Defense officials were on San Diego Bay last month testing the performance of a new stealth watercraft during minesweeping exercises. Normally, the mine-hunting exercise would fall under the purview of the Navy’s enlisted force, but the Department of Defense is interested in more than just detecting mines under water. The goal was to test the combat capabilities of an innovative 50-ton ship made of carbon fiber materials.
The Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation representatives joined the Coronado-based Naval Special Clearance Team 1 in cruising the shallow waters off Coronado and Imperial Beach to test the watercraft designed by San Diego-based M Ship Co. LLC during Exercise Howler.
About 35 crew on board the 80-foot-by-40-foot vessel, named M80 Stiletto, navigated through the littorals, while leaving only a trace of a wake signature behind. The double-M hull ship, identified by its two M-shaped hulls adjacent to each other, partially submerges 2 _ feet below water, and only 18 inches at high speed.
M Ship Co., a maritime design firm of 12 local employees, is working with a $750,000 contract from the Navy’s Office of Naval Research to validate the M-hull technology. The contract, announced May 9, is available through the Navy Small Business Innovation Research office for second phase research of its captured air plenum design.
Navy Capt. Neil Parrott, who joined the local exercises to collect data for the Office of Force Transformation, said the Stiletto “outperformed our best expectations.”
The unusually designed box-shaped craft made of lightweight carbon fiber instead of heavier steel has a stable platform for mounting electronic surveillance equipment or weapons, and can be used to conduct special operations.
Initial tests have shown the ship can reach speeds of more than 50 knots, but Parrott said they cruised at 30 or 40 knots for the recent minesweeping exercises.
“It looks like a mean combat craft,” said Parrott, a Navy veteran of 23 years who represents the Department of Defense as an action officer for the M80 Stiletto. “It tugs on my heartstrings.”
The Stiletto has a boat bay that Parrott said was used during the exercise to house a rigid-hull inflatable boat — typical equipment when working in the minefields. The Stiletto can launch, retrieve and store these inflatable boats and unmanned vehicles.
Unmanned vehicles were used during the exercise to take pictures to help identify minelike shapes in the water. An unmanned aerial vehicle was also launched from the Stiletto’s small flight deck.
Parrott said the crew received critical real-time data from the Stiletto’s electronic keel that combines the power of a bank of supercomputers with the networking of a communications system. He foresees the computer system will reduce the number of return visits to minefields where sensors are often used several times on a suspected mine to eliminate the possibility of ambiguity, such as confusing a 10-gallon barrel for a mine.
“Now we get information on the Stiletto so we don’t have to return to a mother ship or a shore station,” Parrott said. “We use the power of the network in order to maximize the on-station time.”
The Stiletto’s creators at M Ship Co. could watch the minesweeping test-runs from their office on the 21st floor of the First National Bank Building on A Street in Downtown San Diego. The office windows offer a panoramic, bird’s-eye view of San Diego Bay near North Harbor Drive.
The 80-foot Stiletto was launched in December, helping the company amass gross revenues of $5.6 million in 2005 — more than double the $2 million it totaled in 2004.
Bill Burns, project leader and co-founder of M Ship Co., said the government has been known to spend years or even a decade taking innovative ship technology from concept to delivery. But in Stiletto’s case, the technology was developed by M Ship before the prototype was delivered to the government.
“The government recognized the new technology and they want to get it in the hands of the user/war fighter,” Burns said. “Our enemies are going to be different two years from now. They will miss an opportunity if they have the wrong vehicle for the new theater.”
The Office of Force Transformation has asked M Ship to demonstrate whether the M-hull technology can be scaled to larger ships, and whether a ship can be built out of carbon fiber for the military, the way it’s been done for sailboats.
Burns, former chief designer for the San Diego-based America’s Cup entry Stars & Stripes, co-founded M Ship in 1998 with Chuck Robinson, a successful entrepreneur and former deputy secretary of state to Henry Kissinger. Burns and Robinson had previously developed radical sailboat technology as owners of San Diego-based Canting Ballast Twin Foil Co., or CBTF Co. The basis for their work was the forward foil and fixed keel technology Robinson formulated in Venice, Italy. The concept for the low-wake technology was to capture a wave’s energy created by a bow and convert it into a useful form rather than have the wave splash against the Venetian canals, damaging the ancient buildings.
“Instead of allowing the energy to be wasted, let’s try to use it to be more efficient,” Burns said. “Chuck Robinson has a history of doing things in an unorthodox manner. He brings to our company a spirit of entrepreneurship. We’ve been able to create a culture that’s about innovation and developing new technologies.”
The partners began testing hull forms of ships on a dozen or so small models. Through trial and error, they delivered a 22-foot low-wake boat that could be used as a water taxi to the water transportation authority in Venice.
“Then they asked us to build a 65-foot water bus,” Burns said. “We built that boat in San Diego around 2001.”
Satisfied with its efficiency and ride quality, the Italian water authority asked M Ship to build a high-speed version of the M-hull. Word-of-mouth spread to the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, which was looking for a lightweight ferryboat, and that organization spread the word to the U.S. Department of Defense.
“They wanted to explore a high-speed version of the boat,” Burns said.
A 38-foot prototype designed for speeds of up to 50 knots was built with Special Operations users in mind. The prototype’s smooth ride was an improvement over existing ships that have reportedly caused physical stress to crew who have been jarred by bumpy, fast-moving craft.
Another requirement of the prospective military customers was rapid production.
The M80 Stiletto took one year to build at a cost of $6 million under a Navy contract.
M Ship Co. hired the National City-based Knight & Carver YachtCenter to build the ship as a subcontractor.
The yacht center, which reported $20 million in revenues last year, repairs large-scale vessels for private and commercial use, including yachts and commercial vessels. Its staff of 160 employees was introduced to the new shipbuilding technology while working on prototypes.
Giovanni LoCoCo, vice president of operations and construction manager at Knight & Carver, said the yacht center has been building ships made of composite materials for 30 years, but this was the first craft they’ve built as a fully carbon structure.
The project required additional equipment, and LoCoCo said the company invested in an oven to cure the material pre-impregnated with resin. An investment was also made in refrigerated storage that would hold the temperature- and humidity-sensitive materials in a climate-controlled environment.
“We made the capital investment ourselves to build the oven and support the project,” said LoCoCo, adding that the extra infrastructure can be used for future boat projects or flat panel construction. “Additionally, the oven can be used to build a 10-foot-wide-by-40-foot-long panel.”
LoCoCo said if Knight & Carver is hired to build multiple Stilettos, the production time could be less than a year.
“If it’s built one at a time, it wouldn’t change the schedule,” LoCoCo said. “If we’re building multiple units, then we can reduce the time.”
Burns believes the next Stiletto could take as little as six months to build, and with the right production system, a boat could be built every four months.
“The composite technology lends itself to being mass produced,” said Burns, adding that the recreation market cranks out fiberglass and carbon boats rapidly.
M Ship is using its $750,000 contract, available through the Office of Naval Research, to test and optimize the ship. The company is in early stage negotiations for a 40-foot Stiletto that could be used by different branches of the military and is considering the possibility of a 120-foot ship for littoral operations.
The commercial market is not being overlooked either, with Burns commenting that the ship design shows recreational potential as a modified cruise ship and could be used as ferryboats or for moving cargo.
Although Robinson has been the main source of funding for M Ship, the firm is actively seeking partners and investors to take the company to the next level.
“There’s lots of potential in different markets,” Burns said. “M Ship can pick and choose based on the capital and management team that can be put together.”
In June, the M8 Stiletto will be put to the test again in a Coast Guard exercise in San Francisco Bay. Parrott said the craft’s ability to navigate shallow waters only a mile and a half from the beach, and with a distance range of 500 to 800 nautical miles, could be useful to maritime interdiction efforts. During the exercise, the Stiletto will be anchored as the crew boards ships to inspect cargo, check identities and monitor safety.
“What we do differently in the Office of Force Transformation is we will share the data as we collect it,” Parrott said. “We won’t wait two years to share the data. We take what we learn in operational experimentation and put that back in the program and keep experimenting.”