The Stiletto is seen at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on March 2, 2007. (Mort Fryman / AP)
After more than a decade in development, an experimental landing ship aimed at boosting the ability of special operators, like the Navy SEALs, to make rapid and stealthy sea landings is targeted for more testing next year by the Pentagon.
The M80 Stiletto is a carbon-framed, five-hulled watercraft that can reach speeds of more than 50 mph while carrying a crew of three and smaller landing craft. First deployed experimentally in 2006, records show, it remains part of Navy’s experimental fleet.
The Stiletto is also one of the visible results of the Pentagon’s former Office of Force Transformation, which was created in 2001 and phased out five years later. It was an early Bush administration initiative to make the military more nimble and less reliant on personnel- and equipment-heavy operations. That changed after the starts of the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Documents from the U.S. Special Operations Command released this week show the command is seeking help from defense contractors, universities and other researchers to devise new equipment and weapons that can be mounted on the Stiletto and other special operations watercraft for military operations. The experimental equipment will be tested during three exercises scheduled for 2014.
Originally conceived as part of OFT’s push for network-centric warfare, the Stiletto is meant to serve as a floating data hub for a variety of high-tech devices, including drones and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. Aerial drones can fly from the ship’s decks, while smaller landing craft can launch from the ship, too. SOCOM documents show the upcoming tests will focus on integrating such equipment with the Stiletto and other boats.
Since it first appeared in exercises in 2006, records show the Stiletto has been used sparingly. It helped recover a test NASA re-entry vehicle in 2012. Pentagon budget documents show the Office of the Secretary of Defense plans to spend slightly more than $6 million on research in the current fiscal year on the watercraft. Military planners expect to use the ship during a series of maneuvers and war games in 2014, Pentagon budget documents show.
The need to make rapid sea landings without attracting attention is essential for the SEALs, who had to break off a raid in a coastal Somalian town this month after making a sea landing and encountering resistance from forces tied to a leader of the terrorist group al-Shabab. Members of that group claimed responsibility for the September attack on the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed 67 people.
As it winds down operations in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is moving toward a strategy that emphasizes smaller, more tightly focused strikes than the large-scale ground operations that characterized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means more focus on Special Operations, of which the Stiletto is a potential part. It may also mean that the mission of the Office of Force Transformation, shelved in 2006, may not be dead.