Joint High Speed Vessel: Great Potential, But Questions Remain

By Grace V. Jean
The Defense Department this decade will build a fleet of new high-speed aluminum ships specifically designed to shuttle hundreds of troops and tons of cargo around a theater of operations. These shallow-draft logistics ships, analysts say, will become valuable vehicles for executing “soft power” missions — responding to natural disasters, providing humanitarian assistance, conducting port visits and training partner military forces, among others.

The Defense Department currently accomplishes this role using traditional warships such as the Navy’s “big deck” amphibious vessels. Analysts say the joint high speed vessel would alleviate pressures on an overtaxed fleet.

The Army and the Navy are purchasing the initial 10 ships of the joint high speed vessel fleet. As the first-of-class ship is being constructed in Mobile, Ala., analysts expect to see growing demand for the 338-foot catamaran. But questions remain about how the two services will integrate the commercial ferry-based ship into their respective logistics fleets and how they expect to operate, support and maintain the vessel.

The joint high speed vessel is the sea-faring equivalent of a cargo aircraft. A crew of 41 will operate the so-called maritime “truck.” The Navy expects to man the vessel with a mix of civilian mariners and a detachment of sailors. The Army is likely to crew the ship with enlisted soldiers commanded by a warrant officer.

In addition to crew accommodations, there are 312 seats for passengers and 144 berths to allow riders to sleep in eight-hour shifts.

The flight deck will support the operations of a variety of rotary-wing aircraft, including the Marine Corps’ CH-53 heavy-lift helicopter. Adjacent to the landing pad is a parking and storage area for a single rotary-wing aircraft no larger than an H-60 variant. Beneath the flight deck, the open-plan mission bay can carry 600 short tons of cargo, including M-1 Abrams main battle tanks.

Austal USA is building JHSV (see related story here). It was awarded the first-of-class ship in 2008. Since then, the Navy has placed four more ships under contract, with options for buying five additional vessels in the next two years — two in 2011, two in 2012 and one in 2013, said Capt. George Sutton, program manager for strategic and theater sealift at Naval Sea Systems Command.

The $185 million first-of-class ship is coming in on budget, officials said. That the program appears to be running more smoothly than other shipbuilding efforts can be attributed in part to the vessel’s commercial-based design, said Jan van Tol, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The program is leveraging technical aspects from Austal’s Hawaiian super ferry and its commercial high-speed vessel WestPac Express (see related article here). The ship’s deck is already strong enough to support the Marine Corps’ heaviest helicopters, which seems to attest to the robust design, van Tol said.

“It’s a hardy ship, I can tell you that,” said Joseph Rella, president of Austal USA.

The supplier base for JHSV is sound, said Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor at the Shipbuilders Council of America. “They know how to build the ship,” he said.  

Detailed design of the vessel is complete, said Sutton. The ship is being constructed in 44 modules, or large units that are fully furnished before being connected to the hull. On the first-of-class ship, Spearhead (JHSV-1), all the modules are in production. At 50 percent complete, it is on schedule for launch in August with delivery expected in December, officials said.

The Navy will complete sea trials in the fall. That test and trial period will be critical for the program, Sutton said.

The joint high speed vessel’s key qualities are speed, payload and range, he said. The ship will be able to sail at 35 knots in sea-state three, or with slight waves in the ocean.

JHSV would allow commanders to move an entire company of marines and their rolling stock and gear to another location quickly to surprise enemies, Carnevale said. Today, commanders might have to put in a request for an amphibious ship to carry out that mission. That could take weeks to schedule. But if commanders controlled a JHSV that was stationed in the region, they could make that decision and execute it in a matter of days.  

“They might think of doing things they haven’t done before,” said Carnevale.

Rella pointed out that the ship’s versatility is part of its charm.

“When you buy a pickup truck and you ask the potential buyer, ‘what do you intend to do with it?’ They’ll have an idea, but they won’t be able to fathom what you’re able to do with it,” he said. “That’s what you’re buying — the capability.”

Sutton said the vessel’s mission bay can accommodate up to six shipping containers housing specialized military equipment.

“If you had a medical module that required services, you have a footprint to put it into the mission bay,” he explained.

The joint high speed vessel offers several advantages over traditional Navy warships, said Carnevale. They are shallow watercraft compared to destroyers, which have as much as a 33-foot draft. Van Tol said that JHSV, with its 12.5-foot draft, would have more access to various places, especially in Southeast Asia where there are many areas lying in shallow water.

But there are limitations to what the ship can do.

“These are not vessels for non-permissive environments,” said van Tol. “This is a logistics platform. I don’t see it being used for much else.”

The ship is not equipped with advanced weaponry.

“You wouldn’t want to send it into a combat environment, but you also might be facing sending it into a less secure region,” said Carnevale.

The Pentagon’s weapon testing office last year reported that the ship “is not designed or expected to be survivable against weapons effects encountered in combat missions.” If the Navy decided to upgrade the vessel’s defenses beyond the four crew-served weapon mounts for .50 caliber machine guns, the ship has the capacity to accept any kind of weapon system, said Rella. But, he warned, there would be a trade-off in cargo-carrying capability.

If it had an escort, then JHSV might be able to operate in a higher risk area. Some analysts speculate that the littoral combat ship could be that escort. But van Tol cautioned that LCS is not designed to defend against many threats.

JHSV will likely excel in logistics missions in the western Pacific, where large distances separate islands, van Tol said. The ship’s carrying capacity and speed will do well there. Marines are already operating a leased commercial high-speed vessel in those areas.

Carnevale said that JHSV would be ideal for multinational operations and training around coastal Africa, or for participating in drug interdiction operations in the Caribbean. With its ability to carry boats and aircraft for pursuit of drug runners, or for training purposes with partner navies, the ship will have more capacity and flexibility than a traditional naval surface combatant.

The greatest impact that JHSV is going to have is freeing up warships for other missions, said Carnevale.

“If right now the only ship you have to go do a port visit is a ballistic missile defense-capable Aegis destroyer, what do you do? What are the demands on that BMD-capable destroyer? I’ve got to believe that they’re really high,” the retired Navy admiral said. If demands are too pressing, the Navy would likely turn down the port visit. It would be an opportunity lost that JHSV could salvage, he said. The vessel also could step in to fill in the mission void for landing dock ships, which carry marines and their gear.

The Navy last year simulated how the joint high speed vessel might interact with a cargo ship at sea. Using surrogate ships sailing side-by-side in close proximity, one vessel unloaded troops and tanks onto the other using a ramp. Navy officials are pursuing a sea-basing concept in which supplies and troops would be positioned aboard cargo ships sailing miles offshore, and logistics ships, including joint high speed vessel, could transport troops and cargo to ports.

“Operations with a sea base are going to be seamless, but I think that’s down the road,” said Carnevale. “I think they’ll get these ships out there and they’ll use them lots of different ways, operating out of home ports or in ports in undeveloped areas.”

But there could be challenges associated with operating an aluminum ship.

The Navy has had a troubled history with aluminum deckhouses on steel hulls. The superstructures on both frigates and cruisers have experienced cracking. Navy officials said that the aluminum deckhouses have to contend with unusual stresses from topside equipment, such as radars and antennas, and with material problems including metallic corrosion. Those presumably will not exist on JHSV, which is an aluminum ship all the way through, said Carnevale.

Austal engineers examined 20 years worth of aluminum shipbuilding records as they worked the JHSV design, said Rella. They completed a significant amount of computer-aided stress and dynamic-loading analysis of the hull structure to identify hotspots where there could be stress concentrations. “That’s where you add more structure to distribute those stresses and potential relative motion,” he said. Moreover, the ship is being constructed out of a different grade of aluminum, called “marginalized,” to withstand corrosive elements and also provide ductility, or toughness, to withstand stresses better than the brittle aluminum that was being used in the cruisers, Rella said. Naval engineers also are sequencing the welding and stress-relieving processes carefully during ship construction, he added.

A large part of the challenge is overcoming the steel bias.

“There’s a legacy community that believes aluminum isn’t suitable yet for large military vessels,” Rella said. “Once we have JHSV and our version of LCS running around for 10 years without any significant hull cracking or issues with hull materials and wastage, then the doubters will start to be believers.”

Commercial industry has a lot of experience working with aluminum ships, said van Tol. Supporting the maintenance and repair of JHSV should not pose much of a problem.

“Aluminum is widely accepted in the commercial markets. There are a lot of aluminum ferries running around,” Rella pointed out. “If a forward-deployed vessel needs emergent work, the capability exists around the world to support them.”

Officials are working with the Navy to determine how best to support JHSV over its service life.

“It’s an opportunity for us to team with the Navy and strategically think about where we place Austal [workers] to support these ships in the future,” said Rella.

Traditional Navy homeports, including San Diego and Norfolk, Va., have nearby repair facilities that can support aluminum hulls. The homeports for JHSV have not yet been determined, but the Defense Department’s current practice is to base many logistics ships overseas. In that case, Austal would be prepared to send teams abroad to support hull and structural repairs and modifications, said Rella.

Program officials are working with Military Sealift Command to establish maintenance procedures. The vessels are expected to be deployed for the majority of the time, said Sutton. Part of the ongoing effort is to look at how spare parts will be managed.

The JHSV is being designed to operate with a future mobile landing platform, a ship that is intended to preposition ground troops and cargo at sea for insertion ashore by landing craft. The JHSV can offload vehicles, troops and gear by its stern ramp. But so far, the ramp will only operate in calm seas. The program office last year began a project in conjunction with the Office of Naval Research to address that problem.                

Topics: Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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