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September 3, 2002

Marines praise Austal cat

The logistics operations of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force (IIIMEF) of the U.S. Marine Corps have undergone a transformation following the deployment of a high-speed Theater Support Vessel (TSV). The 331 foot (101 metre) "WestPac Express" has reportedly exceeded all expectations in its first year of operation, proving to be an incredibly reliable, faster and more cost-effective alternative to air transport for the movement of troops and their equipment.

Built in Australia, the aluminum catamaran arrived in Okinawa on July 12, 2001 to begin a proof-of-concept period of operation. The vessel's success during this period led to a three year contract with the U.S. Military Sealift Command being signed in January this year the first time the U.S. Military has contracted a commercial vessel of this type for military support.

Lt. General Wallace C. Gregson, Commander of the IIIMEF in Okinawa, Japan, described the catamaran as "a faster, better and cheaper way to deploy than any other we have had before. Not only has it lived up to our expectations, it has exceeded our expectations".

Designed and built by Austal Ships, the TSV carried 18,768 personnel and 11,985 metric tonnes of military hardware in its first year of operation, providing quick and efficient delivery to and from a range of locations including Yokohama, Guam, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. This represents a total payload of about 13,770 tonnes for the year.

The ship has a range of 1,250 nautical miles at an average speed of 35 knots (over 40 mph) while carrying 400 tonnes of payload in addition to the fuel for the voyage, with a 10% fuel reserve for contingencies. This equates to the ability to transit between, for example, Miami and Panama in a day-and-a-half. Significantly greater ranges are possible at reduced speeds, without sacrificing carrying capacity.

Strategic and cost advantages at near 100% availability

During its first year the Austal TSV has covered an astounding 85,148 nautical miles (including the positioning voyage from Australia). This is equivalent to four circumnavigations of the world at the equator. All of this has been achieved at an operational availability of 99.9% previously unheard of in military transportation circles.

"WestPac Express" can deploy a complete battalion of 970 marines together with up to 550 tonnes of vehicles and equipment, in one lift, with considerable strategic and cost advantages compared to the airlift methods traditionally used by IIMEF.

"With the catamaran, we're not relying on the Air Force or the Navy to help us," said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Gene Rose, "WestPac Express" operations officer. "It's under complete control of IIIMEF. While it used to take us two weeks to deploy by air from Okinawa to Korea, we can do it in 22 hours now. And we can carry more equipment and people, which makes us better equipped and better prepared."

The fact that the TSV can accomplish in a single voyage what would typically take Air Mobility Command multiple flights spread over a 14 to 16 day period is estimated to save IIIMEF some 250 flights, and millions of dollars, each year.

Colonel Michael J Godfrey, G4 Deputy Chief of Staff, IIIMEF, said: "We've saved hundreds of training days it [WestPac Express] has been an overwhelming success."

The "WestPac Express" transformation success story is not only about saving time and money. It is also about increased capability.

"The more we work with the vessel the more we find we can do with the vessel," General Gregson said.

"Not only can we move the ground combat element in an operationally meaningful move, in other words a battalion with all it rolling stocks and its supplies in one lift, but we've discovered we can also lift our smaller helicopters to destinations that would involve a lot of flying and a lot of on-ground refueling just to get them there," the General explained.

This ability to carry aircraft is a reflection of the outstanding versatility of the Austal TSV's cargo deck. Using roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ramps at both bow and stern doors for loading, the deck carried 1,847 military vehicles in the first year of operation, including Light and Amphibious Armored Vehicles and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles. Significant amounts of non-vehicular cargo were also transported.

General Gregson said one of the key strategic advantages of the Austal TSV is its shallow draft, which allows it to reach locations that have previously been inaccessible.

"One of the pleasant surprises we discovered with the WestPac Express is we can also embark our troops and equipment to ports that are very shallow, that are not major ports," he said. "This opens up new opportunities for us."

As an example of this, in February "WestPac Express" became the first ship in 20 years to use Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni's port.

"The last ship here was the USS San Bernadino in 1980," said Gene Rose. "That was the last time it was easy to move units out of Iwakuni. Now, the LSTs (Tank Landing Ships) are all committed to support of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit."

Most ships are not able to use Iwakuni's port facilities and instead have to anchor offshore and transfer equipment via barge. The Austal TSV's high maneuverability and shallow draught enable it to berth alongside making it much easier to load and unload equipment.

Highly experienced builder meet's customer needs

The tremendous success of the 331 foot Austal TSV is good news not only for IIIMEF but also for the ship's builder, Austal Ships. Based in Western Australia, Austal has built over 70 such vessels in its 14 year history, including 20 large catamarans capable of carrying passengers and vehicles. It is this commercial ferry technology that has now been transferred to the defense sector in the form of "WestPac Express".

Austal's managing director, Bob McKinnon, said the extremely positive feedback received on "WestPac Express" was a clear indication that Austal's success in building for the international ferry market can be repeated in military vessel sector.

"While we recognize that military and commercial customers have some different requirements, both technical and procedural, one of Austal's great strengths is our ability to work with our customers to develop the best possible solution to their needs, and then deliver it in a timely and cost-effective manner. Clearly that is as attractive to defense organizations as it is to our commercial clients," he said pointing out that Austal, in partnership with Defence Maritime Services, has recently been short-listed for the supply of new patrol boats for the Royal Australian Navy.

United States shipyard prepares for potential orders

While "WestPac Express" was built in Australia, it is likely that the U.S. military's long-term requirements for similar high speed vessels will be met from the purpose-built shipyard Austal established in Mobile, Alabama in 1999.

Austal USA, a partnership with leading U.S. shipbuilder Bender Shipbuilding & Repair, makes Austal's market leading aluminum vessels available to the U.S. commercial and military markets. Significant inter-site transfer between Austal USA and the headquarters in Western Australia means that the same leading edge technology and design capabilities, and the same customer-focused attitude to quality and service, is available from both facilities.

Austal USA already has comprehensive assembly halls 360 feet (110 m) by 93 feet (28 m) and the waterfront location allows for considerable expansion in the near term. Austal USA is continuing to increase its capacity, with future US military opportunities a firm objective.

"Our decision to establish a modern shipyard in Alabama enables Austal to take full advantage of further U.S . military orders," McKinnon explained.

Establishing benchmarks for the ships of the future

Having traveled in excess of 85,000 nautical miles at an operational availability rate of practically 100%, "WestPac Express" is now also playing an important role in the development process for future advanced vessel concepts for military use.

The U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) has tasked the Carderock Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWCCD) to conduct a range of propulsion, fuel economy and seakeeping trials on the Austal TSV. This information will provide baseline technical data for the wider TSV program and establish performance thresholds against which future advanced vessel concepts can be compared.

Staff from NSWCCD, which is the U.S. Navy's center of excellence for ships and ship systems, visited "WestPac Express" in Japan recently for the purposes of installing specialized testing equipment to monitor the vessel's performance. They were met by Austal technical staff, who had been asked to assist with the instrumentation of the vessel. The Austal personnel were able to provide valuable advice, and a detailed briefing on the design and construction of "WestPac Express", to their U.S. counterparts.

"Austal considers the enhancement of the military sector's understanding of the true capabilities of its high speed craft platforms to be an important process in furthering their use in defense applications, and is thus keen to assist in projects of this type," said McKinnon.

"We are very pleased that 'WestPac Express' has been selected for this project. Clearly it is contributing to the knowledge base required to enable future acquisitions by the U.S. military to be made on the best available information, while at the same time carrying out the important logistics role for which it was conceived."

Having established a firm foothold in the defense market, Austal continues to develop and expand its range of high speed military vessels in direct response to the needs of the United States and other nations' current and future requirements. Feedback from the operation of "WestPac Express" is an integral part of this process, as are elements of Austal's research and development programs for its commercial shipbuilding activities.

In addition to Theater Support Vessels, Austal Ships' defense range now includes high speed vessels developed for specific needs such as mine countermeasures command ships that are capable of landing and deploying helicopters as well as carrying a range of other military hardware and personnel.

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