- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - A Navy ship that resembles a commercial ferry returned to Virginia on Tuesday following its maiden deployment to Europe and Africa, where military officials tested out some of its other capabilities aside from transporting people and equipment.

The USNS Spearhead is the first joint high-speed vessel to be deployed by the Navy. It is a catamaran designed to quickly transport just about anything that various branches of the military might need, aside from fixed-wing aircraft. Its missions could include evacuating civilians, moving Army soldiers and vehicles from one country to another or delivering humanitarian aid, among other things.

After leaving Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in January, Navy officials said they were looking forward to testing out the ship in a real world environment. The Spearhead successfully delivered more than 22.5 tons of humanitarian supplies under the U.S. Navy’s Project Handclasp program to countries in Africa.

While deployed, the ship also participated in a variety of exercises with partner nations in west Africa. That included embarking a Coast Guard team to conduct law enforcement operations as the U.S. worked to prevent illegal fishing and other illicit trafficking. That included launching and recovering a small, hand-launched drone from the ship. The ship also served as a suspected pirate vessel for training by partner nations who were working on their boarding skills.

“When you actually go out and do something in the real world that’s when you’re going to find out where your strengths and weaknesses are,” said Capt. Douglas Casavant, a civilian who serves as the ship’s master.

Casavant said he learned plenty of lessons about what can be improved for the ship’s next deployment, but declined to provide specific details. For the most part, he said everything performed just as well as it was expected to. He said some of the lessons learned involved finding the best way to work and communicate with different military detachment teams. During the deployment, the Spearhead also embarked a U.S. Marine Corps squad for a crisis response exercise off the coast of Liberia.

Unlike most Navy ships, the Spearhead is crewed by civilian mariners and has a military liaison and security team onboard to help conduct its missions.

The ship is fast, traveling at an average speed of about 40 mph, but is primarily made out of aluminum. Most Navy ships are built of steel. That means it is only designed to go into what the Navy calls permissive environments, where there are not threats of airborne or shore-based attacks.

Capt. Marc Lederer, the Spearhead’s military detachment commander, said that the ship wasn’t likely to be threatened by pirates and noted that its speed would be a good defense against an attack even if it didn’t have a security team aboard. He said there were no occasions during the deployment where the ship was threatened.

The Spearhead will be in port in Virginia for about two weeks for routine maintenance before heading to Mayport, Fla. It will pick up some new crew members there before heading to the Caribbean Sea, Central America and South America, where it is expected to participate in some counter narcotics operations


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

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