Navy prototype vessel an eye-catcher

Associated Press • Mar 13, 2007 at 5:45 AM

NORFOLK, Va. - The Navy's new fast ship is nearly 90 feet long, 40 feet wide and attacks like a sea serpent.

It's packed with banks of computers, flat-panel video screens and shock-absorbing chairs to smooth a ride that reaches speeds of more than 50 mph.

Its twin, M-shaped hull leaves little wake. It's odd by design.

And there is only one of them.

The Navy hopes the craft, called Stiletto, will help transform how it designs, builds and thinks about ships.

Frank Wakeham, who manages the experimental ship for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, said it is scheduled to join Navy exercises later this month.

It will be based permanently on the East Coast, testing new technologies, ways to deliver special operations forces to combat, and how to fight along coastlines and rivers.

The Stiletto also is designed to turn heads and promote the Navy to the public.

"It's an eye-catcher," Wakeham said.

The Stiletto arrived at Norfolk Naval Station in late February from San Diego.

Since the end of the Cold War, Pentagon planners have sought to make the military a more diverse force that can fight small insurgencies as well as large battles.

Bob Work, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the Stiletto is a relatively small and inexpensive tool to teach the Navy new warfare techniques. The Navy and the Pentagon shared the $10 million cost to design and build the Stiletto.

"You don't have to be stuck with one cookie-cutter solution," Work said.

Wakeham acknowledged it may be the only Stiletto ever built. The Navy has no production plans beyond the prototype.

Despite its sleek look, the carbon-fiber hull has no radar-evading capabilities. Unlike in metal-hulled ships, sailors must glue equipment to the fiber walls. And despite its strong and light profile, it won't necessarily stop small-arms fire.

The unusual process of creating Stiletto provided valuable lessons, Wakeham said. It was designed and built outside normal ship-building channels.

The Pentagon requested a high-tech ship capable of delivering SEAL commandos and unmanned vehicles in 2004. The military chose a small firm in San Diego, M Ship Company, that had designed civilian craft but never a Navy vessel.

The ship was completed 15 months from contract signing.

The Stiletto was launched in San Diego last year and took part in naval exercises, sending drones into the air and water and acting as a command and control ship with as many as 40 people aboard.

Ship computers tracked video feeds from unmanned vehicles and allowed sailors to plug laptops into the network.

Stiletto is powered by four 1,650-horsepower diesel engines. The M Hull design creates little wake, instead recapturing waves to raise the ship for faster cruising.

The Navy will also test its ability to stabilize special operations forces during runs toward targets - often, they get physically beat up chopping forward in their standard 30-foot rigid inflatable hulls. Stiletto has an open bay for an inflatable boat and can be re designed to hold two, Wakeham said. The ship boasts a system designed to better stabilize and steer the ship. The ship drafts about 3 feet of water while under way. If more are built, they could fill a niche between small amphibious craft and rigid inflatable boats, he said. However, Wakeham added, "It's not a replacement." --- The Virginian-Pilot is published in Norfolk. (AP) Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://www.pilotonline.com AP-ES-03-12-07 0928EDT

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