Experimental shipbuilder seeks increased congressional funding

The M80 Stiletto, an experimental ship once featured on Time magazine’s Best Inventions list, is now featured in movie theaters across the country as part of Navy recruiting trailers. As the Navy tries to wow potential seamen with the vessel, the ship’s designer is aiming to convince lawmakers of its value to secure increased funding.

By all accounts, the first and largest all-carbon fiber ship has impressed special operators, commanders and naval connoisseurs alike. But now, the Stiletto is digging in its heels and looking for some steadfast supporters in Congress to secure new funding for the project in the Pentagon’s and possibly the Coast Guard’s budgets.

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San Diego, Calif.-based M Ship Co., the Stiletto’s designer, could be at a disadvantage due to its relatively small size. The military services are known for risk-averse behavior in tight budget environments, and the large shipbuilders have a strong lobby and support on Capitol Hill.

The now-defunct Office of Force Transformation (OFT), once headed by Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, originally sponsored the M80 Stiletto as part of the Wolf PAC-distributed operations experiment.

Because it was not a program of record, OFT chose M Ship Co., a civilian yacht-design company, and the Knight & Carver Yacht Center to build the ship. M Ship Co. had the M80 Stiletto — an 88-foot, 60-ton composite vessel — built 15 months after the contract signing in October 2004.

The cost of the vessel was $6 million. OFT spent a total of about $12 million on the boat, a figure that includes expenditures for its electronic keel as well as operational costs. Another $6.5 million has gone into technical testing and operational experiments. 

Currently, the M80 is in the possession of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Combat Craft Division on the East Coast. The Navy currently is studying possible uses for the innovative craft.

One of the ship’s key features is its lightweight, M-shaped hull, which makes it look like a stealth aircraft and allows for navigation of shallow waters to detect mines and support special-operations missions.

The ship — which is capable of reaching speeds of up to 50 knots (58 mph) — was built partly to facilitate launching and recovering Navy SEALs and other special-operations forces closer to their targets.  

The ship is designed to be stable in rough seas due to its wide body. The SEALs needed an inexpensive replacement for a V-hull craft that generated such strong G forces that about a third of the SEALs using it were medically discharged within 10 years of service.

At first the Navy discounted the workability of an M-hull design, but in 2003 the late Cebrowski took a risk. Now, with one of its stalwart and respected supporters gone, M Ship Co. is hard at work to bolster its position in both the naval communities and Congress.

Several months ago, M Ship Co. hired Duane Morris Government Affairs to raise its profile on Capitol Hill.
The goal for this year is to secure $1.5 million in research and development funds in the defense authorization and appropriations bills to study the use of the M-hull design for a littoral combat-type scenario. That money would go towards designing a ship in less than a year.

Ultimately, the company’s goal is to have a steady funding line starting in fiscal 2009, company executive director and co-founder Bill Burns said.

The current Stiletto platform could be doubled or tripled and can be used as an actual Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) or for a variety of ships complementing the Navy’s prized LCS.

The Navy is finding itself at a crossroads with its LCS program. It recently bumped Lockheed Martin from the program, because of one of the ship’s escalating costs and the company’s reluctance to accept a fixed-price contract. The Navy expected to pay about $220 million for the first LCS built by Lockheed, but the cost rose to nearly $400 million.

The Stiletto also can be used in rivers and on restrictive waterways for operations in shallow water, and as a platform for launching a variety of unmanned systems.

In fact, the House Armed Services Committee in its 2007 defense authorization bill encouraged the Navy to investigate options for advanced composite hulls for the specialized missions the new Navy Expeditionary Combat Command would be performing. The NECC has been interested in a demonstration of the M-hull technology, according to sources.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has had to make adjustments to its Deepwater fleet modernization program. Most of the ships built under the program, managed by a team made up of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, faced significant problems, in particular the so-called Fast Response Cutter (FRC). This week the Coast Guard took over the management of the Deepwater program from the Lockheed Martin-Northrop Grumman team.

While some higher-ups in the Coast Guard reportedly are considering the Stiletto as a new approach to the FRC, officially the Coast Guard has yet to indicate such interest in the Stiletto technology, according to a source.
The service is spending little money for new products, and having fallen behind in research and development, it prefers something already battle-tested.

“Stiletto really represents an opportunity and an option for the military, and it is a showcase of what came be done with a different builder, a different attitude and a different organizational culture,” Burns said. “Stiletto and M Ship represent the entrepreneurial spirit.”

He said the Stiletto could be used by the Navy to learn how to build smaller boats faster and meet the Pentagon’s need for enhanced warfare capabilities.