Shipbuilders Bet on Radical Hull Designs to Defeat Swarming Boat Threat
Earlier this year, satellite imagery revealed Iran’s construction of a full-size USS Nimitz-class aircraft carrier replica, which was created so that swarms of high-speed Iranian boats could practice destroying it.
Defeating that threat will require a different kind of vessel than the massive, blue-water ships that populate the Navy’s fleet, boatbuilding company executives told National Defense. To protect its larger carriers and warships, the service may need to rely on small, creatively-shaped boats that are heavily armed and equipped with unmanned systems.
“There is a need for a highly, highly stabilized craft that are not large, that are smaller, that can be used to patrol [and] defend our Navy’s ships while they’re in troubled waters against high-speed boats,” said Greg Sancoff, president and CEO of Juliet Marine Systems.
That’s where Juliet’s Ghost ship comes in. Ghost doesn’t look like any other surface vessel the Navy owns, Sancoff said. Its command module sits on top of two struts, each of which is connected to a torpedo-shaped tube equipped with an engine and propellers that create a bubble of gas around the tube.
The result is a completely gryostabilized boat, where the command module flies above the surface of the water and its underwater structures sail through gas, reducing friction and drag. Having that level of stability is important for combat, he said. Ghost is able to fire Nemesis, non-line-of-sight, and tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles while moving through waves.
“If you’re in Ghost in six-foot seas, you don’t feel any of the sea motion,” he said. “So you could deploy missiles in high sea states. You could follow destroyers and aircraft carriers in higher sea states.”
The boat is less vulnerable to hostile fire because the engines, fuel and most computing systems are underwater, he said. “If someone tried to fire a round at us and wanted to hit an engine or a fuel tank, you’re not going to be able to do it, because [it’s] … protected by the water itself.”
Juliet Marine is not the only shipbuilder investing in radical, futuristic hull forms. M Ship Co.’s M80 Stiletto prototype has been used for eight years by the Defense Department as a platform for research and development and even for limited operations doing drug interdiction around Colombia, said Bill Burns, co-founder and executive director of the company. It was developed for littoral combat and is the largest Navy vessel built completely from carbon-fiber composite materials.
The Stiletto has an M-shaped hull that combines features from aerostatic, hydrostatic and hydrodynamic boat designs in order to effectively transition from low to high speed and increase the stability of the boat, he said. Its 40-foot wide beam offers enough space to launch unmanned systems, including aircraft and submersibles.
Today, few Navy ships are equipped with unmanned technologies, and when they are, those older vessels were not built with robotic systems in mind, Burns said. To get the most out of drones or unmanned underwater vehicles, the Navy will have to consider new hull shapes.
“You’re going to see designs that have low crew and/or be unmanned completely, and then be able to launch and retrieve other unmanned systems,” he said. “Those ships will not look like the ships we have today.”
M Ship tests new ship prototypes about 10 to 15 days a month, Burns said. One of its latest concepts is an unmanned surface vessel with the same wide beam and M-hull as the Stiletto. M Ship is working with an unmanned systems company to develop autonomy technology and plans to test a prototype next year.
The Navy could employ such boats to deliver cargo and conduct surveillance and minesweeping. It could also launch weapons and be used to combat adversaries without risking the lives of sailors, he said.
Having a large fleet of small, high-speed boats — both manned and unmanned — would help the Navy stretch its footprint across the Asia-Pacific region, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea and African coast, Burns said.
“There’s so many different hotspots now that we can’t afford to have big, expensive ships everywhere,” he said. “If we have the big ships and the small ships working together, using unmanned systems to protect and gather information and prevent conflict, then I think that’s a really good solution.”
The Navy has never experienced the equivalent of the ground wars fought over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces grappled with asymmetric warfare tactics such as the use of improvised explosive devices, Sancoff said.
“Ships are particularly an easy target for terrorists,” he said. “I think that as you see terrorists become more involved with waterborne IEDs, that’s exactly where Ghost fits in: deterring that threat, whether it’s on the surface or below the surface.”
But how quickly the Navy will adopt these kinds of nontraditional boats — if it even adopts them at all — is up for debate. Juliet Marine has had little luck selling Ghost to the Navy, and the Office of Naval Research is not interested in developing new hull designs, Sancoff said. “There’s been a complete lack of intellectual interest in exactly what we’re doing.”
But with an estimated $48 billion international market for patrol boats over the next decade, the Ghost still has a promising future, Sancoff said. The State Department recently granted Juliet Marine permission to start talks with the South Korean government about possible foreign military sales.
A number of other countries have also expressed interest in the boat, he said. “I’m sure the U.S. will eventually decide that they really want to come out and take a really good look at what we’re doing and really understand the significance of it.”
The Navy has employed the Stilletto for everything from testing weapons to training SEALs, but the service is still hesitant to embrace new ship designs, Burns said.
“The Navy is a very conservative organization, and they really do resist change,” he said. “Our approach has been to demonstrate it and to prove it. We’re doing that with science and research and prototypes, and we have had some success.”
Nevertheless, the service is developing its own offensive swarming capabilities. The Office of Naval Research recently tested an autonomy technology allowing teams of unmanned boats to respond to hostile vessels by overwhelming them.
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