Congratulations to Austal USA for (finally!) receiving the contract for the Joint High Speed Vessel! As I’ve discussed in previous posts, this is a program near and dear to my heart and I fully intend to write a book about this someday (and of course a movie deal will be forthcoming). The High Speed Vessel program began in the late nineties and many observers (myself especially) noticed a very unusual ship operated by the Royal Australian Navy, the HMAS Jervis Bay. The RAN leased an aluminum commercial car ferry and used it for relief operations to East Timor.
What captured my attention, after months of research, was the open nature of the vehicle deck, coupled with a large passenger area, all with a low draft hull but with the ability to make better than 30 knots. My research was focused on capability, not hull form, type, manufacturer, none of that stuff that maritime designers and naval architects become obsessed with. I was obsessed with its potential. As someone who spent much time and many sleepless nights waiting on broken C-5’s throughout the Pacific, I really thought this type of ship was a potential game changer and my boss at the SEAL headquarters also immediately understood the potential and before long, with no money but a lot of enthusiasm, we were part of the team of organizations which would eventually lease the HSV X-1 Joint Venture.
Eventually, the US military would operate four high speed vessels, technically, the first was the Westpac Express and a sister ship to the design chosen today. Built by Austal in Western Australia, they operated in direct support of the Marines of III MEF on Okinawa. Then, we got the HSV X-1, followed by the Army’s lease of the TSV 1X Spearhead, and finally the HSV-2 Swift, the best design of all with the most capability. The latter three ships were all built by Incat in Tasmania Australia. Only the Swift and WestPac Express are still operated by the US military. While assigned to the Pacific Command as a reservist, I also convinced the theater Special Operations Commander there to get another HSV and while successful in convincing the SECDEF and SOCOM Commander of the need, the decision was made to go after the original HSV X-1 Joint Venture and while it performed fairly well (from what I hear) the decision was made to allow it to go back to the manufacturer.
Later, I also did work as a contractor on the program and throughout the entire process, was amazed at the institutional opposition, mostly because it didn’t look like traditional navy grey steel single hulled ships. Then along came the Littoral Combat Ship and when the Navy selected Austal’s trimaran as one of the two designs, I thought there was still hope. Now today, to see one of the two original companies selected, is a very good day indeed. The program looks to be five ships for the Army and five for the Navy. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this will not be the end of this program, either for the US military or foreign buyers. In today’s’ world, buying a vessel that’s part multi-mission ship, part helicopter carrier, part afloat staging base, that can do 30 plus knots and costs 180 million, will be a hit.
Two final comments: When we had our first major meeting at the Navy Warfare Development Command and we went around the room and asked, what each of us thought about this concept’s potential I said it will be the C-130 of the sea. It could be a relief or rescue vessel, a command post, a helo carrier, an amphib like ship, and most important to me, a special operations forces afloat staging base. The most succinct comment ever uttered on the high speed vessel was the first Navy SEAL SDV platoon commander who embarked and at the end of his brief wrote: you are only limited by your imagination.