Australia’s use of the high-speed car ferry HMAS Jervis Bay to quickly transport troops and equipment from Darwin to East Timor in the 1999 independence crisis sparked an interest in these vessels for military use. Jervis Bay’s speed (often making the 900-mile return trip in less than 24 hours) and ability to rapidly embark and debark troops in austere, shallow-draft locations without tugs or infrastructure impressed the U.S. military and led to the lease of Spearhead (TSV-X1), Joint Venture (HSV-1), and Swift (HSV-2).1 So useful were the leased vessels as flexible, low-cost amphibious lift that the Joint High-Speed Vessel (JHSV) program was created to maintain this capability. There currently are ten expeditionary fast transports (EPFs—formerly JHSVs) in the inventory, with three under construction and a fourth under contract.2
Unfortunately, the civilian-manned EPFs are not well suited for high-speed lift during conflict. The Navy’s program office did not adequately consider what an active-duty crew brings to combat operations. EPFs can and should be used for much more than hauling cargo and people between secure ports. If manned with active-duty crews, current EPFs and more capable and less expensive follow-ons can quickly bring the next generation of missiles to the fleet and help execute the expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept.
High-speed ferries meet the requirement for what former acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly called “less exquisite” ships, ones that cost less and have the flexibility to carry out multiple missions.3 Something similar to what the Spanish high-speed ferry operator Naviera Armas purchased for $83 million in 2017—the 111-meter Volcán de Tagoro, with a 1,000 metric-ton deadweight capacity, comfortable seating and amenities for 1,184 passengers, and parking for 219 cars.4
The Swift was a modified 98-meter Incat high-speed catamaran car ferry with a 625 metric-ton deadweight capacity, and the U.S. government could have purchased copies for about $80 million each. Aft passenger seating was replaced with a flight deck capable of handling MH-60 Seahawk–sized helicopters, a dual MH-60 hangar with 400 Hz power, berthing for 106 crewmembers, a teleconference suite, classified workspace, and a generous communications and server room. The forward section of the passenger deck held the galley and dining area, with seating on either side and a 180-degree view from the galley windows. The standard 14.5-foot-tall mission bay (large enough for commercial trucks) had six mission-module support stations with power, water, and computer drops. The 14-ton capacity crane could handle any of the planned littoral combat ship (LCS) mission-module items, such as 11-meter boats, SEAL delivery vehicles for special forces, and various unmanned surface and undersea vehicles.
Low cost is not the only advantage of high-speed ferries. They could be excellent platforms from which to employ the next generation of antiship hypersonic missiles—weapons that likely will not work in the existing Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS) on Aegis guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, nor the larger Mk 57 VLS on the three Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers. These hypersonic missiles could be fired from simple box or tube launchers that would exhaust over the water instead of being directed through specially designed ducting, known as “gas management,” for the current VLS systems. Shipping container–based missile systems could also be used on board the ferries, but they clobber the flight deck.
EPF As an Arsenal Ship
A high-speed ferry could be the inexpensive arsenal ship needed to attack multiple targets ashore, relieving Navy combatants of much of the strike mission so they could focus on high-end war at sea and load the additional antiair, antisubmarine, and antiship missiles required to fight more capable competitors. Using the EPF’s crane to position pods of missile tubes (like those that hold Harpoon missiles) over the water for firing would give it the ability to strike land-based targets if so ordered. The Naval Postgraduate School is funded in FY21 to investigate firing missiles from EPF cranes. The Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMs) at 3,500 pounds and Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles at 3,700 pounds could easily be arranged in 4-packs weighing less than 10 tons. The EPF, which has a 14-ton capacity crane and fork trucks, could carry 600 short tons 1,200 nautical miles (short tons are 2,000 pounds and metric tons are 2,205 pounds).5 Five hundred tons of missiles in the 4-packs could provide a joint or combined forces commander with 200 TLAMs, ATACMS, or a combination of both.
I was the executive officer on board the Swift when she was commissioned. The 46-person crew operated the ship in four underway watch sections and two (port and starboard) cargo-handling details certified to handle, launch, and recover aircraft. The various detachments that embarked did so for discrete missions and not to augment the crew. For an EPF to assume or contribute to the strike mission today, the only additional crew needed would be those personnel actually uploading the TLAM missions to the missiles and performing the strike planning and coordination.
EPFs are very similar to the Swift and could be operated with an active-duty crew the same way. An EPF with 200 TLAMs could be stationed in Korea, Japan, Bahrain, Israel, or elsewhere to provide the strike capability of an entire carrier strike group within an hour, as EPFs do not need tugboat support to get under way from port. Starting the four diesel engines that each drive a waterjet is like starting a car. These ships are extremely maneuverable and draw a maximum of only about 13 feet (an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer draws more than 30 feet). As stability comes from a wide beam and not a heavy keel, EPFs do not need to carry extra fuel for ballast and can be run almost dry. When I was on board in 2006, the Swift approached Bahrain at 44 knots and 4 percent fuel for a crew turnover.
EPFs could perform other warfare missions as well, such as ballistic-missile defense (BMD). NASA tracked its space shuttles with a radar strapped to a small ship. When that ship was having mechanical difficulties in 2007 and the Swift was in a nearby port, NASA officials came on board to look at our flight deck and ask about our electrical capabilities. As it turned out, the Swift could have embarked the radar and operators to track a space shuttle if the tracking vessel had not been repaired quickly. An EPF could embark a BMD-capable radar and communication gear topside, hang a pod of SM-3s from its crane, and control them from a container in its mission bay. When combatants are ordered to be available for BMD and other single warfare missions, they often struggle to complete other important training and operations, not to mention maintenance. EPFs performing BMD duty would significantly improve overall carrier strike group readiness.
Amphibious Lift: Deadweight Is Good
Deadweight is to ships what payload is to aircraft. Deadweight is the difference between the ship’s displacement at maximum designed draft and the displacement when completely empty, usually measured in metric tons. While an EPF’s 635 metric-ton deadweight sounds impressive, a full load of fuel (150,000 gallons of diesel and another 20,000 of jet fuel) subtracts 500 tons from that capability. The crew, spare parts, fork trucks, fresh water, wastewater, food, lube-oil, waste-oil, mooring lines, self-defense weapons and ammunition, and other items required to safely operate the ship leave almost no room for cargo. An M-1 tank weighs more than 65 tons; amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs), CH-53K King Stallion helicopters, and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRSs) are approximately 30 tons each; the high-mobility artillery rocket system, with half the missile capacity of the MLRS, is almost 20 tons; the eight-wheeled light armored vehicles the Marines use for reconnaissance are 13 tons; and the new, four-wheeled joint light tactical vehicle is almost 10 tons. One of the three ships in a standard amphibious ready group typically carries 14 AAVs for one of the Marine expeditionary unit’s three rifle companies to land and fight as a unit. That is more than 400 tons in vehicles—without the weight of the rifle company and its associated ammunition and supplies. While an EPF could technically land this force several hundred miles from the point of embarkation, the small fuel load and no extra capacity for logistics aircraft would require other ships or aircraft in escort for protection.
With a company-sized force, 1,000–1,500 metric tons of deadweight capacity would be needed for the next generation of light amphibious ship designed to support EABO. The 127-meter Austal trimaran high-speed car ferry has a deadweight of 1,141 metric tons.6 The Independence-variant LCSs are based on that hull, but unfortunately they have barely enough deadweight for a full load of fuel and the antisubmarine warfare mission package with helicopters and towed sonars. The 103-meter EPF catamaran, with a second berthing deck, has a 635-metric ton deadweight, instead of something closer to the 101-meter Austal Westpac Express catamaran’s 790-metric ton capacity.7 The next generation high-speed combat ferry must be based on one of the larger, proven designs, and the Navy program office must employ someone who understands these vessels and how to keep them high-speed and high-capacity.
Finally, innovative thinkers are putting together line-of-sight communication networks with small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), blimps, and balloons, but there is no room on existing ships for these new systems. To achieve the desired results, several of these vehicles will need to be constantly aloft. ScanEagle and Blackjack UAV detachments often control their vehicles from inside shipping containers. While not heavy, the wheeled launch-and-recovery system is not only bulky, but also would increase the radar cross-section of a combatant if stored on deck instead of in a hangar or mission bay.
Those who have served on board these vessels understand why they are often referred to as “vomit comets.” However, personnel who had trouble adjusting to the ship’s motion on the Swift could often find relief in the aft portion of the mission bay. Being in the open air and close to the ship’s metacenter (the center of its movement where motion is minimized) worked wonders for the seasick. In addition, if armored vehicles were parked around the outside of the mission bay, the troops in the center of the mission bay would have significantly more protection than even a traditional steel amphibious ship could offer.
High-speed car ferries are not suitable for sustained operations in the open ocean. “Slamming” is what happens when water fills what is normally air space between the hulls, and it feels like driving over a curb in a car. While the Swift transited between the Philippines and Yokosuka, Japan, in 2006 at a moderate speed, the main rotor support attachments on the tail of the embarked SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter were sheared because of slamming. I cannot recall pitching motion ever ringing the bridge bell on any traditional-hull frigates, destroyers, or amphibious ships on which I have served, but the record for our crew on the Swift was six strikes of the bell during one slam. The hull form just does not provide the ability to steer the required course at the needed speed blue-water operations demand.
The complete capabilities of a $1.8 billion Arleigh Burke–class destroyer or a San Antonio–class amphibious transport dock cannot be had for $130 million, but by leveraging high-speed ferries, the Navy can more quickly bring hypersonic missiles to the fleet, launch clouds of unmanned sensors and communications relay equipment, and gain the flexible amphibious lift required to win the expeditionary fight.8 By doing these things and executing some of the discrete warfare missions such as BMD with “less exquisite” platforms, the high-end carrier strike groups will be better able to focus on sea control.
1. Incat HMAS Jervis Bay history and specifications, found at www.incat.com.au/military-defence/hmas-jervis-bay-045/.
2. U.S. Navy, EPF Navy Fact File, updated 18 November 2019, www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=1100&ct=4.
3. HON Thomas B. Modly, SecNav Vector 12, www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/reference/messages/Documents/ALNAVS/ALN2020/ALN20020.txt.
4. Incat Ferry for Spanish Waters, 24 July 2019, www.incat.com.au/incat-ferry-for-spanish-waters/.
5. U.S. Navy, EPF Navy Fact File.
6. Austal, Benchijgua Express Dimensions and Capabilities, www.austal.com/sites/default/files/data-sheet/DS_BenchijguaExpress.pdf.
7. Austal, Westpac Express Dimensions and Capabilities, www.austal.com/sites/default/files/data-sheet/DS_WestPacExpress%20lr.pdf.
8. David Krapf, “Navy Awards Austal $262 Million Contract for Two More Fast Transport Ships,” Workboat, 26 March 2019, www.workboat.com/news/government/navy-awards-austal-262-million-contract-for-two-more-fast-transport-ships/.