An internal study prepared by U.S. Southern Command for Pentagon leaders touts the performance of an unorthodox ship called Stiletto that could change the face of counterdrug operations in littoral waters, Inside the Pentagon has learned.
The ship's operational evaluation this summer "clearly" demonstrated its utility and value as "an enabler of innovation" and as a counterdrug asset, according to the internal report, which recommends more tests, further use of the ship in counterdrug missions and specific improvements for the vessel.
The crew learned firsthand the vessel is better suited for littoral waters than rough seas pummeled by bad water. (See related story.)
The "for official use only" Sept. 29 report was prepared with support from Science Applications International Corporation for the Defense Department's acquisition directorate, the Pentagon's Rapid Response Technology Office, the Naval Research Laboratory and SOUTHCOM. ITP reviewed a copy of the document.
Stiletto is an all carbon-fiber vessel measuring 88 feet long and 40 feet wide. Developed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and U.S. Special Operations Command, it is the largest U.S. naval vessel made entirely of carbon composite materials, the report says.
Extremely strong and very lightweight, the ship is shaped like a long rectangular box with a unique M-shaped design that channels wake energy into tunnels that produce a hydrodynamic lift. The design makes Stiletto fast, agile and stable even in shallow water, the authors write. It cost $6 million to build the ship and another $6.5 million to prepare for operational experiments, the report says.
All programmatic objectives for the operational evaluation (OPEVAL) were successfully met, the study says. In fact, there were several notable "firsts", according to the report. The testing marked the first time that a carbon-fiber M-shaped hull vessel was used in real world operations; that an Office of the Secretary of Defense experimental vessel supported real world operations; and that an airship coordinated with Stiletto to demonstrate a new concept of operations (CONOPS) for counter-illicit trafficking operations.
The report also notes the project attracted helpful media coverage of counterdrug challenges, strengthened the U.S.- Colombian partnership and provided opportunities for senior Colombian military officials to interact with U.S. military officials and the media. Further, the project gave U.S. officials from the military and other agencies and opportunity to collaborate.
The authors also note the testing allowed the law enforcement detachment (LEDET) team and Army mariner crew to conduct extensive test and evaluation of Stiletto and its rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB), establishing baseline performance data that can be used in future innovation projects and operational experiments.
All operational objectives were also successfully met during this summer's testing. The goal of the OPEVAL was to deter and disrupt illicit trafficking in the Joint Interagency Task Force South area of operations, the report says. During operations in the Florida Straits, Stiletto was responsible for the interdiction and apprehension of a suspicious vessel that was identified by the Coast Guard as a target of interest, according to the report.
"This mission demonstrates well how Stiletto's capabilities can contribute to counter-illicit trafficking missions; Stiletto chased and caught a go-fast boat engaged in suspicious activities," the authors write. "Stiletto's speed and ability to follow the go-fast boat into shallow water surprised the boat operator and proved critical for mission success."
While deployed in Cartagena, Colombia, the ship participated in a U.S.- Colombian task force that sough to deter and disrupt illicit trafficking in the Caribbean.
"During the Project Stiletto OPEVAL, noticeable changes in illicit trafficking patterns occurred, with fewer targets of interest departing from Cartagena," the report says. "While it is difficult to ascertain the specific role of Stiletto in causing those changes one can infer that given the visibility of Stiletto and the media coverage of the operation, that Stiletto likely had some impact on trafficking patterns."
During the deployment, the ship's Army crew and LEDET team executed several counterdrug missions, conducted extensive testing of the vessel and experimental systems, explored CONOPS and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for counter-illicit trafficking operations, and hosted media and distinguished visitor events, the report says,
"Stiletto's performance was comparable to other assets in the task force in terms of number of targets identified, monitored, interdicted and apprehended," the authors write. "However, many Project OPEVAL participants believed that Stiletto's impact could have been much more significant if several limiting factors had been mitigated."
These factors, according to the report, included the fact that Stiletto was restricted to operate in international waters where the weather and sea state conditions were unfavorable (in June the ship suffered a crack in the port-side hull that put it out of commissions for five days); limitations of Stiletto's communications and surveillance systems, including lack of secure chat and data access, problems with voice satellite communications (SATCOMs) when Stiletto was port side, and a commercial-grade radar that was ill-equipped to identify targets of interest; and maintenance problems with Stiletto and its RHIB among others.
As currently equipped and if deployed in open waters, Stiletto is best employed as a target response rather than as a patrol asset, testers found. If operated in littoral environments with enhanced command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and surveillance (C4ISR), Stiletto may ave greater utility as a patrol asset, the study concludes.
The study recommends boosting Stiletto's C4ISR systems to enhance maritime domain awareness. This involves installing secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) chat and data capabilities. Replacing the maritime radar system with one capable of accurately identifying illicit trafficking vessels (i.e., go-fast boats) is also urged, as is providing access to a common operational picture (COP) tailored to counter-illicit trafficking needs.
Replacing or significantly modifying Stiletto's RHIB -- an older, 11 meter model -- is recommended to reduce weight and increase reliability and safety.
The report's authors propose creating and sharing a knowledge base that captures Stiletto programmatic and operational performance for each evaluation and experiment event to enhance organizational learning.
Officials should also consider establishing a dedicated integrated Stiletto team of crewmembers and operators that would train and operate together for a period of time, the report says. At a minimum, officials should allocate at least three full weeks for integrated training on the water for each new crew and operator team, the authors write.
The study also stresses the need to resolve policy, programmatic and technical issues preventing Stiletto from being equipped with organic force protection systems.
Officials also need to resolve policy and programmatic issues preventing Stiletto operators from engaging in boat-to-boat use of force from the RHIB to the target of interest, the authors write.
The report urges officials to deploy Stiletto in environments that allow operators to take advantage of the vessel's capabilities -- namely i littoral waters with calm to mild sea states.
Exploring alternative basing arrangements, such as seabasing or multiple bases, is urged to enhance the utility of Stiletto as a counter-illicit trafficking asset.
The Pentagon should also consider equipping Stiletto to enable it to support three- to five-day missions, according to the report.
The study recommends developing a doctrine of employment that is tailored to the environmental conditions of the area of operation and multiple mission needs. The proposal would have Stiletto, when equipped with enhanced C4ISR capabilities, operate as a mobile C4ISR node at sea, supporting detection and monitoring (D&M) and interdiction and apprehension (I&A) missions. When also equipped with force protection systems, the ship could operate as an I&A asset, the report says.
In advance of deployment, officials must establish explicit lines of authority for tasking and information exchange so as to minimize opportunities for ambiguity and confusion across organizations, the report says.
"Despite the suggested recommendations proposed by the evaluation team, it was clear that Project Stiletto OPEVAL participants were generally positive about both the Project OPEVAL and Stiletto platform specifically," the authors write. "In fact, most participants explained that the OPEVAL with Stiletto was great experience, and that they would be willing to participate in future Stiletto operations." -- Christopher J. Castelli