Commercial Ferries Paving Way For Joint High Speed Vessel

By Grace V. Jean
The Navy since 2001 has been leasing commercial high-speed ferries to test the concept of utilizing a fast ship for intra-theater lift. Sailors and marines who have operated aboard those vessels laud their maneuverability, capacity and speed.

For insight into how the forthcoming joint high speed vessel might be employed by the Marine Corps, one can look at how leathernecks in Third Marine Expeditionary Force are operating the leased High Speed Vessel WestPac Express, a commercial ferry built by Australian-based shipyard Austal Ltd.

The vessel is composed of two decks. The cargo deck is designed to handle 531 tons. It has the ability to carry anything ranging from communication gear to Humvees. The deck opens directly to docking areas via a stern ramp where the equipment can be taken aboard and offloaded. The passenger deck has the ability to hold 900 personnel.

Fully loaded with troops and cargo, the HSV can travel at 33 knots anywhere in the Pacific. But its speed is limited in poor weather conditions, marines aboard the ship said in response to questions emailed from National Defense.

WestPac Express has participated in numerous exercises throughout the year to include Cobra Gold, Balikatan and an amphibious landing exercise. The vessel also has been employed during disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions in the Pacific.

“The HSV was instrumental to providing aid to Thailand following a tsunami in 2005, and the Philippines following Typhoon Megi in 2010. Without the ability to quickly move personnel, gear and supplies, our mission effectiveness within the Asian-Pacific region would not be what it is,” wrote a marine deployed aboard the ship.   

One of the unique aspects of WestPac is its shallow draft, which is only 15.75 feet. This means the vessel is more maneuverable when compared to more traditional craft, marines said. If the water is at least 16.75 feet deep, the vessel will be able to continue moving. “This ability is extremely beneficial since many of the ports that we utilize during training and operations are in shallow waters,” said the marine.

Having more high-speed vessels would be a force multiplier, enabling more training at a cheaper cost than strategic airlift, crew members said. “It would provide additional flexibility to the Marine Expeditionary Force and its commanders in supporting real-world contingences,” an officer said.    

The JHSV program office also is drawing insights from the Army’s theater support vessel and the Navy’s HSV-Swift, a leased commercial ferry, to inform concepts of operations for the new ship, said Capt. George Sutton, program manager for strategic and theater sealift at Naval Sea Systems Command.

Operators of HSV-Swift, built by Incat of Tasmania, Australia, call it a highly maneuverable ship. However, its handling at times is complex, said sailors who are operating the vessel on missions in Latin America and the Caribbean. Swift’s high freeboard, aluminum construction combined with her shallow draft make her behave like a large sailboat without a keel or centerboard, they explained. “These design features aid in ease of maneuverability, but also make her slightly more vulnerable in varying current and wind conditions,” an official wrote.

The crew lauded the Wartsila waterjet steering system and its “thrust vectoring” capability, which allow the ship to move on its own without the use of outside assistance. There is no need for tugboats to dock the ship or to set sail from a port, sailors said.

“This has proven very beneficial when having to get underway on short notice or when moving mooring locations,” a crew member said.

When the ship was moored in Guatemala, it received a request to participate in a search-and-rescue mission for U.S. and Guatemalan armed forces.

“The automation and simple control systems on board allowed the crew on Swift to get her under way within minutes — a capability most large ships do not have,” an official said. The ship proceeded at high speed to the location and brought everyone back ashore.

Swift’s shallow draft and agility proved effective in another mission earlier this year in Haiti. There, the ship moored easily in a difficult, austere location. The crew used the stern ramp to offload a bus-sized mobile medical clinic and several pallets of cargo.

Though Swift is small, it allows the Navy to operate more effectively in a range of tasks, from boat operations and cargo onload/offload to flight operations and troop transport, the crew said.

“Although we are unable to do things on a large scale, we are certainly more efficient due in part to the specifications of the vessel,” a Swift crew member wrote. “The ship’s equipment and construction, like the stern ramp, the large open vehicle deck and the ship’s crane, allow for great flexibility to perform tasks efficiently. Her automation and simple layout allow for many tasks to be done without a lot of complications. The Swift’s legacy will be her simplicity,” he said.

Swift sailors see great potential for the commercial ferry-based ship and for the forthcoming joint high speed vessel. They are “invaluable assets to geographic combatant commanders,” for accomplishing naval missions, including theater security cooperation and forward presence in the world’s oceans, the operator said.

“This ship can rapidly shuttle critical personnel, equipment and cargo between a logistics hub and host nation while minimizing the need to rely solely on airlift assets such as helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft,” he said.

Topics: Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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