The USS Jimmy Carter (search) entered the Navy's fleet Saturday as the most heavily armed submarine ever built, and as the last of the Seawolf class of attack subs that the Pentagon ordered during the Cold War's final years.

The $3.2 billion Jimmy Carter was commissioned Saturday, the first submarine named after a living ex-president. Carter, himself a submariner during his time in the Navy, was on hand for the ceremony signaling the end of an era in submarining.

"The most deeply appreciated and emotional honor I've ever had is to have this great ship bear my name," Carter said in remarks prepared for the ceremony at the Naval Submarine Base New London (search).

Carter was joined by his wife, Rosalynn, former Vice President Walter Mondale (search) and his wife, Joan, and Stansfield Turner (search), CIA director in the Carter administration.

The 2,500 people on hand Saturday cheered as Carter, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the only president to serve on a submarine, handed the boat's long glass to the navigator, Lt. Stephen Karpi.

The gesture symbolized the passing of the nation's maritime tradition to a new vessel. The long glass was used years ago to keep watch on a ship's deck.

Carter said he expects the crew to use the submarine's "extraordinary capabilities — many top secret — to preserve peace, to protect our country and to keep high the banner of human rights around the world."

The 453-foot, 12,000-ton submarine has a 50-torpedo payload and eight torpedo tubes. And, according to intelligence experts, it can tap undersea cables and eavesdrop on the communications passing through them.

It can reach speeds of more than 25 knots and carry Tomahawk cruise missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes, and it is engineered to be quieter than the other two Seawolves, making it better for surveillance.

The Thames River, where the submarine was berthed, sparkled in the sunlight that did little to warm the winter day. Family and friends of the crew snapped photos before filing into a heated tent alongside the submarine, which was decorated with red, white and blue fabric.

Carter's wife, Rosalynn, christened the boat last June at a ceremony attended by the 39th president. On Saturday, she gave the traditional order to "man our ship and bring her to life," prompting crew members to line up on the submarine deck briefly before returning to the warmth of the tent.

John Pike, a military analyst with globalsecurity.org, said the ceremony closes the book on the big-submarine era.

"It was part of our strategy on how we were going to win World War III. It was a significant component in our response to the evil empire," he said.

In eastern Connecticut, a region steeped in submarine history and the home to the Electric Boat shipyard, which built and launched the Seawolves, some fear the Pentagon will close the New London base as it looks to shrink the submarine fleet and buy smaller, cheaper subs.

"It's hard to find a civilian that doesn't have some connection to the sub force," said Bud Fay, who owns a diner, car wash and laundry not far from the base gates in Groton.

To ensure that the last Seawolf was not obsolete before it hit the water, the Pentagon delayed production to install a 100-foot hull extension that military analysts say equips the Jimmy Carter to replace the USS Parche, one of the fleet's premier spy subs.

The Parche was decommissioned in October. The Jimmy Carter will be based at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington's Kitsap County, the Parche's former home.

After a year of preparation, crew members were looking forward to taking control of the ship.

"I have butterflies in my stomach," said Mechanic Robert Perry of New Bern, N.C. "It's one of a kind, the greatest piece of technological equipment in the world. It doesn't get any better than that."