WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The Pentagon says it plans to buy 10 Joint High Speed Vessels that may have marines and special-operations SEALS going to combat onboard aluminum, twin-hulled catamaran offshoots of successful civilian ferries.
The Pentagon says the plan includes use of the JHSV by the Navy and Army in a wider variety of military missions being considered.
Austal, the program's prime contractor, began work on the first high-speed vessel last month, and, was recently awarded a $204.2 million contract toward construction of two more.
In all, the project's construction of 10 JHSVs is estimated at $1.6 billion, Pentagon officials said.
The 338-foot-long ships are said to be used, also, in some situations as replacements for the current fleet of small-size 170-foot patrol coastal craft.
"There was a big debate within the Navy department on patrol craft, PCs," Navy Undersecretary Bob Work told the Navy Times. "People said these are very good for irregular warfare. But when we looked at it we said we wanted to have self-deployable platforms that have a lot of payload space that you can take to the fight whatever you need -- SEALs, Marines, riverine squadrons."
So, Work added, "we decided to increase the Joint High Speed Vessel program."
With an average speed of 35 knots, the J.H.S.V is intended to move Army and Marine Corps cargo and troops within areas of military operations. It is armed with four .50 caliber machine guns and includes a flight deck for helicopter operations and an off-load ramp that can allow vehicles to quickly drive off the ship.
Austal, the main contractor, is a subsidiary of Australia's publicly traded Austal Ltd. The vessels will be constructed at the company's U.S. facility located in Alabama.
"The JHSV program could serve to extend the United States' ability to provide humanitarian relief globally and Austal is pleased to be able to contribute to this effort through the speedy delivery of this highly flexible, low-cost vessel," Austal Managing director Bob Browning was quoted saying in Business News.
More than 300 Marines and troops with their gears can be accommodated for up to four days on the vessel.
Yet as the Navy ramps up production of the high-speed vessels, the Pentagon's chief weapons inspector warns that the low-slung cargo ship has little or no chance of surviving an enemy attack.
Modeled on a commercial ferry, the vessel "is not designed or expected to be survivable against weapons effects encountered in combat missions," according to the latest annual review by J. Michael Gilmpore, director of operational test and evaluation at the Defense Department.
In subsequent statements the Pentagon said the JHSV had been considered and "ideally suited" for its intended mission, but it remained unclear whether in fact such vessels would be used in combat situations.
Austal is also building a second Littoral Combat Ship for the U.S. Navy.