This week in the sparkling Pacific waters near San Diego, a dramatically different kind of ship is set to begin experiments that its designers hope could change the way the U.S. Navy fights.
Developed by the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, the craft represents a $10 million investment meant to allow warfare communities to try out operational and technical innovations and find different ways to carry out traditional missions.
The craft’s name belies its boxy shape. The 88-by-40-foot Stiletto has 2,000 feet of interior space to stow gear, unmanned vehicles and computers and move them at 50 knots. A stern ramp can launch and recover rigid-hull inflatable boats and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and a small flight deck serves unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The 60-ton vessel has a draft of only two and a half feet — and just 18 inches at high speed.
“It’s designed to be modular or configurable,” said Frank Wakeham, a former surface warfare officer hired by the Navy to manage the Stiletto’s experimentation program. “We have rack and power space for experimentation with command and control and onboard processing. We have a reconfigurable secondary mast and antenna tower topside. It’s very easy to come on board with some experimental gear, plug into the network and you’re off and running doing experimentation.”
“It’s amazing the possibilities of things you can do with this ship,” said Capt. Neil Parrott, of the Office of Force Transformation. “Really, the Navy doesn’t have things like this.”
The Stiletto was delivered May 1 by Knight and Carver, the San Diego yacht builders, on May 8; it’s scheduled to begin its first experiments as a mother ship for a mine clearance operation called Exercise Howler. Naval Special Clearance Team 1 (NSCT 1), a Coronado, Calif.-based unit that specializes in finding and disposing undersea weapons, is the ship’s first customer.
“We’re trying to prove with Howler the functionality a vessel like this can provide to the shallow-water mine clearance mission,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Tarabour, NSCT-1’s operations officer.
Tarabour said the Stiletto allows communications far beyond what he’s used to.
“The size of the ship and the amount of personnel and equipment we can bring out provides the ability to stay on station with more assets longer and provide real-time information back to decision makers,” he said.
Tarabour and other NSCT-1 members, including Navy SEALs, divers and explosives ordnance disposal experts, have been working with the Stiletto team for more than a month.
“We were able to look at it from our perspective and suggest attachments and things that would make it easier,” he said.
Even before the experiment began, Tarabour — an Iraq War veteran with years of experience in mine warfare and explosives ordnance disposal — could see how a vessel like Stiletto could change beach clearance and other operations.
“We might go in at night” on board a small boat, he said, “take information from a UUV, bring it back to the mother ship, do analysis. Next night you go back to take more data to refine the information. Then more analysis. Two or three days later you’re finally ready to make a decision on where you want to go and what you want to do to accomplish the mission. Then you send the divers out another night to start clearing obstacles. You’re talking about an evolution of days to weeks.
“But with Stiletto, you have all that on board at once. You cut that time significantly. You’re saving time at least fourfold. And if you want to storm a beach, that’s a pretty important consideration.”
A Variety of Vehicles
The Howler exercise will run for five days off Imperial Beach, Calif. NSCT-1 will bring several unmanned vehicles aboard the Stiletto, all designed to help find and identify underwater mines. Among the sensors are:
- A Manta UAV carrying a mini-hyper-spectral underwater sensor.
- A Silver Fox UAV with an electro-optical/infrared video sensor.
- A 9-inch diameter REMUS Remote Environmental Monitoring Unit UUV.
- Nine-inch and 12.75-inch Bluefin UUVs.
- A gradiometer electromagnetic detector designed to be towed behind Stiletto.
- A Klein sidescan sonar operated by Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 7.
- A full-size airborne hyper-spectral sensor carried in a Twin Otter aircraft operated by the Naval Research Laboratory.
The 12.75-inch Bluefin will be the largest UUV carried during the exercise, but it won’t mount any sensors.
“We’ll explore the handling of a vehicle of that size aboard Stiletto,” Wakeham said, adding that, although the launch-and-recovery ramp was not originally intended for small unmanned vehicles, the crew of Stiletto already has successfully practiced launching the UUV and other small craft.
“That hasn’t been done very often in a ship of this size,” Wakeham said. “Certainly not from the stern ramp. “Usually it’s a crane over the side.”
The mine clearance exercise is only the first of what the Stiletto’s operators hope will be a series of customers eager to try out new ideas. A Coast Guard maritime interception experiment could be up next for the craft, after which it will come east to be based at Norfolk, Va.
“Special Operations Command has been a partner in funding this project,” said Wakeham, “and they’re starting to develop concepts for experimentation.” Other interested parties include the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command, Navy advanced concept technology demonstration programs, and the naval medical community. “We’ve also talked to Customs and Homeland Defense officials about using the craft in some role,” he added.