M80 Stiletto Is The Pentagon’s Stealthy Little Experimental Ship That Could

For a decade the ‘M-hulled’ Stiletto has been the surrogate for new maritime combat technologies and concepts.

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Although it looks like something from another world, the M80 Stiletto is ship designed for littoral, or “brown water,” operations. The unique craft was ordered in the mid 2000s by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s now defunct Office For Transformation (OFT). The vessel was originally envisioned as the centerpiece of an initiative called Project WolfPAC which aimed to revolutionize “netcentric” command and control capabilities and combat effectiveness of small ships operating cooperatively with other vessels, special warfare units and drones in the challenging littoral environment. Think of it as a stealthy floating supercomputer, mothership and command and control station that is capable of rocketing through the water at high-speeds in very shallow waters.

The Stiletto program was also an element of a larger push by Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, who ran the OFT, to get the Navy to rely less on a relatively small number of vulnerable capital ships in favor of smaller, cheaper and more numerous vessels outfitted with cutting-edge technology.

The DoD described WolfPAC as such:

“In the 21st Century, warfare will require agility and the application of tailored forces against more diffuse threats. These threats will retreat to the most complex terrain and will take advantage of both local and global seams in modern society. As part of an overall Joint Force, SOF and SOF-like forces must be prepared to support multiple simultaneous, distributed, decentralized battles and campaigns against both conventional and unconventional adaptive enemies. The threat has been watching intently and has designed denial and deception strategies, which may blunt or negate our technological superiority or may inhibit a force that is over-reliant on strike and single lines of advance. Therefore it is incumbent upon tomorrow’s joint forces to be interdependently networked and coherent to “conduct simultaneous, distributed and parallel operations synergistically across the levels of warfare, in depth.

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WolfPAC is an Office of Force Transformation (OFT) operational experiment designed to explore command and control of geographically dispersed, networked, autonomous and semi-autonomous assets.

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Forces are increasingly burdened by the lack of a coherent strategy to “control” large numbers of dispersed assets. Distributing those assets geographically, loosely federated by networks, only serves to increase the complexity of these controlling challenges. As an experimental venue, WolfPAC will serve to resolve some of the most stressing tactical and operational networked command and control challenges. As an operational experiment, WolfPAC will use a wide variety of assets and will investigate whether or not a new approach to command and control can be engineered practically and advanced operationally. The co-evolution of emerging technology with experimentation will serve to generate operationally relevant lessons for commanders and provide them with the means to command and control distributed, adaptive operations in the riverine and littoral environment.”

What is really being described here are the computers and communications suite intended for Stilleto, as well design requirements for a ship defined by the smaller craft it is slated to carry and operate. But the M80’s unique shape, which is more spatula than stilleto-like, also comes from a pressing need to find a solution for the pounding that crews and SEALs take while traveling at high-speed through rough water on traditional v-hulled boats. The Pentagon describes the M80’s M-shaped hull and their reason for procuring it for tests:

“Stiletto is designed to channel the energy that normally is produced as wake in a conventional V-Hull craft up under the craft into tunnels created by the M-shaped hull form. The energy normally lost to an inverted V-shaped wake is now channeled into the tunnels under the craft producing a hydrodynamic lift as Stiletto makes way through the water… The craft passively lifts itself out of the water about a foot as it speeds along reducing drag. The relatively light weight of the all carbon fiber structure compared to a steel or aluminum craft and the inherent strength of the carbon fiber itself makes for a very favorable payload fraction and of course, lends to its high-speed characteristics.

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Stiletto was designed with the needs of our special forces in mind. SEALS belonging to the Navy have traditionally rode a V-Hull craft from miles offshore to insert their teams on potentially hostile shores. The wave action and resulting rough ride of the V-Hull has, over the years, taken their toll on these SEALs such that nearly a third of them are medically discharged within just 10 years of service due to the pounding G-forces applied to their bodies. The M-Hull was designed to reduce the wakes of commercial ferries in Venice to help minimize the effects of wake damage to their aging buildings. Applying the concept of a high-speed, wave-piercing assault craft to the M-Hull technology, OFT partnered with the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to build a mother craft to help insert their personnel so an internal boat well that can accommodate their 11-meter Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) was designed into the craft.”

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The M80's unique hull design looks like something from another planet.

Stiletto’s hullform drastically reduces the ship's drag, wake and acoustic signature, and also reduces the continuous smacking of the hull against the water while operating at high speeds. It also provides a far more stable platform than a traditional monohull designs – great for launching and recovering smaller vehicles, manned and unmanned alike. So really, Stiletto started out as a technology demonstrator with complimentary goals in mind. One had more to do with the unique physical form of the vessel itself, and the other had to do more with what went inside the vessel. The idea was that the M80’s design, including its M-shaped hull, could be drastically scaled up or down, that is, if they ever wanted to put a vessel based on the design into production at all.

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Stiletto at the end of her construction in San Diego.

The M-Ship Company designed Stiletto and it was built by the Knight & Carver, a commercial and private ship builder out of San Diego, utilizing advanced composites and a slew of then cutting-edge technologies with an emphasis on adaptability. This included an open architecture computer network concept – dubbed an electronic keel – that was originally made up of a 1-gigabit local area network, with four server racks housing Kontron blade servers. Flat screen tactical displays dispersed throughout the ship, including on a series of sci-fi looking, shock absorbing mission stations located in the ship’s mission compartments, are capable of presenting a “fused picture” of Stiletto’s combat environment by marrying information from radars, electronic service measures, unmanned air, surface and underwater craft, data-links, infrared systems and other sensors.

The idea was that new technology could be added on a plug-and-play basis by just plugging the hardware in via a USB interface and having software loaded onto the ship’s computer system for quick integration. This easily reconfigurable “electronic keel” concept is now becoming a common feature on many American combat vessels, from high-tech patrol boats to stealth destroyers.

The ship went from concept to a reality in just 18 months, incredibly fast considering how unique it was at the time, and frankly, how unique it still is today. The cost to build the M80 was a relatively scant $10 million (some reports put it as $6 million).

Naval Special Warfare Center Carderock’s Combat Craft Division, known for having some of the strangest and most shadowy special operations craft on the planet in their stable, would serve as technical and operational overseers of the program. Although Stilleto was born in San Diego, the vessel would eventually would be based in Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek where it remains today.

Being nearly half as wide as it is long (88.60 X 40 feet), with its unique M-shaped hull design that offers a relatively tiny draft, Stilleto can operate in as little as two and a half feet of water. This could put beaches and even the well decks of amphibious combat ships theoretically within its operational purview. The M80 features a unique prop placement configuration that works well in shallow environments but jet drives could take their place for extremely shallow water operations.

Stiletto’s extremely shallow draft design does not come at the sacrifice of speed or stability.  The ship is powered by a quartet of Caterpillar C32 1652hp engines and can hit velocities of nearly 70 miles per hour, or 60 knots. While fully outfitted, a high-speed in the 50-55 knot range is more common. At full speed it has a range of 500 miles, but that can be extended with auxiliary fuel tanks, and its range greatly expands while ‘cruising’ at around 40 knots. The M80 is capable of operating in sea state five (13 foot waves), and has been tested at 51 knots in sea state four conditions (8 foot waves). 

Its pancake-like design offers a large internal volume not constrained by the normal linear configuration of standard vessels. This results in a very spacious mission and cargo bay area and flight-deck on top that covers the majority of the ship’s planform. A rear ramp for launching and recovering rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) and unmanned surface and undersurface vehicles is also included in the baseline design.

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Navy SEALs approach the M80's rear boat ramp in a RHIB.

The M80 is light enough to be craned aboard larger vessels acting as a mothership, or for very long-range repositioning transits. Its maximum gross weight is 67 tons, with nearly 45% of that being dedicated to payload. So there is plenty of capacity for fitting new systems and carrying additional cargo beyond the three crew, 12 SEALs, a 11 meter RHIB, and some small unmanned aircraft and its innovative control stations and computer gear as defined by the baseline configuration.

These features result in a small littoral combat ship with a special knack for supporting special operations and interdiction missions. Yet the adaptability that was an original hallmark of the M80 design has allowed it to survive and keep working over a decade after it was introduced into service.

After being handed over to the Navy in 2006 and run through tests related to the WolfPAC initiative, it was thrown into a long list of complex multi-ship exercises. During these exercises the stealthy ship transported special operations personnel, was used as a command and control ship, operated as part of mine clearing operations, and worked as a drug interdiction platform. Eventually it was sent to the Caribbean spent time in Columbia where it ran down drug runners with some success, following them where other vessels could not, namely over shallow reefs at high-speed. In 2012, the M80 even worked for NASA, snatching up the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment 3 (IRVE-3) test article that had been launched from Wallops Island and splashed down off the North Carolina coast.

The M80 was also used in one of the first proof of concept missions for launching light unmanned aircraft from small vessels in support of special operations. The aircraft were used for beyond-line-of-sight communications relays and providing real-time overhead surveillance for SEALs during operations. Today, deploying small UAVs from tactical fast boats has become commonplace, especially in the special operations community.

Fast forward to today and Stiletto’s mission has morphed dramatically. Many of the technological concepts and capabilities it originally featured and tested have since matured and have migrated to frontline forces and weapons platforms. Its open architecture command and control and communications suite in particular, and the “distributed” combat operations model it was built to help evolve, certainly have become a mainstay of modern American warfare. But just because these accomplishments are behind Stiletto doesn’t mean the boat has become irrelevant.

The M80 during UAV recovery operations.

Today the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering, Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) facilitates the use of M80 for quickly testing and fielding new and potentially disruptive maritime technologies such as cutting-edge sensors and unmanned craft by the Pentagon, the defense industry, foreign governments and academic institutions. By leveraging Stiletto's ease of adaptability, all types of cutting-edge capabilities can be rushed into trials, after which they can be quickly evaluated, and either sent back for more development, sent to operational units or passed over entirely.

Which might leave you wondering why Stiletto never made it into production. Well, first off, it was never really a prototype, it was a technology demonstrator. Additionally, some sources state that the ship’s commercial grade manufacturing and carbon-fiber composite construction were simply too foreign and unproven for the Navy to bet on it in a big way. Today M-Ship is working to alleviate this issue with its “Tough Ship” initiative.

Stiletto’s M shaped hull was also thought to have been more ideally suited for littoral environments than open water, where it could encounter heavy sea states for long periods of time. Finally, the Navy became deeply invested in the troubled Littoral Combat Ship program. This vessel was far larger and more expensive than even a vastly enlarged M80 would likely have been, and it relied on aluminum hull construction instead of composites. Its mission set was also different, having to take on some roles of the “blue water” Perry class frigate it would partially replace. A “mission module” concept also dictated the LCS design, something that in has proven to be a developmental disaster.

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Stiletto operating at night.

The LCS has struggled since its birth, and having another littoral combat ship of sorts, and a smaller and far cheaper one, would have been a big threat to the more lucrative program. Additionally, the LCS program has long been touted as a solution for increasing the Navy’s declining mainline hull inventory number, not just creating adaptable, cheap and effective “boats” for fighting in the littoral environment. Still, M-Ship continues to evolve the theoretical M80 design, and has come up with a drone mothership offering known as the Stiletto Maritime Operations Center, an inexpensive brown water mothership of sorts for unmanned capabilities. The Navy doesn’t seem to interested in it at this time, and Special Operations Command has angled for a far larger mothership of their own.

Often times, proof of concept and technology demonstrator vehicles get discarded after their intended test program has concluded. Some survive and even thrive in private hands, but normally their unique configuration and experimental components make continued operations unaffordable and sustainability troublesome. As such, that fact that the sub $10 million M80 is still creating value for the Pentagon, even if only intermittently, is downright amazing.

Although neither the M80 or its M-shaped hull made it into active service, this “Millennium Falcon” of Navy vessels’ influence on other designs and subsystems that did is undeniable. And Stiletto appears to be set to continue work as a facilitator for emerging maritime combat technologies for years to come.

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The M80 in its element, hauling ass.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com