The ongoing deployment of the Navy’s first Joint High Speed Vessel, or JHSV, is leading the service to think more broadly about the ship’s mission set and expand it from a purely transport vessel to one that can conduct special operations and humanitarian assistance missions, Navy leaders said.
The Navy’s first of ten planned JHSV’s, the USNS Spearhead, was intended to quickly ferry large amounts of troops, personnel and up to 600 tons of equipment across long distances at speeds up to 35 knots. Traveling at 35 knots, the JHSV can travel up to 1,200 miles and reach much greater distances at slower speeds.
“JHSV was designed with a narrow focus to move personnel/equipment from A to B as quickly as possible. It was not built with the idea of using it for missions such as special operations and humanitarian assistance. These missions greatly open the aperture and expand the potential for the JHSV,” a Navy official said.
Navy leaders certainly don’t expect the JHSV to fulfill combat missions. It doesn’t have the weapons or defensive systems to meet those sorts of mission sets. But what Navy officials can envision is a JHSV quickly re-supplying a special operations team without requiring the footprint that is needed by other transport ships.
The Spearhead recently participated in exercises off the coast of West Africa in the 6th fleet’s area of responsibility. As many as 12 West African and European partner nations took part in Exercise Saharan Express which included a series of communications and ship-tracking exercises designed to mirror real-world maritime scenarios.
The ship was initially designed purely for high-speed intra-theater transport, said Capt. Henry Stevens, the Navy’s strategy and theater sealift program manager.
“Rapid transport capability is what the ship was bought for. The ship has a large, 20,000 square-foot mission bay for vehicles tanks, trucks, HMMWVs, ambulances and bulldozers -- and then passenger seating for 312, a company sized group of Army or Marine Corps folks,” he said.
The 103-foot long, 2,500 ton ship has a crew of 22 and is configured with a helicopter landing area designed for rotorcraft up to an H-53, Stevens explained. The ship reaches it speed by using water jets for propulsion.
The ship has an adjustable ramp on the back to allow for rapid on and off-loading exercises as well as a large crane able to move up to 40,000 pounds of cargo from the ship to a pier, Stevens said.
“We spent a lot of time making sure vehicles can get on and off quickly,” he added.
The catamaran ship structure is built with only a 13-foot draft, meaning it can access shallow water ports and reach areas other ships and platforms cannot, said Stevens.
“A lot of places around the world are shallower – that was taken into account in developing the requirements,” he said.
Navy officials explain that conversations about the mission possibilities for the JHSV are expanding.
"It is designed to operate in shallow-draft ports and waterways and it can support a wide range of operations to include maneuver and sustainment, humanitarian assistance, special operations support, logistics support or as the key enabler for rapid transport."
Although the JHSV is configured with a certified flight deck for military helicopters, self-defense weapons such as four .50-cal. guns and communications technology, it is largely a commercial development item, Stevens said.
“We leveraged existing proven technology and had a streamlined acquisition approach,” he added.
Built out of aluminum for high-speed operations, the ship is constructed to commercial, non-combatant survivability standards.
All ten JHSVs are now under contract with Austal USA, Mobile, Ala., in a ten-ship, $1.6 billion contract. Each ship costs just under $180 million, Steven said.
The third JHSV, the USNS Millinocket, was delivered to the Navy earlier this month on the heels of JHSV 2, the USNS Choctaw County, which was delivered in June of last year. JHSV 4 was christened in January and is currently under construction and preparing for extensive sea trials.
JHSV 5 has begun final assembly and construction of JHSV 6 commenced in January.
“JHSV 7, 8, 9 and 10 are at various stages of material procurement and planning. Ships are delivering every six months,” Stevens said.