Meet the "Greenest" Ship in the Navy: The Westpac Express

by Craig Hooper on March 3, 2011

For almost ten years, the Marine Corps–the Third Marine Expeditionary Force–and the Military Sealift Command have leased the Austal-built Westpac Express, a 331-foot long aluminum high-speed ferry. But with the emergence of the “Green Fleet” concept, and with the Navy and Marine Corps eager to highlight “green” initiatives, this puny vessel (a gas-guzzler in itself, no less) deserves to stand proudly with the Navy’s Prius, the hybrid-drive USS Makin Island, as one of the greenest ships in the non-nuclear Navy.

Why? Because the vessel transformed the way the Marines operated on Okinawa. Back in 2000, the Marines relied upon airlift to move about the Pacific.

But moving Marines by air was an unreliable (and wasteful) process that could take days–even weeks–getting Marines from one place to another (the 2,000 ton vessel can move some 950 troops and 550 tons of additional “stuff” in one lift–fast, making the Guam to Okinawa transit in 36 hours). Since the Marines didn’t own the jets, the airlifters would often get yanked away at the last minute, or, if the Marines looked for a private solution, a contracted US aircraft would have to wing it’s way–empty–from CONUS, usually–to shuttle Marines about.

It’s quite a statement that a humble $1.75 million dollar lease (for a two-month experiment) in mid 2001 has grown into a proud ten-year operational record. The fact that this logistical platform has been chugging along, out of the limelight for ten trouble-free years, is lost on most of the Navy community (the Marines, in particular, are loosing a pain-free chance to demonstrate their commitment to the SECNAV’s Energy-Saving initiatives. For a service that needs procurement support from the SECNAV, overlooking the Westpac Express is an inexplicable oversight. It’s something the Commandant should be repeating to everybody–as evidence of the Marine Corps’ unmatched commitment to wise strategic thinking).

But as far as he Green Fleet goes, it would be neat to look back at the records and estimate–roughly–just how much fuel the Marine Corps has saved using this vessel.

The Marines have data. According to Inside Defense (no link, sorry), the Westpac Express transported 4,400 troops and over 2,000 short tons more than 6,700 miles–reaching from Okinawa to Fiji to Guam and beyond. Janes’ says that the first 238-day “proof-of-concept” period in 2001 saved the Navy from paying for 217 C-17 airlifts from Okinawa to Guam, South Korea and Japan. In Green terns, that’s enormous.

The Marines liked what they saw. It didn’t take long for the Marines to see the value in Westpac Express, moving from temporary leases to a 3-year, $31 million-dollar lease in early 2002. It’s been leased ever since–converting to an American Flagged vessel, participating in it’s first humanitarian mission in January 2005, and so forth. If the most recent lease, inked in 2006, runs until Sept 2011, the $55.3 million dollar lease will have more than amply recouped the ship’s $45 million-dollar fabrication costs.

Aside from saving gas–the Westpac Express is quiet, too. We can’t quantify the cost/benefit of heavy-lift aircraft noise, but…that extra “Green” dividend from the Westpac Express should not be ignored, either.

The Westpac Express is also reliable. Even though, according to

a 2006 issue of Janes’ Navy International, the ship travels some 75,000 nautical miles a year, it has enjoyed an availability of 99.7%. Unlike it’s more popular sisters–the DDG-51 or the LPD-17, the ship hasn’t suffered structural warping problems, mast failures…or corrosion. Or engine failures. It just does the job of serving the combatant commander, day after day, week after week, year after year.

So, I throw this over into SECNAV Ray Mabus’ Green Fleet Office. Take note. Since entering the fleet in 2001, the Westpac Express has saved the Marines and the Navy an enormous amount of time, money and strategic position. Ten years ago, this unrecognized vanguard of the “Green Fleet” changed the way the Marines did business in the Pacific, and, as such, the Westpac Express deserves to be recognized as the Greenest ship in the non-nuclear Navy.


leesea March 20, 2011 at 12:58 am

Smitty that is interesting and there are MANY Ro/Pax ships and designs around. Sort of like slower form of transport than JHSV? I like that you took into account open ocean transits which are NOT the forte of the HSVs. Good study I will pass it on.

leesea March 20, 2011 at 12:52 am

BTW I worked with III MEF when evaluating the cost of the WPE (since they provided its fuel to begin with) and it WAS within their means and much less than airlift costed them. Not to mention that whole units moved together something not possible with airlift.
Sea Story: AMC would not even allow Marines to bring their weapons on some flights~

I would add the WPE large capacity (battalion minus most tactical gear) and throughput (time from origin to destinaition) also makes an HSV practical and cost effective.

ALL HSV have an operational envelope much like an airplane. They operate within the strict rules of ABS HSC. WPE backs off from 33 kts transit speed to accomodate passengers i.e. we don’t want to get the troops seasick. (I suspect that was the case in the Med?)

leesea March 20, 2011 at 12:42 am

Craig, Your history needs to go back farther. Preceeding the unsatisfactory airlift was a period in time whent there was an ARG Bravo which was used by the Marines to conduct administrative moves arounnd WestPac. ARG B was homeported at White Beach Okinawa.
The Marines were fed up with AMC so came to MSC to charter the WPE.
I think? what Ken is tryhing to say is what Capt Hughes of NPS already has said – all amphib,sealift (MSC & MARAD) ship are needed for amphibious LIFT as opposed to assault. And that was the key factor in the war in the Pacific. It is LIFT which gets the Marines and Army to where they are needed. It is WPE & JHSV which will move smaller units around to more places in the future. Bob Work pretty much has said the day of the division size assault is over. The era of scaleable theather entry operations is nye.

B.Smitty March 14, 2011 at 10:09 am

A while back, I played around with the idea of converting a displacement RoPax ferry design for this type of use. It would be similar to the HMNZS Canterbury, but use the larger European Highlander ferry as a starting point, (excuse my crude Photoshopping)

In retrospect, maybe starting with a mediums-sized Ro/Ro or container vessel and adding berthing might make more sense. The Kiwis are having problems with the Canterbury that are associated with its ferry roots. OTOH, we wouldn’t need to operate it in the rough, South Pacific.

Craig Hooper March 8, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Great point! But, oh, Sid…don’t get me started about our VIP transport fleet. Don’t do it. Please! This run-away “coddle-the-CEO” mentality has gotta stop…

sid March 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm

“but, even so, it saved a bundle of carbon–and cash!”

If DOD were truly serious about that…They would sh-tcan the VIP C-21’s C-32’s C-37’s C-40’s .

Of course the numbers will be nowhere found…But the tons of fuel per lbs moved puts a fat big lie on any concern about carbon savings….

sid March 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm

We just saw the sea state limitation of HSV’s…

The question NOT asked…

How much …MORE… money could have been saved with a 25 kt displacement hull?

And BTW…There is still Big Plenty foreign and domestic DOD airlift going on…Most of it contracted….

Craig Hooper March 5, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Well, would you rather have big C-17’s flying in to your happy isle?

Sure, the Westpac is less efficient than many other craft, but, you know, they don’t fit the Marine Corps’ requirements for tactical mobility. Sorry, Brad–the Westpac made a big dent in the Corps’ fuel bill. It ain’t a perfect, zero-emission platform, but, even so, it saved a bundle of carbon–and cash!

Mauibrad March 4, 2011 at 7:39 pm

B.S. per weight the thing burns twice as much fuel to cover it’s distances in half the time as almost any other large vessel used by the military. These things are highly fuel inefficient. Definitely not a “green” washing ship. That’s B.S. PR in prep for the first JHSV’s, also fuel inefficient.

Craig Hooper March 4, 2011 at 11:33 am

Touche! Nicely played, sir, nicely played….

But isn’t the operational envelope of the JHSV a little larger than Westpac? And then you can operate helos from it, too…That’s gotta count for somethin’ right?!

Ken Adams March 4, 2011 at 8:49 am

Despite that record of accomplishment and cost saving, someone will decide that what it can’t do is “critical” for effective lift. That thing it can’t do will be buried down in the clutter of stuff that sealift ships need to do once every 25 years. They will state that this function is a requirement for any sealift purchase to support the Marines’ (or Army’s) tactical/operational/administrative movements, and force the construction cost to jump from $45 million to nearly $200 million.
Except I shouldn’t say they WILL do such a thing, because that would be in error. They already HAVE done it with the JHSV contract award at $185 million for the first ship.

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