Navy explores new roles with 1st-in-class USNS Spearhead


ABOARD THE USNS SPEARHEAD IN LAGOS, NIGERIA — The engines rumbled to life, the impellers clutched in and this 2,500-ton catamaran slid away neatly from its pier.

Spearhead is not your typical Navy ship. First in a new class of high-speed, highly maneuverable vessels designed to move troops and cargo quickly, it has a light build, a shallow draft and a large mission bay that make it attractive for a variety of missions, something the Navy has explored over the past four months of the ship’s maiden deployment.

In Ghana, the ship hosted a boarding party targeting illegal fishing vessels. It went pierside in Lagos to kick off an annual exercise with African nations. And in Cameroon it served as a training space for special operators.

“I think it provides a very flexible option across the spectrum of operations, and we’ve just started to tap that potential,” said Capt. John Rinko, commander of the logistics task force for U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa.

The concept of a cargo catamaran was first validated by the Royal Australian Navy, when its high-speed experimental vessel, the Jarvis Bay, was used to ferry more than 20,000 peacekeepers to East Timor starting in 1999. The Navy leased a similar catamaran, the Swift, for nearly a decade ending in 2013, using it as transport for Marines and for U.S. trainers going to Africa and South America.

With Spearhead, the Navy is preparing a wider role for catamarans across theaters. The ship is the first of 10 Joint High Speed Vessels purchased by the service and operated by its Military Sealift Command, which handles the service’s support and sealift vessels. Three have been delivered, and a fourth has been christened. The contract price is $160 million per ship.

Created to ferry ground troops and special operators quickly between shores, Spearhead is built of lightweight aluminum and driven by a jet-propulsion system.

The ship is fast for a vessel of its size, reaching 35 knots (about 40 mph, the speed of a small boat). It has a mission bay of 20,000 square feet, a ramp that can hold 100 tons — enough for a fully loaded tank — and a passenger room with more than 300 reclining airline-style seats, overhead TVs and racks for weapons and equipment.

The ship arrives as the Navy talks increasingly of modularity, or the ability to configure a single ship for different missions. It also comes as high demand for warships in places like the Pacific limit availability in other theaters.

That’s especially true in regions such as this one, the Gulf of Guinea, where piracy and illegal fishing are ongoing problems, and where local forces often lack the training or resources to enforce their maritime boundaries.

The U.S. naval command for Africa runs training and regular exercises in the area, but it has lacked a dedicated ship since SWIFT’s departure, relying on a Dutch vessel for training with several countries last fall.

Spearhead or one of its follow-on vessels will likely fill that role in the future. For the current deployment, Spearhead participated in two African exercises, as well as the boarding piece in Ghana. It visited ports in Senegal, Ghana and Gabon, and after a brief return to Norfolk, Va., it will head to South American waters for a similar tour.

The Navy hasn’t said where it plans to station the ships, and Rinko said possible ports are still being evaluated.

The JHSV represents a departure for Military Sealift Command, whose vessels are typically mission-specific and include oil tankers and hospital ships. Spearhead has a crew of 26 mariners, all of whom juggle multiple duties (the ship was designed for a military crew of 46).

“We’re working with groups that we don’t always work with,” Capt. Douglas Casavant, the ship’s civilian master, said. “And we’re proving a number of different capabilities that the ship wasn’t necessarily designed for. We’re finding out a lot of things.”

The Navy plans to pair the JHSV program with what it calls “adaptive force packages,” or swappable mission configurations. Its most recent deployment included detachments drawn to work with African forces.

In Ghana, a Coast Guard law enforcement team helped with interdictions, and a pair of Riverines flew a small UAV to view the ships being boarded. An embarked security team picked up in Spain scanned the horizon for other threats.

For Casavant, whose history with Spearhead goes back more than three years, the deployment sets the pace for the rest of the ships in the class.

“It’s a lot bigger than just the 75 guys that are on it,” he said.

Twitter: @sjbeardsley

The USNS Spearhead departs Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story for a scheduled deployment on Jan. 14, 2014.