In this age of rising shipbuilding costs, uncertain naval strategy and shrinking procurement budgets, nobody knows for sure what the future U.S. fleet will look like. But one thing's for sure ... it'll include a lot of pontoon boats.Everybody knows about the much-ballyhooed Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a program for up to 75 small modular vessels optimized for coastal combat. Less glamorous but perhaps more important to future operations is the forthcoming Joint High-Speed Vessel (JHSV), which is managed by the Navy's Program Executive Office for Ships.The JHSV is a catamaran -- basically a 100-meter pontoon boat. Catamarans and their three-pontoon cousins, trimarans, have been the subject of a lot of military experimentation of late. The Marines are using a catamaran, the WestPac Express, to transport infantry battalions to training events in the western Pacific. The Navy has two JHSV prototypes, HSVX-1 and HSV-2, that have been pressed into service in hurricane-relief efforts, while the Office of Naval Research has been testing LCS concepts with its FSF-1 catamaran. The Army has a trimaran, TSV-1X, that it uses for expeditionary logistics.The idea behind the JHSV is to equip Military Sealift Command (or -- and I'm speculating here -- Transportation Command) with a fleet of fast, cheap vessels capable of transporting and deploying a battalion-sized Marine landing teams, an Army Stryker company, Special Forces teams or an equivalent load of cargo at austere shallow-water ports. JHSV would support two H-60 or H-6 helicopters and vertical-launch UAVs like Scan Eagle."The JHSV will not be a combatant vessel," reads a Navy press release. "Its construction will be similar to high-speed commercial ferries used around the world, and the design will include a flight deck and an off-load ramp which can be lowered on a pier or quay wall -- allowing vehicles to quickly drive off the ship."Think of the JHSV and its brothers as super-LCACs, or amphibious LCSs minus the guns. The Navy and Marines would use them as ship-to-shore connectors in their Seabasing concept. The Army might employ them at the theatre level for rapid maneuver, replacing its current trimarans. Special Forces Command wants catamarans as offshore commando bases, in the same vein as the new SSGNs, but a lot cheaper. Retired Rear Adm. George R. Worthington, in the October Proceedings, advocates arming the Special Forces catamarans with loitering missiles for coastal land-attack.In fact, JHSV's low price-tag, around $100 million (versus $1 billion for the new San Antonio-class amphibious transport) all but guarantees its place in the future fleet. The first production vessel is slated for FY2008.-- David Axe
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