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The Military Sealift Command signed a charter with Austal Ships Ltd. to continue using the Okinawa-based high-speed transport WestPac Express for another 55 months.

The Military Sealift Command signed a charter with Austal Ships Ltd. to continue using the Okinawa-based high-speed transport WestPac Express for another 55 months. (S&S photo)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Marines on Okinawa are going to remain on the fast track when being transported by sea to locations throughout the Western Pacific region.

The Military Sealift Command recently signed a charter with Austal Ships Ltd. to continue using the Okinawa-based high-speed transport WestPac Express, for another 55 months, according to the Western Australia-based company.

The WestPac Express, a 331-foot long catamaran, arrived on Okinawa in July 2001 for a six-month trial period. The trial period was so successful, that the leases have been extended ever since and the III Marine Expeditionary Force has put in a request for at least two more.

“Actually, with optional renewals, this charter could cover as much as 65 months and that’s just fine with us,” said Marine Col. Phillip Newman, III MEF assistant chief of staff for logistics. “It’s a great deal.

“It makes 32 knots — that’s screaming,” Newman said. “It gives us quick access to exercises all throughout our area of responsibility: Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia. Right now, we’re providing high-speed transport for earthquake relief in Indonesia.

“We can haul 520 tons at a shot — that’s in excess of 800 people and 400 tons of cargo,” he said. “That’s a lot of stuff. We can get to a lot of places pretty fast.”

For example, before the WestPac was chartered, the Marines relied on Air Force C-17s. According to an Austal press release, moving an entire battalion of some 800 Marines, 63 vehicles and 27 cargo containers would take at least 16 C-17 airlifts at a price tag of more than $500,000.

And because the airlifts sometimes could take two weeks, the Marines also save time. The WestPac Express can move the same load in 30 hours for a price of about $130,000, the company stated.

“It gets us there all in one haul,” Newman said. “And this will be really great when we are eventually split between Okinawa and Guam. We’d like to have two more HSVs by then.”

Other amenities are comfortable seats, plenty of space for the troops to move around in and 20 toilets and 20 showers, Newman said. “They don’t have that on airplanes.”

Another advantage: The Marines do not have to worry about the ship’s day-to-day upkeep.

“Since it’s leased, that’s all Austal’s responsibility,” Newman said. “All the risks are taken by the company. If it needs repairs, that’s Austal’s problem. All we care about is scheduling.”

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