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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:33 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:33

A symbolic keel-laying ceremony was held last month at the Austal shipyards in Mobile, Ala, for the U.S. Army Vessel Spearhead, the first in a fleet of ten high-speed transport ships that will be used by both the Navy and the Army. These Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV) are the result of a U.S. Department of Defense program to develop a next-generation, multi-use transportation fleet.

The Army will take delivery of its ship, the JHSV 1, next year; the Navy will receive its first JHSV 2 USNS Vigilant in 2013. Each ship will be able to carry 800 tons of cargo and 300 troops at speeds of up to 35 knots.

A flexible transport ship

Capable of shallow-water operations, the ships have a load ramp to allow vehicles to quickly drive on and off and an aviation flight deck for helicopter operations. The cargo can include vehicles of up to 70 tons each, including a combat-loaded Abrams Main Battle Tank (M1A2). The price tag for the entire fleet will be $1.6 billion.

“The Joint High Speed Vessel gives combatant commanders the flexibility to maneuver operationally in a variety of missions, including overseas contingency operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, special operations and emerging seabasing concepts in austere port environments,” Army Brig. General Brian R. Layer said at the keel-laying ceremony.

The keel-laying was symbolic because modern ships are constructed in modules that are attached to each other. In the past, the keel-laying ceremony marked the laying down of the central or main timber that was the backbone of the ship.  The ceremony in Mobile marked the erection of the modular components that will form part of the 320-foot-long aluminum catamaran.

Modeled on commercial ship

The ability of commercially designed catamarans to serve in a military role was put to the test eight years ago when the Navy began leasing the high-speed passenger ferry Westpac Express from an Australian company to move Marine Corps equipment around the Pacific. The success of this test paved the way for the development of a new class of transport ships, the High Speed Vessel (HSV).

Three of these Australian-built HSVs, closely modeled on the Westpac Express, were acquired by the U.S. Navy and Army. The JHSVs, now being constructed in the U.S., are refined versions of the earlier HSVs.

“The JHSV’s aggressive and streamlined acquisition process and the service’s ability to leverage commercial investments has allowed us to provide a more maneuverable and flexible vessel to our warfighters, “said Col. R. Eric Fletcher, the Army’s project manager for Force Projection.

“As a multi-use platform, the JHSV will provide our nation’s warfighters with the capabilities to operate in as variety of mission across the globe.”

The Army is not a nautical newcomer. It’s had its own fleet of support ships since the service began and has been bickering with its sister service about the size of its fleet since the mid-19th century. In World War II, in fact, the Army had a larger fleet than the Navy, but one that consisted almost entirely of support vessels.

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