The sight of the strange and stealthy craft passing by the looming apartment towers around the harbor of Cartagena might alone have scared away the bad guys.
The Stiletto's deployment last summer came together rapidly and included groups and organizations from across the U.S. military and law enforcement establishment, as well as Colombian authorities. While no bad guys were apprehended in Colombia, officers involved say the operation was a success - and proudly point to the successful chase and apprehension of a suspected drug-running boat in U.S. waters on the way home.
The Stiletto's presence in Colombia was a result of a cooperative effort between U.S. Southern Command and the Pentagon's Rapid Reaction Technology Office, which oversees the vessel.
"We were looking for solutions that are revolutionary instead of evolutionary, things that take us off the glide path and bring us big increases in capability, " said Cmdr. Kevin "Q" Quarderer of U.S. Southern Command's Innovation Group. "Stiletto is one of those innovations."
When Quarderer's Miami, Fla.-based group heard about the Stiletto, a craft developed in 2005 by the now-defunct Office of Force Transformation, they called up Capt. James Hruska. Stiletto, Hruska explained, " is a maritime test bed."
Although the Navy supports the vessel, Stiletto " is owned by the secretary of defense", "Hruska noted. "When people have a new widget it can take a lot of time to get that on a Navy ship. With Stiletto, there is no red tape. We can get stuff on board in under two weeks for testing."
The mission to Colombia would take longer than that, but the entire operation happened with remarkable rapidity.
"Everything went from initial concept to end of deployment in less than six months," Quarderer said.
Hruska noted that Southern Command wanted to develop concepts of operations in the war on drugs, and Quarderer said Stiletto fit the need. "We are after guys doing drug running who have an advantage in speed, and this vessel has a speed advantage, " Quarderer said. " They seek sanctuary in shallow waters, and this vessel only draws two and a half feet. That was appealing."
"Flexibility of the vessel and the organization to take on new projects and technologies" also was a factor, Quarderer added, citing the craft's "electronic keel" as allowing the rapid insertion of sensors, electronics and computers.
"The electronic keel is the Stiletto's heart, if not its very soul," said former Cmdr. Greg Glaros, who conceived the Stiletto in 2004 while working for OFT.
Hruska said the keel is key to the entire Stiletto concept. "Everyone seems to focus on the hull form, and they miss the electronic keel," he said. "Its' a fancy Ethernet, one gigabyte, that runs from the bow to the stern and allows plug-and-play capabilities. Whatever sensor you bring on board you can install it quickly. Say you bring on a camera. You can mount the camera in a few hours, then plug in your laptop and see what the camera is displaying. It doesn't care what software you're using, what your power supply needs are. It helps streamline the experimental process and facilitate the rapid testing of technologies."
Crewing the Stiletto deployment also needed to happen rapidly - too fast for the Navy and Coast Guard to provide qualified crews. Hruska and his team surveyed other operators of high-speed craft. "The Army stepped up without hesitation," he said. "They were the most flexible."
The soldier-sailors came from the 7th Sustainment Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y. The 7th normally operates logistics, not combatant craft, but many had experience in operating high-speed vessels such as the Joint Venture and Swift. The Army crew of nine included two chief warrant officers qualified as craftmasters, or vessel commanders. Combined with a Coast Guard LEDET to provide policing authority, the crew of Stiletto was set. After less than three weeks of training the Army sailors piloted Stiletto on June 1 from its base at Norfolk, Va. In hops that averaged about 400 miles a day, the vessel made its way to the U.S. base at Guantanamo, Cuba, and then crossed the Caribbean to Cartagena.
The trip was rough. Stiletto was never intended for ocean voyaging, and the crew - all experienced mariners - became seasick. "Stiletto was never built to be a deployable asset," Hruska said. "It wasn't designed with berthing, a galley, fresh-water production."
The rough weather continued during operations out of Cartagena. On one mission, the vessel's craftmaster was catapulted into space and separated his shoulder. But modern technology came to the rescue - a Colombian officer contacted a doctor by cell phone, a Web link to YouTube turned up a how-to-fix-a-separated-shoulder video that provided graphic instruction, and one of the Coasties who was a paramedic provided the muscle. The craftmaster was back in action after a couple of day's rest.
"The guys did real-world missions and responded to calls," Quarderer said. "We demonstrated the ability to put together an interagency law enforcement team and use them optimally."
The Stiletto's stern ramp and rigid-hull inflatable boat also came in handy, he said. "The ramp that allows them to deploy the RHIB in fairly high sea states is a fairly big deal. We deployed the RHIB in up to 8-foot seas, and that's pretty significant."
Since drug runners typically operate at night, two systems installed for the mission proved particularly valuable - a telescoping high-definition electro-optical/infrared camera by Gyrocam Systems and a SeaFLIR II forward-looking infrared system by FLIR Systems.
The Gyrocam was mounted on a 20-foot telescoping pole, while "the FLIR people came out, surveyed the site and installed it almost immediately," Quarderer said. "It was probably the best sensor the vessel had."
The return trip was made via the calmer waters of the western Caribbean. While operating near Marathon, Fla., in early August, the opportunity the crew had been waiting for finally came along.
"CBP [Customs and Border Protection] spotted several go-fasters in the area. Word went out there were several targets of interest, and on patrol the Stiletto spotted one. The boat took off - that was a pretty good indication they weren't up to any good," Quarderer SAID.
"The go-fast tried to exploit its speed - that didn't work. They tried to exploit shallow waters - that didn't work." With the help of a Coast Guard helicopter and cutter, Stiletto eventually cornered the go-fast in shallow waters, and the embarked LEDET "apprehended the suspects." Stiletto returned to Norfolk on Aug. 9 and the crew was broken up. But the craft may again head south next year.
"We're going to start initial planning to look at that," Quarderer said. "There's a definite possibility that Stiletto will deploy to SouthCom in some capacity." And although the Stiletto was never intended to be an operational prototype, the command might eventually acquire the craft.
The Pentagon never intended to keep Stiletto for long, Hruska said. "We don't have a desire for a fleet of Stilettos. But at some point we need to transfer this asset, and SouthCom seems to have a pretty good plan." The agency, he added, "could be the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Border Patrol, or someone else in SouthCom."
For now, the vessel will continue to be available for testing, and Hruska is eager to hear from those who want to try out their gizmos. "The program is fully funded, so I don't charge anyone to use the boat", he said. "The business model is pretty simple - you get your people and your system to Norfolk on your dime, and once there we bear the expense."
"Stiletto allows us to reach out to small companies as well as big companies like Lockheed Martin," Hruska said. "But it's our intent to help the small businessperson who has a nifty concept but might not have the funding or expertise to do the testing."