With her twin aluminum hulls and needle nose, the Joint Venture
high-speed vessel (HSV-X1) cast a strange silhouette, as she shoved
off from the wharf at North Carolina’s Morehead City one early
morning this winter and sped out to participate in exercises in
the Atlantic Ocean.
The Joint Venture is an Australian-built and owned, 313-foot catamaran,
which the Pentagon is considering as a prototype for a new family
of ships to perform a wide variety of functions for the U.S. Navy,
Marines and Army in heavy seas and relatively shallow water.
A catamaran is descended from the long, narrow rafts—built
over two or more boats—which have sailed the Indian Ocean
for centuries. Today, it is popular around the world as a pleasure
boat and commercial vessel, noted for its speed and safety.
The Joint Venture is one of a class of 38 so-called “wave-piercing”
catamarans constructed in recent years for the commercial market
by Incat Tasmania, of Hobart, Australia. These vessels were designed
originally as car ferries for the waters of Australia and sold to
other countries, such as Norway, Denmark and Japan, according to
Incat Project Manager Nick Wells.
Powered by four sets of marine diesel engines, gas turbines and
water jets capable of throwing out 18 tons of water per second,
they are able to carry 600 passengers and 450 tons of cargo over
thousands of nautical miles at speeds up to 48 knots, Wells said.
In early February, the Joint Venture shot across the Atlantic Ocean—from
her current base at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, in Norfolk,
Va., to Rota, Spain—in five days and 15 hours, Adm. Robert
J. Natter, commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, told National
The U.S. Navy’s fastest amphibious assault ships, in contrast,
can cruise no faster than 24 knots, officials said. Furthermore,
they require a draft of 26 feet of water to navigate. The Joint
Venture can operate in only 12 feet of water, enabling it to come
much closer to shore than traditional naval vessels, Woodhouse said.
Because the ship was originally designed as a car ferry, it has
roll-on/roll-off capacity, making it easy to load and unload military
vehicles, officials said. The twin-hull format, they said, helps
make the vessel more stable in the water than traditional ships.
Also attractive to the Pentagon is the catamaran’s modular
interior design, said Rear Adm. Robert G. Sprigg, head of the Navy
Warfare Development Command, of Newport, R.I., which is coordinating
the three services’ experiments with the vessel. The passenger
space and cargo decks, with more than 41,000 square feet of storage
capacity, are all easily reconfigurable, he said.
“The modular design opens up all of that space,” Sprigg
said. “We can change the mission of this ship literally in
a matter of hours. It’s almost as easy as changing the sheets.”
Possible uses for such ships include insertion and extraction of
special operations troops, mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare,
surface warfare, maritime reconnaissance, command and control, humanitarian
assistance and evacuation, force protection and re-supply at sea.
“There’s tremendous opportunity here,” said Sprigg.
“I hate to use the word ‘transformational,’ because
it’s such a buzz word. But nuclear power was transformational,
and so were aircraft carriers. I think this vessel qualifies, too.”
U.S. military leaders first saw the high-speed catamarans in Australia,
where they transported troops and supplies in exercises and operations,
such as East Timor. In 2000, the Navy’s USS Tarawa Amphibious
Readiness Group conducted exercises off the Australian coast with
one of the new catamarans, the Jervis Bay, which is leased by the
Royal Australian Navy.
Intrigued by what they saw, the Marines last summer signed a six-month
contract for such a vessel—built by Incat’s Australian
rival, Austal Ships Pty.—to move troops around islands of
the Western Pacific, including Japan, Guam, the Marianas and the
Philippines. They found that the Okinawa-based ship, the WestPac
Express, could carry an entire reinforced Marine battalion, freeing
up 10 aircraft and one ship for other purposes.
In January, at the end of the six-month trial, the Navy’s
Military Sealift Command awarded the firm a three-year, $31 million
contract to continue the service. With reimbursables, the award
could total more than $49 million, according to command spokesperson
Now, several component commands of the Army, Navy, Marines and
Coast Guard have combined their resources to lease the Joint Venture
for one year at a price of $21 million, with the possibility of
another year’s extension, Sprigg explained. Units in the experiment
include the Army’s Combined Arms Support Command, the Marine
Corps Combat Development Command, the Coast Guard’s Deep Water
Project, the Office of Naval Research, the Navy Warfare Development
Command and the Naval Special Warfare Command—home of the
Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) teams.
The seagoing services had control of the ship for the first six
months, with the Army taking over at that point. The Army, as part
of its effort to improve its mobility, is looking for a platform
that can move more troops and supplies than a C-17 air transport
and move them faster than a traditional supply ship, officials said.
Before the services took possession of the ship last October, they
spent about $3 million to modify it temporarily, Sprigg said. A
flight deck was installed on the stern for SH-60 Seahawk and CH-46
Sea Knight helicopters. The vehicle ramp was upgraded to accommodate
tracked vehicles. Some passenger seats were removed to make room
for 325 Marines and their combat equipment. And the ship was painted
traditional battleship gray.
All of the changes had to be done very carefully, because “we
have to return the ship in the same condition that we found it,”
said the project manager, Navy Cmdr. Dean Chase, during a tour of
the vessel. “If we remove a bulkhead (wall), we have to put
Meal service also had to be improved, Chase pointed out. The Joint
Venture was designed to be a car ferry, making only short trips,
and it came with a snack bar, rather than a full-fledged Navy galley.
The snack bar has been revamped, adding microwave ovens and steam
trays. While not up to traditional Navy standards, it now has four
cooks, capable of serving three hot meals a day for the crew and
passengers, Chase said.
Currently, the crew consists of 31 sailors and soldiers, including
two women. The ship has sleeping accommodations for up to 45 crewmembers
and 48 passengers, but that could be reconfigured quickly, Chase
The Navy and Marines tested the Joint Venture for a number of possible
uses. For example, Navy Mine Countermeasures Squadron Two, based
at Naval Station Ingleside, Texas, is looking for a replacement
for its only current mine countermeasures command and control ship,
the USS Inchon, which is being retired this year.
During exercises in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast
in December and January, the Joint Venture served as the command
and control ship for a mine warfare readiness group of five other
vessels. The squadron’s commander, Navy Capt. Richard C. Rush,
said the catamaran’s capabilities enable him “to think
out of the box.” He added: “There are some things that
you can do with this ship that you can’t with a minesweeper,
which only has a speed of eight to 10 knots.”
The Joint Venture’s speed, stability and shallow draft would
be useful for mine warfare, which is often conducted close to shore
under threat of enemy fire, Rush said.
The Navy Special Warfare Command also participated, placing a SEAL
team aboard the Joint Venture to practice the high-speed launch
and recovery of small boats. The SEAL commander, who declined to
be identified, had little to say about his team’s activities,
but he was enthusiastic about the catamaran.
“This ship could do a lot for us,” he said. The largest
vessels assigned specifically to naval special warfare are 170-foot
long Cyclone-class coastal patrol ships, which are little more than
half the length of the Joint Venture and carry crews of 28, plus
detachments of 25 SEALs.
Other passengers on the Joint Venture performed experiments with
unmanned vehicles for use in mine and submarine warfare. For example,
representatives from Science Applications International Corporation,
of San Diego, launched an unmanned Harbor Security Vehicle, called
About 10 feet long, with a draft of 7 inches, the OWL is designed
to conduct a wide variety of force protection, surveillance and
reconnaissance missions in very shallow and medium depth littoral
waters, according to SAIC spokesman Peter Renfree. It can patrol
harbor areas 24 hours a day, seven days a week, refueling once a
day, he said. It can carry a number of sensors, including underwater,
night and thermal video cameras, forward-looking and side-scan sonar,
and laser range finders.
While the experiments were going on, the Joint Venture’s
crew was evaluating the ship. “I love it,” said the
skipper, Navy Capt. Phil Beierl. “It’s incredibly maneuverable.
Morehead City is not an easy channel, and I can pull in and out
with no assistance. I don’t even need line handlers.”
Navy Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson, commander of the Second Fleet, who
landed by helicopter to tour the vessel, also was impressed. The
ship that the Navy needs “may not look exactly like this one,”
he said, but “this is a technology that we can leverage.”
The Navy already has identified possible alterations, including:
There is room for such additions in future ships, Chase noted,
pointing out that high-speed catamarans can be built 20 percent
longer and move faster than the Joint Venture.
The Navy can work out these design issues with shipbuilders, Natter
said. “The bottom line is that I’d like to have two
of these ships right now,” he said.
To make it easier to land Navy contracts, the two Australian firms
have partnered with U.S. shipbuilders. Incat has allied itself with
Bollinger Shipyards Inc., of Lockport, La., and Austal has paired
with Bender Shipbuilding & Repair Co. Inc., of Mobile, Ala.
Even if the Pentagon decides that the catamaran meets user needs,
however, the Navy isn’t likely to buy any in the immediate
future. The service plans to fund only five new ships in fiscal
year 2003. Also, the catamarans will have to compete against other
experimental vessels that are being tested.
But the Bush administration does intend to increase shipbuilding
in the years ahead, said Navy Secretary Gordon R. England. And high-speed
vessels, such as the Joint Venture, “will be key components”
in those plans, he said.