by DAVID AXE
On Sept. 17 at a shipyard in Alabama, the U.S. Navy christened USNS Spearhead, the first of at least 10 — and possibly up to 23 — Joint High Speed Vessels. These 338-foot catamaran transports, operated by Military Sealift Command, could significantly boost the U.S. military’s ability to quickly move people and cargo in shallow coastal waters.
Naval expert Eric Wertheim, editor of Combat Fleets of the World, spoke to Offiziere.ch about the vessel’s capabilities:
There’s an old saying when thinking of military operations, “Amateurs talk tactics while professionals talk logistics.” Logistics have always been vital to any military operation, and I think that’s why the JHSV is so important. When people think of military operations today they often think about the thousands of U.S. forces in action around the world, but they rarely think about how they got to their location, to actually do the job that we sent them to do.
The JHSV has the ability to fill a large logistics gap that currently exists for the military — that gap of so-called intra-theater transport by sea. Think of the fact that 80 percent of the world’s population lives near a coast. When an emergency strikes, often times one of the best ways to get support into the area is by sea. The JHSV allows you to do just that, move a lot of stuff and a lot of people — quickly.
For example, it could be for getting U.S. assets into a disaster relief zone quickly, or it could be for getting friendly forces evacuated out of a war zone in an emergency, or for unloading Marines and solders into an austere port once its been secured by an initial assault. It can also play an important role moving stuff from a remote staging base at sea to wherever it’s most needed ashore.
What JHSV allows you to do is to move lots of stuff fast over medium distances. It has sometimes been compared to the venerable Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft. JHSV can be used at austere ports and it has helicopter landing decks, ramps and cranes to move helicopters, vehicles, boats and cargo, and of course people where we need them to be.
And we won’t need to divert an expensive and in-demand warship to do these missions. For example, JHSV could serve as a mother ship for anything from disaster relief to counter-piracy operations, freeing up a destroyer or cruiser to do other more technologically challenging missions (like ballistic missile defense) for which those ships were designed.
A big part of our maritime strategy is building bridges to the international community through continue foreign engagement and assistance, and that’s one of JHSV’s specialties.The vessel is in essence a large and fast maritime “truck” with lots of space. It could house medical facilities or it could move troops — and it has the support facilities required of these missions. On a smaller ship, for example, those support facilities (like berthing, food, showers, etc.) would likely be taxed beyond their limits.
One of the shortcomings of the JHSV, however, is that like most transport vehicles and vessels, the JHSV is not intended for combat operations and as such is mostly unarmed and vulnerable to enemy action. We have to be sure to keep it out of the line of fire. Of course, that lack of self-defense capability also makes it a lot less expensive. Which is good … just as long as nobody’s shooting at it!