For hundreds of years, the needle-like Italian blade designed primarily for a swift, precise coup de grace, gained infamy on the battlefields and streets of Europe. Able to penetrate many layers of armour up-close, it packed a punch stronger than its size betrayed and was naturally associated with the art of stealth.
Launched in 2006 by MSHIPCO, the M80 Stiletto took to the waves as an experimental vessel, developed from concept to delivery in just over one year at the request of the U.S. Department of Defense. The $6 million protoype’s unusual design consists of five composite hulls stretching across a 40 ft beam, formed in a double-M perpendicular to its mere 88 ft length. This profile allowed for it to be nimble across choppy waters while carrying a dozen crew and a rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIB), as well as being armed with auto-cannons, machine-guns or even missiles. In addition, because it boasts a lightweight carbon fibre body – and is still the largest fully carbon fibre vessel in the USN – it can be lifted and stowed on other ships for transport anywhere in the world. So futuristic is it in looks that some reporters have nicknamed it “the bat boat”. According to the designers, its superior performance is based on its own M-hull technology, “using the bow wave energy to create an air cushion for more efficient planing”.
The Stiletto’s roots go back to the early days of the Bush administration, when USN (ret) Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski expressed his vision of a “brown-water Navy” to take expeditionary combat into the 21st century. Cebrowski had been the director of the (now disestablished) Office of Transformation (OFT), which held the purpose of supporting new military concepts to help the country retain a dynamic edge over its competitors. It was his belief that Network-Centric Warfare was worth the investment and the access of flexible units would best support this joint concept capability over a lengthy period epitomised by constantly evolving technology.
The events of September 11, 2001, of course changed the direction of the DoD’s focus and as ground-force and anti-terror equipment took priority, many conceptual projects that had no immediate urgency were shelved. Cebrowski passed away in 2005 and the OFT was disbanded a year later. Stiletto, however, continued to show promise and emerged unscathed in test-bed form.
The vessel’s first true hurrah came in 2008 when, in spite of its non-operational model, was deployed in Colombia under the eye of the Pentagon's Rapid Reaction Technology Office to assist in the fight against drug trafficking. With U.S. Army personnel and Coast Guard law enforcement officers on board, Stiletto ended up embarking on a high-speed chase. The normal tactic for drug runners faced with a larger patrol ship was to head for shallow water, recognising that most vessels would avoid the risk of grounding themselves. Stiletto was designed with this in mind and ably caught up with its target, ensuring the seizure of 1,800 lbs of cocaine.
That operation also saw success in several other areas. Firstly the very presence of the forbidding-looking Stiletto discouraged drug runners from taking to the waters during its stay at Cartagena.
Secondly, the vessel’s flexible architecture demonstrated that a number of very different organisations could operate together in a way that was previously impossible thanks to its advanced electronic Ethernet-based keel offering rapid ‘plug-and-play’ insertion of a number of sensors and computers.
Since then, Stiletto has continued its development, but in a limited capacity, being tested as a mine-clearing craft and, at one point, recovering a test NASA re-entry vehicle. With the drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama’s Pacific pivot, and the enduring threat of friction in the Strait of Hormuz and other coastal hotspots, there is now renewed attention on MSHIPCO’s baby. Specifically, there are plans in the Pentagon budget for a $6 million research injection over this fiscal year, during which Stiletto is scheduled to be involved in various exercises.
While some reports have suggested that funding for the project has been lacking over recent years, or that the programme is “resuming efforts”, this is not the case. The project was never on hold and has instead been awaiting the moment when U.S. military concern would once again return to the seas. In October, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was known to be calling on the defence industry, academics and think tanks to help devise mountable weapons and other equipment onto Stiletto for special operations, which will be validated during the 2014 manoeuvres.
Other nations have also been benefiting from the ship’s testing utility during the quiet years. The UK’s DSTL (Defense Science and Technology Laboratory) partnered with the Stiletto programme in June 2013 to “observe and refine” the operation of three different UAVs from smaller boat platforms. The Royal Navy announced that same month that it would purchase the ScanEagle reconnaissance UAV for £30 million, the first of its kind to be adopted by the service. It began operations in December.
"Stiletto [capability demonstrations] are conducted in partnership with a host warfighting command or government organization," said Rob Tutton, NSWC Carderock engineer and the Stiletto Maritime Demonstration program manager. "For this event, DSTL wanted to observe the operation of UAVs from a small boat platform for maritime missions."
Hoping to further the ship’s value, Tutton will be appearing at the Fast Patrol and Interception Craft conference in London this coming March to update the international community on the imminent plans and hopes for the programme, as well as the opportunities available to partners and allies for cooperative test and evaluation.
Those participating in Fast Patrol and Interception Craft 2014, whether from Navy, Coast Guard or private industry, will be networking to assess the possibilities of extending the value of their own equipment. Topics to be discussed will include the mitigation of whole body vibration, maximising crew endurance and multi-purpose design.
Despite the war on terror having taken some of the years away from Stiletto, the growing need for Special Forces to be able to make rapid amphibious landings has come to the fore in recent months, with a problematic sea-launched raid for the Navy SEALs in Somalia last year and the looming potential for violence to arise in West Africa and the Caribbean as the illicit drug trade of Latin America pushes further across the Atlantic.
The question of whether Stiletto will finally realise Cebrowski’s vision into the coming years is about to be answered.
Read the original article on Defence iQ