Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) Vessels
Tanks, Marines, artillery, weapons and supplies can all traverse the ocean at a speed of thirty-five knots to expedite attacks, reinforce operations, deliver special operators and support sea-basing operations on missions intended for the U.S. Navy’s growing fleet of Spearhead-class Expeditionary Fast Transport vessels.
The ships, in development for many years, help enable the Navy as a high-speed maneuver force able to perform a wide range of operations to include
- Humanitarian assistance
- Medical support
- Special Operations transport
- Fast reinforcement of troops, supplies, equipment, and weapons.
EPF Distributed Maritime Operations
Based on their large volume and open design concepts, the Navy has over the years been expanding and evolving the mission set in new directions as the force moves toward Distributed Maritime Operations.
The often under-recognized EPFs have been supporting combat operations and training exercises in vital strategic areas to include the Black Sea, the Arabian Gulf, and throughout the PACOM and SOUTHCOM AORs.
An interesting news report from Defence Blog says Russia has been tracking the EPFs in the Black Sea. The presence of Expeditionary Fast Transport vessels in the Black Sea is particularly crucial, as U.S. Navy warships such as destroyers often patrol to show force and deter potential Russian aggression in the region. This is vital to key NATO allies along the coast of the Black Sea such as Albania and Bulgaria.
Interestingly, beyond the ship’s combat support functionality, the EPFs continue to have an impactful role when it comes to crucial, life-saving humanitarian missions.
EPF Humanitarian Missions
There are many, including support to the U.S. medical response to Haiti’s devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake. The USNS Burlington (T-EPF-10) was immediately sent to the disaster area to deliver supplies, transport key personnel, offer medical assistance, and employ its deck-launched ScanEagle drone to survey the area of destruction in support of rescue workers and emergency responders.
This has helped responders know which airfield can be used and where there might be pressing needs in support of victims. With a reconfigurable cargo bay, the ship can transport injured personnel and rely upon its shallow draft to access shallow island areas and ports. A Navy paper on the EPF says the ship has a shallow 13ft draft and even operates with additional “fixed berthing,” which could transport patients and injured personnel.
“The EPF has a crew of 26 Civilian Mariners with airline-style seating for 312 embarked troops and fixed berthing for an additional 104,” a Navy paper says.
EPF Expanding Medical Capabilities
Austal USA, which is working on EPF Flight II modifications, is greatly expanding the ship’s medical capabilities as part of new Navy requirements, perhaps in response to the increased need, operational performance, and potentially growing global requirements.
“The EPF Flight II variant will have considerable changes for medical facilities, including a multi-bed intensive care unit, two operating rooms, and berthing for a medical team of approximately 100 personnel. Its flight deck will be capable of landing CH-53 helicopters and V-22 aircraft,” Austal reported recently at the Sea Air Space Exhibition.
Such an ability may already be providing critical support in Haiti and also enhancing the overall Navy in the event that the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort hospital ships are already engaged in missions or can’t arrive fast enough.
Why not further expand the Navy’s medical assistance capabilities with more EPFs.
While the Congressional markups and committee budget procedure has yet to fully unfold, the Navy’s 2021 budget request did not include funding for any additional EPFs, potentially letting a highly efficient production line diminish capacity. This could change as service leaders further examine the ship’s growing mission scope and operational value.
Austal USA is currently under contract to build 15 EPFs for the Navy, 12 of which have been delivered thus far. Given the rapid expansion in its mission set and multimission functionality, why isn’t the Navy buying more? An interesting question explored in a 2021 Marine Corps Association paper on the EPF called “Expeditionary Fast Transport Ship A light amphibious warship stand-in capability,” by Capt Robert Locker, Jr.
The paper makes a number of significant points, pointing out that the EPF is performing a number of the island-hopping, fast-transport amphibious missions designed for the now-emerging Light Amphibious Warship.
“Marines are hopeful to receive the first LAW by 2026, whereas the EPF can currently provide company-level ship-to-shore connectors until the LAWs can matriculate into the fleet,” the paper writes.
The paper further explores the issue to suggest that an EPF might not only function as a short-term bridge to the LAW but also as a longer-term supplement, given the expected increase in demand for amphibious, high-speed, multi-domain, ship to shore littoral missions. article poses the question of building more EPFs, suggesting that such an initiative may actually lower costs as well as improve Corps operations.
“If the Marine Corps wanted more EPFs to bridge capabilities, than the vessel would be cheaper to produce than $180 million. Economies of scale were not initially in favor of the EPF: only fourteen vessels were expected to be produced and only twelve were actually constructed. More EPF production would be expected to lower cost,” the paper writes.
It is not difficult to envision the range of ways the EPF might further fortify combat missions, and even make some otherwise not possible operations successful.
When it comes to warfare, the ships can on-load and off-load fully combat-loaded Abrams tanks, a circumstance which multiplies amphibious attack options from ship-to-shore. While the EPFs are not intended to function as fully-armed combat vehicles, they are indeed quite capable of supporting combat operations in a variety of key respects.
“The EPF is designed to transport 600 short tons of military cargo 1,200 nautical miles at an average speed of 35 knots in Sea State 3. The ships are capable of operating in shallow-draft ports and waterways, interfacing with roll-on/roll-off discharge facilities and on/off-loading a combat-loaded Abrams Main Battle Tank (M1A2),” the Navy paper says.
While perhaps operating with less firepower, EPFs enable combat and potential war operations in ways that might not otherwise be possible.
“Each vessel includes a flight deck to support day and night aircraft launch and recovery operations,” a Navy report from last year stated.
This means that armed warships cannot only patrol the area, but that combat vehicles, equipment and forces could quickly be transported to land sites along coastal areas. EPFs can support amphibious operations, a tactical circumstance which introduces new dimensions to deterrence should Russia or China be contemplating offensive actions.
The Navy has received 12 EPFs from Austal USA, a Gulf Coast shipbuilder, already working on EPF 13. All EPFs are operated by Military Sealift Command. Interestingly, EPF 13 will set a new precedent for future ships in its class by being able to launch, land and operate V-22 Ospreys.
High-speed maneuver, coupled with heavy equipment transport technology, brings clear advantages to maritime combat tactics. A range of twelve hundred miles can enable crucial transport without having to operate large, deep-draft or big-deck ships in high-risk areas.
The speed of the vessels can help support the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept, a strategy aimed at leveraging long-range sensors, networking and new weapons applications to optimize combat effectiveness by operating with less congested, and therefore potentially more vulnerable, aggregated forces on the ocean.
Once a beach-head is secured through an amphibious attack, for example, arriving forces will be in great need of reinforcements to expand and build upon mission objectives. These ships also help sea-basing objectives by enabling transport from the ocean, therefore removing the need for land-deployments in high-risk, difficult to reach areas. Larger, deeper-draft ships will be able to operate at much safer distances, while EPFs approach enemy areas as smaller, faster and potentially less vulnerable targets.
By virtue of operating at sea, attacking forces can be better safeguarded and supported by airpower. Big-deck amphibious ships or even carriers could, for instance, be well-positioned to better support advancing attack forces moving on land if deck-launched air-attack platforms such as F-35 fighter jets, V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft or F/A-18 supersonic jets have targeting and logistics support from the shore.
Special Operations Forces, as well, often need to move quickly in smaller groups, however, they may also need supplies, weapons, equipment and even platforms such as fast-moving tactical vehicles. Given this kind of scenario, there are mission objectives which small groups of SOF forces may not be able to accomplish with an eleven-meter Rigid Inflatable Boat which naturally cannot transport equipment.
A V-22 Osprey launched from an amphibious ship or offshore sea base may wish to conduct Mounted Vertical Maneuver operations wherein Marines drop in behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, support friendly troops or launch targeted, covert attacks. Missions of this kind would be massively fortified by an ability for a fast transport vehicle such as an EPF to lend after-landing support.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.