The US Navy has accepted delivery of its thirteenth Expeditionary Fast Transport ship, which will be the first one in its class capable of sailing with no crew.
Austal delivered the future USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13) to the service on February 16, after starting first trials with it in the summer of 2022.
The Spearhead-class ship has already demonstrated point-to-point autonomous navigation, vessel handling and transfer of vessel control between manned to unmanned modes, but the navy will now perform more trials before commissioning it.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm Mike Gilday told reporters at the WEST 2023 conference that the service would approach unmanned operations with the ship in a gradual fashion.
“I think one step at a time. In terms of that ship, it has the capability but we will integrate into fleet in a very deliberate manner. We won’t have a deployment and unmanned and an unmanned deployment right off the bat,” USNI News quoted Adm Gilday as saying.
“We want to make sure we get it right. One ship will not necessarily solve the command and control problems, the engineering reliability problems and so we’re going to want to make sure that we have it right before we move too fast – operationally and in terms of building more of them.”
“The delivery of EPF 13 comes after several successful at-sea periods for the vessel, including unmanned logistics prototype trials to assess autonomous capabilities integrated into the shipboard configuration,” said Tim Roberts, Strategic and Theater Sealift Program Manager, Program Executive Office (PEO), Ships. “The Navy and our shipbuilding partner, Austal USA, are proud of the work accomplished and look forward to EPF 13 providing capability and capacity to Military Sealift Command, the fleet, and the US Marine Corps.”
EPFs are designed to operate in shallow waterways and are capable of a wide range of activities. They can transport 600 short tons as far as 1,200 nautical miles at an average speed of 35 knots.
Each vessel includes a flight deck to support day and night aircraft launch and recovery operations. The ships are capable of interfacing with roll-on/roll-off discharge facilities and on/off-loading vehicles such as a fully combat-loaded Abrams main battle tank.
Apalachicola has the same abilities as the other ships in its class. The only difference is its autonomy package integrated by Austal under a a $44 million contract from 2021. The shipbuilder worked with L3 Harris and General Dynamics to accomplish this task.