Stiletto Stealth Ships: Look Different. Ride Different. Buy Different

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M-Ship Stiletto(click to view full) With the formal roll-out of the 88-foot Stiletto stealth ship and its cutting-edge “M-Hull” wave-damping design on Jan 31/06, the late Vice-Admiral Cebrowski’s legacy of advocating “the small, the fast and the many” for the US Navy took a step forward. The ship was deployed on operations, and proved out […]

M-Ship Stiletto
(click to view full)

With the formal roll-out of the 88-foot Stiletto stealth ship and its cutting-edge “M-Hull” wave-damping design on Jan 31/06, the late Vice-Admiral Cebrowski’s legacy of advocating “the small, the fast and the many” for the US Navy took a step forward.

The ship was deployed on operations, and proved out a number of the concepts behind her construction, but questions about the long-term durability of composite hulls prevented the type’s adoption into full US Navy service. The ship has been pushed to a maritime technology experimentation and demonstration role, but her saga remains interesting.

The Stiletto Program

Stiletto rear

Rear w. launch well
(click to view full)

The M80 Stiletto began as part of Project WolfPac, which aimed to test new concepts of shallow-water and riverine warfare organized around swarms of smaller, affordable ships linked by communications. The ship reportedly cost about $6 million to build, and the overall costs of the experiment were expected to reach about $12 million. Stiletto was deployed in tests, and has performed missions in the Caribbean, including at least one drug bust.

Under the current Stiletto Maritime Demonstration Program, M80 is currently owned and operated by Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock’s Combatant Craft Division. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering, Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) sponsors Stiletto for maritime military technology demonstrations by industry, governments, and academic organizations. As they put it:

“This is an opportunity to learn and improve systems as they function in a stressful environment while underway at-sea. Additionally, the warfighter may attend the demonstration to learn about the mission capability your system provides.”

The M80 Stiletto Craft


Stiletto & Manta UAV
(click to view full)

The Stiletto’s unusual shape and patented M-hull were designed by the Naval Architects at M Ship Company, LLC. The ship was built by Knight and Carver out of composite materials, which are necessary in order to allow construction of the vessel’s unusual shapes.

Overall, M80 Stiletto is 88′ 6″ long, with a beam of 40′ 5″. This is about the size of the US Navy’s LCAC air-cushion landing craft (7″ longer and about 6′ 7″ narrower), allowing transport in USN amphibious ships. The draft to keel under full load is an astonishingly small 2′ 5″, and the ship stunned a group of Caribbean drug smugglers who tried to elude her by maneuvering over a near-surface reef. Stiletto simply followed, and caught them.

Power comes from 4 Caterpillar C32 engines and Arneson ASD-14 drives. Officially, these propel craft to a maximum of 47 knots in calm waters, dropping to 25 knots in sea state 4 (waves up to 3.5m / 8 feet). Unofficially, the craft hit 51 knots in 8-foot waves during 2006 tests. Stiletto is considered operational up to Sea State 5, with waves of up to 4m / 13 feet. Range will vary with conditions, but the Navy lists it as “over 550 nm.”

M80: SEALS rear deck entry

SEALs into Stiletto
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The 79.25 tonne ship has a payload area of 185.4 square meters (1,996 square feet), and full standard capacity is 13 people, including a 3-person crew. Stiletto can slip into very shallow waters, launching inflatable boats up to 11m long, UAVs, or USV/UUVs, all the while serving as a communications hub via its “electronic keel.”

The M-Hull design does several things. One, it improves speed by lessening drag. Two, it sharply cuts the ship’s wake signature in the water, and its noise signature as it races through the waves. Best of all, the M-Hull significantly reduces the pounding its occupants take from waves – poundings that often result in back injuries that cut service careers short, or leave sailors with lingering and expensive disabilities in later life.

Composite hulls’ ability to stand up to the sea’s remorseless long-term pounding is still a matter of debate in some circles, and M Ship has been investing in the development of proprietary “Tough Ship” technology to address some of those concerns. They hope to combine those proprietary composite blends and manufacturing techniques with an updated design, to produce the “Stiletto ISR” unmanned vehicle carrier.

Stiletto’s Rationale

Stiletto recovers Aerosonde 4.7

M80 & Aerosonde 4.7
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The late Vice-Admiral Cebrowski’s core concept was that technology was changing the rules of naval warfare in many of the world’s shallow, near-shore littoral zones. Pervasive communications can make even derelict-looking fishing dhows an effective spy network in many of the world’s contested waters, and robots above and below the surface will increase in number. Couple those things with long-reach, high-performance anti-ship missiles as precision strike gets cheap, and these surveillance-strike complexes are becoming deadly threats to even well-defended platforms.

Cebrowski believed that a navy of a few huge capital assets becomes too vulnerable in a networked world. He published some notable work that tried to get the US Navy to rethink its overall ship design and force structure, and also pushed for a smaller set of “Streetfighter” ships that would combine small size, speed, and weapons to broaden the threat picture for enemy commanders, and make their tactical decisions much more complex and difficult.

Stiletto was just one outgrowth of those concepts. In 2006, Stiletto program manager US Navy Commander Greg Glaros’ provided a window into the initial thinking behind Stiletto as a program:

“Stiletto was constructed in 15 months starting Oct 04. She is made completely out of Carbon fiber. Her purpose is to insert emerging technology at little cost due to her Electronic Keel and to provide a venue for operational experimentation. It is not perfect, nor is she designed to solve everyone’s needs (no she does not submerge – we left that to the Billion $ club). What she is designed to do is expand our technical competence against an elusive adversary and learn operationally in a very short period of time. With regards to its survivability or operational relevancy we will all learn by her mere existence. Easy to kill??? – We seem to easily lose sight that most military systems are all easy to destroy by a willing enemy.

Our objectives should be focused on matching our adversaries at scale with an ability to cope and adapt – surely the Stark, Cole, M-1 ABRAMS, and Hummers have taught us how easy it is to kill systems designed to survive everything our engineering imagined – unfortunately what our engineer imagine often do not align with what our enemy intends…

During the last two weeks Stiletto out performed our expectations – with advanced speeds in calm waters and not so calm…and out performing in other areas in a time frame and within a cost that seems to be out of the reach of our requirements process and acquisition system.

Time to operational market matters…”

Performance in the Caribbean showed that the ship could fulfill its basic concept. Stiletto showed clear potential against small, fast-moving enemies, and as a platform for advanced technologies like UAVs.

The US Navy remained unconvinced of its uses as a full-production naval platform, however, citing issues with durability and performance in rough seas (Sea State 5+). Instead, the Navy adopted the boat as a technology demonstrator, much like her larger FSF-1 Seafighter contemporary in San Diego.

Contracts and Key Events

2011 – 2013

Life as a demonstration program: NASA, NECC, Royal Navy.

M80 Stiletto: Night

Stiletto in the dark
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June 10-20/13: UK co-operation. The Stiletto Maritime Demonstration Program partners with Britain’s DSTL (Defense Science and Technology Laboratory), who wanted to observe and refine the operation of UAVs from smaller boat platform. It’s Stiletto’s 2nd formal capability demonstration period.

Three different UAVs were picked for the demonstration and launched from Stiletto’s flight deck, including DRS’ Neptune. DSTL personnel were on board, and observed launch, payload operation, and recovery evolutions near Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Patuxent River, MD. US NAVSEA | DRS: RQ-15 Neptune.

Jan 14-27/13: NECC. The Stiletto Maritime Demonstration Program conducts its 1st formal capability demonstration for US Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), off the coast of Virginia Beach, VA. NECC ran a bunch of smaller craft to simulate small boat threats, while Stiletto cycled through a number of payloads and tried to find and track the threats from its Command Information Center.

Stiletto used unmanned systems, solid-state radar systems, 360-degree awareness infrared sensors, and full-motion video systems. Each was provided under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), because this was outside the traditional acquisition process, and systems were swapped in and out at the end of each day. Week 1 involved structured demonstrations and evaluations, while the 2nd week shifted toward full operational testing and use by the sailors involved. US Navy.

July 30/12: NASA. NASA uses Stiletto to retrieve an experimental IRVE-3 inflatable space capsule heat shield from North Carolina coastal waters, following a rocket launch from Wallops Island, VA.

The M80 craft is operated by the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock, VA, out of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, VA. NASA | Nextgov.

2003 – 2010

Initial contracts; Launch; Contract to improve M-Hull aquatic modeling; 2 missions and a drug bust, but USN doesn’t see a long-term operational role.

M80 in Mayport, 2009

Mayport, 2009
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June 13/09: Mission. A Pentagon photo release notes that Stiletto is scheduled to deploy this day from Mayport, FL to Latin American waters, under the operational control of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet, and under the tactical control of Joint Interagency Task Force – South. Stiletto will conduct counter-drug missions.

March 12/09: Mission. Gannett’s Navy Times reports that the new US 4th Fleet, which began operations in June 2008 based in Mayport, FL, will be using Stiletto on an ongoing basis for its operations around the Caribbean and South America.

Other ships that will participate in 4th fleet operations over the next few months will include the hospital ship USNS Comfort [T-AH-20]; the Tarawa Class amphibious assault ship USS Nassau [LHA-4]; the Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates USS Doyle [FFG-39], USS Ford [FFG-54], USS Kauffman [FFG-59]; the chartered rapid transport catamaran USS Swift [HSV-2]; and the Harpers Ferry class Class amphibious support ship USS Oak Hill [LSD-51].

Sept 22/08: Drug Bust. M Ship Co. announces that their craft has completed a successful 6,000 nautical-mile deployment in the waters off Colombia, the Bahamas and the Florida Straits. The deployment was capped off by a dramatic, high-speed chase of a “go-fast” boat near the Florida coast. The chase lasted more than 2 hours at speeds between 40 – 50 knots. When the smugglers realized they could not outrun the Stiletto, they reportedly headed for shallow sand bars and reefs. The Stiletto’s draft is just 2.5 feet, however, and so the 3 suspected smugglers were caught.

Capt. Jim Hruska, a Transformation Strategist in DDR&E/RRTO/Emerging Capabilities Division is listed by M Ship as the author of the post deployment report. The corporate release highlights conclusions re: the ship’s value as an affordable, high-speed, shallow water capable craft.

An Inside Defense article adds that the report also concluded that the ships are suited to shallow littorals rather than high, rough seas. This kind of fragility under repeated stress has been a widely held concern regarding composite craft more generally.


June 30/08: Mission. Stiletto makes a refueling stop at the American territory of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The ship has been moved to NAVSOUTH’s area of responsibility, where it will support the Coast Guard’s efforts and participate in anti-drug operations around the Caribbean.

The ship is actually operated by a small crew of Army mariners from the 7th Sustainment Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. They can also deploy a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) with 7 fully armed Coast Guardsmen from the ship, in order to conduct ground operations. US Navy | Venezuela’s El Universal.

July 2008: To RRTO. A National Defense Magazine article says that Stiletto has been in use as a test bed ship, courtesy of the Pentagon’s rapid reaction technology office. The office inherited the ship when the Office for Force Transformation was disbanded, and needed a maritime test bed for the concepts companies brought to it. Since Stiletto was designed from the outset to accept new technologies quickly and easily, it was a natural fit.


May 9/06: Modeling. M Ship Co. announces that the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research has awarded the firm a $750,000 contract, including options, to validate the potential of their innovative M-hull technology.

The Navy Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract calls for tank testing and sea trials for the M-hull technology, and the development of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) tools for quantifying the hull’s performance. This seems arcane, but it’s vital if one wishes to model the hull’s performance in a variety of sea conditions. Existing ship hull designs have undergone extensive modeling, as well as real life use, allowing certification agencies to declare them safe within a certain range of conditions. New hull technologies need this, too, but the cost burden for the inventor can be crushing without funding like this.

R&D: M-Hull modeling

March 8/06: More trials. The M80 Stiletto did well enough in her just-completed sea trials that the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation (OFT) has ordered additional equipment. The goal? Enable participation in special forces training exercises beginning this month. The boat certainly has serious speed. M Ship:

“During the sea trial, the 88-foot vessel exceeded a speed of 51 knots (nearly 60 miles per hour) in 8-foot seas.”

Jan 31/06: Launch. M Ship Co. announces the launch of the M80 Stiletto, designed as an operational experiment for the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation (OFT). The vessel combines carbon fiber construction with a networked architecture and a revolutionary M-hull. The release also discusses Cebrowski’s legacy.

Nov 2/04: Build. M Ship Co. announces a $6 million contract to build the double M-hulled M80 Stiletto, as part of the advanced Wolf PAC initiative undertaken by the DoD’s Office of Force Transformation (OFT). M Ship Co. is the prime contractor. Small business HUBZone ship builder Knight & Carver YachtCenter in San Diego will build the ship. SP Technologies Ltd. will lend their expertise in composite engineering, and SAIC AMSEC will help with marine engineering and Navy technical support.

“[Stiletto] will be used by the Department of Defense to validate high speed, smooth ride quality and stealth characteristics of the company’s patented M-hull design and explore the scalability of dynamic lift technology. The lightweight carbon fiber composite craft will demonstrate special operation capabilities… launch and operate unmanned vehicles…. Says Charles Robinson, President and Co-Founder of M Ship Co…. After developing the M-hull for 6 years, we are proud that it is one of the fastest and most innovative hull forms on the water today.”

OFT orders M80

Dec 2/03: SBIR grant. Mangia Onda Company, now called M SHIP CO, has secured a Phase I Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) award to develop and evaluate the M-hull design for future U.S. Navy ships.

The Principal Investigator, William Burns, will work closely with Dr. Hamid Hefazi, Professor and Chair of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at California State University, Long Beach. Together, they will develop Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) tools for evaluating the performance of the patented M-hull. M Ship.

SBIR Phase I

Appendix A: M-Hull Technology

M-Hull Technology

M-Hull flow
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Interestingly, the M-hull evolved from a challenge to help solve the serious problem of wave erosion to the ancient buildings of Venice, Italy. Since the streets of this city are water, the authorities were faced with the unique problem of reducing waves created by motorboats to protect the foundations of the buildings along the canals. Chuck Robinson, who lives in the USA but has an apartment in Venice, decided that he had to do something.

The result of this effort was the M-hull. This patented hull form exhibits the shock mitigation features of the deep-V hull, with the roll stability of a multihull. In addition, the hull form creates a natural surface effect that not only enhances top speed performance, but actually uses the bow wave energy to reduce the overall wake signature.

In 2009, M-Hull products included water taxis, the EcoBarca environmentally sensitive tourism ship, and a sport fishing vessel in addition to the Stiletto. Other proposed variants included cargo, commercial shipping, Coast Guard, and larger military applications like the MS 120 and MS 200 Littoral. Perhaps the most interesting potential for the M-Hull, however, lay in its promise as a component of seabasing. M-Ship co-founder Bill Burns said:

“I think there could be some opportunity for seabasing using the M-hull technologies, not only for the connectors but also for the seabase itself,” he said. “And we are developing some conceptual designs where we can actually build square ships that can link together and break apart based on the mission needs.”

By 2013, this picture had changed. M Ship had shrunk its horizons to improved naval architecture processes, while touting the Stilleto products, and conducting ongoing research into Tough Ship composite materials and techniques that would be robust enough for military applications. They hope to launch a Stiletto ISR out of those efforts, which might be attractive to nations in key littoral zones as a UAV/ USV / UUV carrier.

Additional Readings

* US NAVSEA Combatant Craft Division – Stiletto Experimental Craft. Want to work with them using your product? Click here.

* USN Stiletto Maritime Demonstration Program – Facebook page

* M Ship Company

* Stiletto named one of TIME Magazine’s best inventions of 2006.

* National Defense Magazine (July 2008) – Office Seeks to Quickly Field Counter-Terrorism Technologies. The Pentagon’s rapid reaction technology office is using Stiletto as a maritime test bed, due to the ease with which new technologies can be inserted and removed.

* WIRED Danger Room (April 19/07) – Orphaned Ship Looks for Sugar Daddy

* Defense Tech, via Wayback (Jan 30/06) – Stealth Ship Chief Speaks

* Defense Tech, via Wayback (Jan 26/06) – SEAL Ship: Silent But Deadly

* Wall Street Journal (July 11/01) – Plans for Small Ship Pose Big Questions for U.S. Navy [PDF]


In one of the UAV photos above, DID mistakenly identified the air vehicle as a ScanEagle. Fortunately, one of the people present for the photo wrote in to say:

“What is shown is [Advanced Ceramic Research’s] Manta UAV launcher shortly after it was launched and conducted a successful autonomous underwater mine detection mission during the Howler Experiment with Naval Special Clearance Team One. Our Silver Fox UAV was also launched by the Navy team from the rigid hull inflatable hull boats deployed from inside of Stiletto. The Stiletto made naval history that day during the experiments with the first ever mine counter warfare missions that included our UAV operations.”

The label has since been corrected.

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