Inside The Navy
October 15, 2001
Pg. 9

Marines Getting Good Results With Australian High-Speed Vessel

Early exercises using a leased high-speed ferry indicate the Australian vessel or something similar to it could save the Marine Corps and other services scores of training days every year and a significant amount of money, according to program officials.

The Marine Corps is leasing the 331-foot-long Westpac Express ferry from Austal USA, a joint venture between Austal Limited of Australia and Bender Shipbuilding and Repair of Mobile, AL. Marine Corps Col. Michael Godfrey, project manager for the III Marine Expeditionary Force's HSV efforts in Okinawa, Japan, said earlier this month the vessel is proving its worth as a troop and equipment transporter among far-flung islands and close-to-shore military installations.

"Every time we touch that boat, something good happens," Godfrey said in an interview with Inside the Navy during a recent visit to the Washington, DC, area. "There's nothing not to like about a commander being able to move his people and gear together."

Air Force Maj. Ernie Weber, the Air Force's liaison officer to III MEF, said the Westpac Express has the potential to "revolutionize the training program for Marines in Okinawa." Using a fast, quickly loadable ferry instead of airlift for training transportation could save up to 150 battalion training days for a nine-battalion Marine infantry division, the officers said.

The Marine Corps' $2 million lease of the Westpac Express, its second lease increment of the vessel since this summer, is separate from a larger effort among the Navy, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command that involves leasing the Joint Venture (HSV-X1) high-speed vessel from Incat of Australia. Godfrey said he hopes to minimize any confusion between the two programs, for they are separate efforts with different goals. However, data gathered and lessons learned from each will be fed into the other.

The military officially accepted the Joint Venture for more than a year of experiments last week. The Marine Corps has been working with the Westpac Express since early July.

As of Oct. 4, Godfrey said the service has transported 4,400 troops and over 2,000 short tons of equipment more than 6,700 miles over the last four months. Missions have included troop and equipment runs from Okinawa to Fuji and Guam, as well as to other locations in the Western Pacific region.

The Marine Corps' potential of continuing to lease the Westpac Express or buying its own vessel are not meant to supplant current sea- and air-based lift capabilities, Godfrey and Weber stressed. They said the U.S. Transportation Command does a good job of ferrying troops and their equipment from one location to another, but it is limited in what it can do because of the demand placed on a limited number of platforms and the distances they have to travel. Rather, Weber called the vessel a "force multiplier" that can be used in specific areas such as archipelagos and other places where long-haul airlift might not be the best troop transport option.

Godfrey said residents of the Okinawa area have been relatively receptive to seeing the Westpac Express ferrying troops into and out of the region. As it is much quieter than the aircraft the residents are used to hearing, Godfrey said he expects it could become an example of the military being a "good neighbor" in a foreign country.

The Marine Corps HSV is expected to be used only in benign environments, Godfrey said. It does not have any active means of self-defense and therefore is intended almost exclusively as a way to transport troops to training exercises away from any potential firefights. Godfrey said he does not expect the Westpac Express to be called on for use in the United States' war against terrorism, and if military leaders wanted it for that mission, the service would have to negotiate such a use with the vessel's owners and insurers.

During a two-week visit to the Washington, DC, area from their post in Japan, Godfrey and Weber worked to establish a formal relationship among III MEF, the head of Pacific Command and Washington-based Military Sealift Command. Godfrey said a working agreement with MSC could help secure some of the ship's funding, for the Marine Corps is limited in its ability to finance a vessel with its limited transportation funds. He also said involvement from Pacific Command could help expand the use of the vessel to other services, particularly the Army as it pursues similar types of platforms.

An MSC spokeswoman confirmed last week there are discussions between the Marine Corps and MSC on the Westpac Express, but she said it is too early for the sealift command to comment further on the scope of its potential involvement because no decisions have been made.

In addition to the consortium being established, the colonel said the program would undergo a review by the Center for Naval Analyses beginning next month and lasting up to five months. He said the CNA study would provide an outside perspective to validate or disprove conclusions the Marine Corps is making regarding the vessel.

A CNA spokeswoman said the center will do a study on the Joint Venture HSV but had no information on a separate study focusing just on the Westpac Express. She said there is a chance the Westpac Express data will be included in the Joint Venture analysis.

Godfrey said he also received a good reception from more than two dozen Marine Corps generals he briefed on the program, receiving "not one dissenting vote" from those officials.

If the U.S. military decides to continue leasing HSVs or buy its own, it likely would look to U.S. shipyards to start making them, Weber said. That would help the U.S. shipbuilding industry bring in more work in a time military shipbuilding budgets are declining, and working with a U.S. company on an American-made vessel presents fewer regulatory hurdles when employing the platform in military operations, he said.

-- Christian Bohmfalk