Low Cost Ship Options for U.S. Navy’s Drug War

HSV-2 Swift  departs from Naval Station Mayport to begin Southern Partnership Station 2013. US Navy Photo

HSV-2 Swift departs from Naval Station Mayport to begin Southern Partnership Station 2013. US Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy is examining low-cost high-speed ships to replace aging surface ships in U.S. Southern Command’s fight against drug traffickers, U.S. 4th Fleet officials told USNI News on Tuesday.

In May, the HSV-2 Swift will conduct a drug interdiction patrol in South and Central America – the first for the high-speed catamaran, 4th Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker told USNI News on Tuesday.

Swift, an aluminum catamaran originally designed as a fast ferry, will fill the role traditionally reserved for U.S. Navy frigates and U.S. Coast Guard cutters. Leased by the Navy and run by U.S. Military Sealift Command, Swift has been a test bed for the Navy and MSC in SOUTHCOM and U.S. Central Command.

Like the Oliver Hazard Perry-class (FFG-7) frigates, Swift will deploy to U.S. Southern Command with a Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) and patrol the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific Coast, Barker said.

Swift’s deployment could inform the next generation of SOUTHCOM military surface combatants in the drug fight.

Earlier this month, the Navy announced it would pull the two frigates tasked with interdicting drug runners in SOUTHCOM due to cuts from sequestration and a yearlong Continuing Resolution for Fiscal Year 2013.

SOUTHCOM commander, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday he was “gravely concerned,” about the cuts effects on operations in SOUTHCOM.

Currently cutters and frigates, with the help of U.S. Air Force and Navy reconnaissance aircraft, intercept a third of the drug traffic coming from South and Central America.

But a day could come when SOUTHCOM, “has no assigned [Department of Defense] surface assets to conduct detention and monitoring operations,” Kelly said.

However lower cost options like Swift and it’s predecessors, the $255 million Joint High Speed Vessel, could make U.S. naval involvement in SOUTHCOM more fiscally palatable.

USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1), the first of 10 Navy joint high-speed vessels designed for rapid intra-theater transport of troops and military equipment during builders trials. US Navy Photo

USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1), the first of 10 Navy joint high-speed vessels designed for rapid intra-theater transport of troops and military equipment during builders trials. US Navy Photo

Built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., the JHSV is a catamaran with the ability to move fast and deploy LEDET teams the same way current cutters and frigates do.

USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1), the first JHSV, recently delivered to the fleet. Following the ship’s completion of its post shakedown availability at the end of the year,  “it will be ready for assignment, which depends on the Navy’s needs,” MSC spokesperson Jessica Alexander told USNI on Tuesday.

Fourth Fleet leadership are already interested in the JHSV for operations in SOUTHCOM, following a Feb. 14 port visit to Naval Station Mayport, Fla.

“Spearhead is a perfect match for 4th Fleet and we plan to use it across all of our lines of operations; security cooperation activities, maritime security operations and contingency operations,” U.S. 4th Fleet commander, Rear Adm. Sinclair M. Harris said in a statement.

The ship has a range of 1,200 nautical miles, can transport up to 600 tons of troops and material and can cruise at 35 kts. A crew of 22 MSC civilians operates the ship, far less than the 200 of a Perry-class frigate.

Spearhead is one of ten JHSVs planned for MSC as part of a $2.5 billion program. The second ship, Choctaw County, is plans to be delivered to the fleet later this year.

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