Magazine article National Defense

U.S. Services Test Aussie-Built Catamaran: High-Speed Vessel Could Operate Both in Deep Seas and Coastal Waters, Officials Say

Magazine article National Defense

U.S. Services Test Aussie-Built Catamaran: High-Speed Vessel Could Operate Both in Deep Seas and Coastal Waters, Officials Say

Article excerpt

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 our 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" catamatans 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 Defense.

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. …

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