“Studying ship designs for endless years is a lot less valuable than to go ahead and build a few,” said retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski in a 2003 Seapower interview while chief of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation (OFT).
Dubbed M-Hull technology for its M-shaped cross-section, it features tunnels along the hull that channel the bow wave in a way that generates lift beneath the boat. Air churned from the bow wave is forced under increasing pressure through the tunnels, creating an air cushion against the hull that reduces drag and allows the ship to plane at higher speeds and with greater stability than conventional craft.
The 88-foot Stiletto incorporates a double M-Hull design with four tunnels to channel the bow wave. Despite its exotic appearance, fast speed and array of potential applications in the fleet and elsewhere, Stiletto project managers say their $6 million craft is purely experimental and is not being sought as a production vessel for the fleet.
It was built as an experimentation vessel for missions such as special operations support, battle area intelligence, riverine operations, humanitarian assistance and antimine duty.
Managed by the Combatant Craft Division of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock, Md., the Stiletto was designed by M Ship Co. and assembled by yacht builder Knight & Carver, both of San Diego. The ship’s carbon-fiber construction gives it significant advantage over vessels made of heavier steel or aluminum. It can move faster and carry more payload, relative to ships of similar size.
Stiletto was unveiled to the public at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Conference in San Diego in January, 15 months after its design was approved at a November 2004 OFT briefing, said Navy Capt. Neil Parrott, one of Stiletto’s senior project officers assigned to OFT. Carderock and OFT took delivery of Stiletto for testing in May.
Capable of speeds up to 50 knots and a range of 500 nautical miles, it is powered by four Caterpillar C32 engines and has a topside flight deck and a rear dropdown ramp that can recover an 11-meter Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat, a favorite of the SEALs. Stiletto can operate in 36 inches of water.
Project officials said Stiletto is an open door testing platform; meaning they are seeking testing partners from within the Navy and other Pentagon organizations, other government agencies and industry. The idea behind Stiletto, and much of its value to operating forces, they said, is to quickly derive lessons learned during experimentation and communicate those lessons to combatant commanders and others within the Defense Department.
Stiletto participated in the first of many experiments to come when it embarked sailors and equipment from Coronado Navy Base’s Naval Special Clearance Team-1 (NSCT-1) for three days of mine-clearing experimentation during Exercise Howler.
Stiletto’s ability to locate mines with unmanned vehicles packing special sensor technologies and remain on station providing support to teams of Navy divers reduced by two days the time it takes to clear a typical mine field, said Parrott.
Navy Special Boat Chief Scott Keough, commander of NSCT-1’s Golf Platoon, a unit that specializes in naval special warfare unmanned aerial vehicle testing and experimentation, said he immediately realized the value of M-Hull technology to littoral boat operations after his first ride in a smaller 38-foot version of Stiletto that was not much more than an aluminum “tub” fitted to an M-Hull.
“Apparently [M Ship Co.] had shown it to a few people in other units who looked at the boat and said, ‘Oh, it’s an ugly boat, we don’t want it,’” said Keough, a former SEAL instructor who has served six tours in Iraq as a special warfare combatant crewman.
“When I first heard about [the M-Hull concept], I was like, ‘Yeah right. Here’s just somebody else wanting to get in the military game to get money.’ I took the boat out personally for six hours … in a sea state of about three and I beat this boat up … going 38 knots, I was into the swell, getting airborne and I was absolutely jaw-droppingly amazed at the shock mitigation properties of the hull design,” he said.
“After the first hour, I stopped the boat dead in the water out there and I got off the console and looked at Mike Johnson, who was then the military liaison for
M Ship Co., and I said, ‘Mike, why hasn’t the Navy jumped all over this thing?’”
Keough said he was so impressed with the M-Hull technology that he immediately pursued an M-Hull boat for his unit. He eventually obtained funding from the Office of Naval Research for a 40-foot, single M-Hull version of Stiletto. It’s been dubbed “Rapier” and Keough said it is under contract and NSCT-1 hopes to take delivery by spring 2007.
Stiletto’s flexibility is linked to its multiple onboard quick-change component configurations. For example, in a harbor security or merchant vessel interdiction scenario, Stiletto can be configured to launch and recover unmanned aerial vehicles that would overfly cargo ships, photograph them and beam back images instantaneously.
Parrott said Stiletto can even be fitted with a networked technology that enables human faces and fingerprints to be cross-checked against databases from agencies such as the Department of Homeland Defense.
Given its speed and range, Stiletto can quickly transit from a mother ship to within just a few miles from a specific coastal target. Once in position, Stiletto can send unmanned vehicles to scout intercoastal waterways, amphibious landing zones and ground targets.
With such flexibility, project officials said the vessel provides the Defense Department, federal and commercial agencies the ability to experiment with a wider range of equipment, capabilities and applications unique to each agency’s needs or missions.
“In the riverine community, they don’t currently have an effective afloat command-and-control platform,” said Frank Wakeham, Stiletto experimental project manager with Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense contractor.
The advantage Stiletto provides riverine operators, he said, is its ability to receive and process intelligence and battlefield reports and instantly share the information through its robust onboard networking capabilities.
“If you can’t operate as a networked force, you’re out of business,” Parrott said. “Stiletto is more than just a good looking boat.”
Defense and survivability of Stiletto in combat has yet to be fully explored, Parrott said. Among options being considered are 20mm and .50-caliber gun systems. Stiletto presently has no armor, he said, and “its carbon fiber skin, while strong, isn’t going to stop a bullet.” Defensive systems may be added in the future.
To date, Stiletto’s power and experimental possibilities have been showcased for Congressmen, international delegates, military commanders, military academia and industry. In addition to its participation with NSCT-1 during Exercise Howler, Stiletto tested its capabilities in June during Trident Warrior, a multinational communications and technology exercise.
But of all Stiletto’s applications and experimental provisions, perhaps none are of greater interest and value than those unique to the coastal warfare missions/
special operations community — especially the Navy SEALs. The Stiletto project was co-funded by the U.S. Special Operations Command and OFT and designed to provide the SEALs with special capabilities.
Topping the SEALs’ wish list for a craft was one that reduced wear and tear on SEAL bodies during long distance ship-to-shore transits and an on-station networking and data analysis capability that would eliminate a long return trip to a mother ship for information technology support.
SEALs have not yet ridden aboard Stiletto. They will likely get time aboard the craft when it comes to the East Coast, project officials said.
Parrott said the craft’s capability as a SEAL transport and delivery vessel is important. Stiletto’s smooth ride, originally developed by M Ship Co. for commercial applications on water taxis in Venice, Italy, solves a problem that has plagued the SEALs for years — the body pounding they absorb while crashing through choppy waters in transit from ship to shore.
Nearly one-third of SEALs are retired medically by their 10th year of service due to the repetitive G-force shock on their bodies, Parrott said. SEAL teams routinely endure 15-25-mile or more journeys through rough seas aboard their V-hulled MK 5 Special Operations Craft and 11-meter Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats, resulting in a host of injuries to the spine and internal organs.
The speed of the Stiletto project, from concept to delivery, was another early lesson.
“During World War II, [speedy acquisition] had to happen out of necessity because there was a war on,” Parrott said. “There is a war on [now] and you have to think fast and work fast. Combatant commanders are saying, ‘Hey industry, I want all your best and brightest ides, but I don’t have any money to pay for it. However, I’m engaged in the war on terrorism and I’m in an emergency … and you gotta help me.’”
But the push to quickly develop Stiletto and get it underway proved a challenge.
Stiletto broke the traditional acquisition mold by speeding through design, research and development without the typical advance analysis and “100-percent solution” to issues such as long-term maintenance concerns, said Parrott. “Rather than analyzing the thing to death, we just went ahead and built [it]. We started with maybe a 50-percent solution.”
“It was already obvious to me that there was a significant change in the way we were doing business; all positives that could be gained by [building] just a few of these boats,” Keough said. “We need to start streamlining … start rethinking things and modernizing our management processes. We need to stop waiting for the perfect solution. There’s never going to be a perfect solution.”
Since Stiletto is an experiment, Parrott said developers and designers can make design changes on the fly. With a class of production line ships, that’s not so easily done, he said.
As an example of its design and development flexibility, project managers say that if a second Stiletto is built, they would want water jets installed in place of the current vessel’s four propellers to reduce the wake signature, simplify maintenance and improve the ability to operate in debris-laden waters, such as those encountered during Hurricane Katrina relief operations.
Stiletto is scheduled to relocate to the East Coast this fall, for testing under a variety of conditions, including deeper water runs and rough seas operation. In March, the vessel is slated to participate in Exercise Trident Warrior ‘07 on the East Coast with elements of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group.
The Stiletto will spend much of its life as an agent of change, a mission similar to Cebrowski’s role during much of his career in the Pentagon. He had craft like Stiletto in mind when he shared his vision of the future with Seapower in a 2003 interview: “We’re going to see that inter-theater lift merges with intra-theater lift and the speed of both increase, and the distinction between logistics and operations goes away. We’re talking about logistics as part of your operational maneuver scheme, as are intelligence and force protection. So you have a blurring of the lines.”