useful for two reasons: there is no longer a vulnerable hatch on top to telescope into and out of, and its images can be projected to everyone in the control room.

The Texas was built at a Newport News, Va., shipyard, where all or parts of the first 10 subs of the Virginia class are being built. It cost $2.7 billion and arrived about a year late for trials, though Navy officials expect future expenses and construction to be lower and smoother. The entire class could eventually number 30 submarines.

Though the sub is nuclear powered, it may or may not carry nuclear weapons.

– information the Navy keeps classified.

First lady Laura Bush christened the sub in the name of her home state in July 2004, smashing a ceremonial bottle of sparkling wine against the hull. The boat will be commissioned in Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 9, and its home port will be Groton, Conn.

It is the fourth vessel to be named after the state of Texas.

AP-ES-08-26-06 1211EDT

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