- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - A new breed of Navy ship is preparing to begin its maiden deployment.

The USNS Spearhead is a joint high-speed vessel that can be called upon by the Army, Navy or Marines to quickly ferry people and equipment for a variety of missions. Its 22-person crew is composed of civilians, but it also has a small Navy detachment onboard.

The ship is scheduled to leave Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story on its way to Europe and Africa on Thursday, where commanders will test out the new ship’s capabilities in an operational environment. Ultimately, the Navy plans to have 10 of the ships available to military commanders around the world.

The Navy says its missions could include transporting tanks, carrying a containerized portable hospital or supporting disaster-relief operations. The ship has 20,000 square feet of cargo storage area and is also capable of landing helicopters. Other Navy ships are already capable of transporting people and equipment, but what sets apart the Spearhead and the others in its class being built is that it is designed for speed and to operate in small or damaged ports.

The expansive ship is a large catamaran made of aluminum that can carry 600 tons about 1,200 nautical miles.

“We can take pretty much whatever you can think of onboard here and rapidly reconfigure,” said Capt. Douglas Casavant, master of USNS Spearhead.

The Spearhead has an average speed of about 40 miles per hour. By comparison, the Navy’s amphibious transport dock that carries Marines and their equipment travels at about 24 miles per hour.

The Spearhead is also much more spacious in nearly every aspect than its warship counterparts, from its passageways and stairs to the more than 300 seats it has to transport people that provide more legroom than many first-class airline passengers will find.

The cost for the 10 joint high-speed vessels is about $1.5 billion, according to James Marconi, a spokesman for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, which owns the ships.

Casavant acknowledged that a ship built of aluminum is more vulnerable than warships made of steel, but he said that it could have other Navy ships escort it if it needed protection from adversaries, or to help clear mines from its path. He also said that security teams may come aboard the ship as needed, such as if it were to travel in pirate-infested waters. In a pirate scenario, he also said the ship’s speed would make it difficult for anyone to catch.

The Spearhead is scheduled to be in European and African waters until May. After that, it will briefly return to Virginia Beach for a few weeks before heading toward Central and South America.


Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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