To meet the wartime demand for faster, more precise logistics technologies, the Army and Navy are introducing a new brand of highspeed, marine vessel designed to move warfighters and supplies over water, more safely and efficiently than ever before.
By David Perera
Fast and nimble. The ability to turn on a dime. These are phrases not usually associated with military logistics ships, which tend to be big and hulking.
A new type of vessel for use by the Army and the Navy promises to be different. It’ll be able to sidle up to rudimentary ports in shallow water depths of just around 15 feet, even when fully loaded with 600 short tons of materiel. (A single Stryker armored vehicle weighs about 20 short tons, and a Stryker brigade consumes less than 300 short tons a day.)
Unloaded, it’ll be able to travel without refueling from Hawaii to California at a speed of 35 knots in weather conditions of two-foot-high waves and winds of 12 miles per hour.
It’s called the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) and the Army and Navy want five of them each at a cost of about $170 million per boat, with construction of the first vessel starting this year.
JHSV promises a different kind of logistics delivery to the battlefield—one that’s sorely lacking right now, according to its proponents. As recently as the first Gulf War, the military supplied expeditionary forces by dumping an iron mountain’s worth of materiel onto a major port. There, they married up equipment with troops before dispatching them to the battlefield. But iron mountains are open invitations to the enemy for asymmetric attacks and today’s military can’t count on major shipping ports every place the United States sends troops—whether for warfighting or relief operations.
What the JHSV is planned to do is deliver a combat force straight to the shore, ready to deploy from the first moment they disembark. “You’re not going to have these big marshalling areas and places where you’re making the soldiers and the equipment come together in order to go forward,” said Army Vessel Master Mike Wichterman, a senior marine deck warrant officer who advises the service on watercraft.
“You’re delivering the complete tactical unit into the tactical zone…right into the tactical zone, and they can operate upon delivery,” he added.
Military planners have for years known the problems that iron mountains pose, but the aircraft-based solution they’ve often pursued has proven expensive. “What we were doing before with aircraft, we’re going to be able to do in many cases with the JHSV in bigger number, for less cost and faster,” Wichterman said. Thanks to its vessel’s small draft, high speed and maneuverability, the JHSV will deliver a tactical edge where before the military struggled to respond quickly, he added.
Even when the JHSV is moored to a small fishing village’s pier, armored vehicles up to the weight of an 80 short tons M1A2 tank will be able to roll off via a slewing ramp capable of swinging around 40 degrees horizontally (the ship will be able to dock perpendicular to a pier, not just moor alongside).
Wichterman likes telling this story to illustrate what the JHSV can do. Using a prototype high speed vessel leased from Australian manufactures, the Army transported two Patriot missile system companies to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The companies were located in Djibouti, but were needed urgently further north. “Within three days, we had them delivered to Kuwait and they were operational Patriot units shooting down SCUD missiles,” Wichterman marveled.
“SOUPED UP” CAR FERRY
For all its vaunted potential, the JHSV has a modest beginning. High speed cargo vessels similar to the JHSV concept started life as car and truck ferries. “Any vessel that can roll-on, roll-off large heavy trailers and general cargo can also roll-on and -off tanks and other military equipment,” said Robert Clifford, chairman and founder of Australian-based ship manufacturer Incat Tasmania.
Utilizing an almost entirely commercial- off-the-shelf approach for military ship acquisition is unusual, said Navy Captain George Sutton, program manager for strategic and theater sealift, in written responses. But since privatesector builders already have considerable experience in crafting such ships, “the cost of developing detailed designs will be smaller than starting with a blank sheet of paper, and the basic designs have already been proven in at-sea experimentation,” Sutton said.
Incat’s high-speed catamaran vessels (a catamaran consists of two hulls joined by a frame) came to military attention when the Australian Defence Force needed to get to East Timor, quickly, in 1999. They leased an Incat ferry, and the U.S. military took note.
Since 2001, in fact, the Army and the Navy have leased four high-speed catamarans from Incat and another Australian- based maritime manufacture, Austal Ships. The ships are the Spearhead, the Joint Venture, the Swift, and the Westpac Express.
“Two long skinny hulls are better than one long fat one. It’s more efficient, propulsion-wise. You can go faster with the same amount of horsepower,” said Bill Pfister, government programs vice president of Austal’s U.S.-based subsidiary.
Both manufactures were winners on January. 31, 2008 of a $3 million award in a Navy-managed competition to deliver final JHSV design proposals by summer 2008 and be the ship’s builder. The Navy and Army merged originally separate programs to procure a high-speed vessel into a single, Navy-led program in January 2005.
To win the award, Incat teamed with U.S. ship builder Bollinger Shipyards, Austal with Austal USA. General Dynamics- owned Bath Iron Works is a third contender; it proposes a Rolls Roycedesigned, steel-built monohull (i.e., a single hull versus the two hulls of a catamaran).
Unlike Austal or Incat catamarans, the military has not leased any Rolls Roycedesigned monohull ferries. The Austal and Incat designs, while not exactly the same, are “not too dissimilar,” admitted Incat’s Clifford. Differences boil down to finer points of design—such as the fact that Austal vessels can load ships from both the bow and the stern (i.e., the front and back), whereas Incat’s load from the stern only. “But Bath Iron Works proposal ‘is a bit left field’, ” Clifford said. Bath Iron Works refused requests for an interview.
Monohull ferries do exist, noted Austal’s Pfister. “The Staten Island Ferry, for example,” he added.
Both Austal and Incat ships are built from aluminum, one reason for their speed. It’s also one reason why JHSVs aren’t meant for deployment into liveartillery situations. The vessel “will be a non-combatant vessel which will operate in permissive environments or in higherthreat environments under the protection of combatant vessels,” said Sutton.
The military envisions three basic roles for the JHSV: rapid tactical transport to the shore, intra-theater logistics support and an enabler of relief operations in small or damaged ports.
What role JHSV will have in the Navy’s seabasing concept is unclear. Seabasing is one of three foundational legs of the Navy’s vision of its future self, a way of assembling joint forces for rapid deployment from a family of ships situated over-the-horizon from land. Seabasing, obviously, would depend on a robust logistics capability including a vessel for ship-to-ship replenishment and seato- shore transfers. The JHSV, however, is “not being developed specifically for seabasing,” according to a January 2007 Government Accountability Office report (GAO-07-211). The Navy’s Sutton characterized it as a “complementary enabler.”
A 2007 Rand study concluded that presence of a single JHSV in a scenario of transporting Army units from a seabase would “roughly halve the time required to transport an Army brigade ashore.” Still, one of the report’s authors remains skeptical. “There are some significant interoperability problems with using the JHSV with seabasing,” said Robert Button, a Rand senior analyst. Design specifications call for the ship to be fully operational up to “sea state 3,” in which the height of waves (from trough to crest) are no more than two feet and winds don’t gust above 10 knots. “But, the vessel is not designed for interoperability above ‘sea state 3’,” Button said. According to the Navy’s Sutton, should the water increase in choppiness to “sea state 5” (wave height up to 12 feet and wind up to 25 knots), “JHSV will still be expected to operate, albeit at slightly reduced speeds.” At “sea state 7” (waves 46 feet high, winds 40 knots strong), “JHSV is expected to be able to survive,” he added.
Vessel proponents say that sea state hasn’t been much of an issue to date. “We’ve sailed the boats in big seas,” said the Army’s Wichterman, citing a time when a leased catamaran transported a Stryker company from California to Washington during a gale. “It didn’t leak, it didn’t take on water. It took a severe pounding, but again, it was successful at the end of the day.” As for JHSV’s compatibility with seabasing, it’s likely that “every boat is going to find it difficult to work 50 miles off shore in a seaway with vessels that aren’t going to be able to anchor to transfer cargo at sea,” Wichterman added. “It’s a seabasing issue, it’s not a JHSV issue.” The vessels have conducted “skin-toskin” cargo transfers at sea and acted as forward staging areas for Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) teams during Operation Iraqi Freedom. “These are large ships, they’re not toys,” Clifford said.
How robustly the JHSV will survive high sea states probably may come down to which design the military chooses. Incat relies on a wave-piercing design meant to prevent waves from slamming into its vessels’ underhull. Austal, instead, relies on a tall flat bow between the two hulls to neutralize waves. As with everything, there are pros and cons to both approaches. Austal’s approach makes its vessel heavier than Incats’, but it also allows the ship to load from both bow and stern, Pfister said.
“They’ll figure out what they want to buy,” he added. ♦