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By Kris Osborn, President Center for Military Modernization

The Navy is quickly expanding its fleet of high-speed Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) vehicles to support maritime transit operations, unmanned operations, surveillance, medical missions and even amphibious assault combat missions. The service just finished acceptance trials and unmanned missions with the future USNS Apalachicola (EPF 13).

EPFs are super high-speed vessels able to transport 600 tons of troops, weapons, equipment, ammo and even a small fleet of seventy-ton Abrams tanks to war.

The service’s 12th Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) ship, the USNS Newport, completed Integrated Sea Trials last year, an assessment and demonstration exercise intended to prepare the ship for full-scale operations by conducting maneuvers, transport missions and some reconnaissance operations. By traveling at fast-speeds of thirty-five knots and over distances as far as 1,200 miles, the new ships bring new dimensions to the Navy’s increasingly expeditionary warfare strategy.

Most recently, the service has demonstrated an unmanned ability with the EPF ships, by conducting “uncrewed logistics prototype trials,” according to an interesting story in Naval Technology. The unmanned ship traveled from Mobile, Ala., to Miami Florida as part of an early prototype demonstration of unmanned operational potential.

While classified as “non-combatant” ships, the EFP ships are not themselves armed with weapons but engineered for fast humanitarian transport, disaster relief and other high-speed missions. However, make no mistake, the ships are planned for major combat operations as well, as they can “roll-on/roll-off” armored vehicles, large numbers of armed soldiers or marines and, if needed, a group of drones.

EPFs are already providing critical support to earthquake victims in Haiti and can also enhance the Navy’s medical mission scope in the event that the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort hospital ships are already engaged in missions or can’t arrive fast enough. “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,” according to Locker.

An unmanned EPF naturally enables a low-risk operational opportunity for Maritime transport of logistics, supplies, weapons and ammunition, while also giving commanders an option of conducting high-speed coastal surveillance missions in high-risk areas exposed to enemy fire. As an unmanned vessel, a drone-EPF could also deliver weapons strikes from high-risk forward locations while sailors verify targets and perform command and control from safer stand-off distances. As a larger ship, it would likely be able to carry larger weapons than a smaller drone boat or Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) could, and patrol as a forward surveillance node amid incoming fire.

The Navy’s fast-evolving fleet of Expeditionary Fast-Transport (EPF) vehicles also introduces a mission-multiplying opportunity for the Navy to support amphibious assault operations, conduct surveillance and deliver high-value heavy armor and weapons at high-speed amid Maritime combat.

The Navy’s 13th EPF recently demonstrated a ground-breaking, cutting-edge “drone” ability to conduct unmanned logistics missions, something of enormous tactical consequence given that the high-speed vessel can transport up to 600 tons of equipment, gear, troops and weapons.

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High Speed Navy EPF Transport Vessel

“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,” Locker stated in his white paper. “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),.a 2021 white paper on the EPF titled Expeditionary Fast Transport Ship by Capt. Robert Locker Jr.

File picture: The Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Millinocket (T-EPF 3) during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Brunei (Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christopher A. Veloicaza/Released)

File picture: The Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Millinocket (T-EPF 3) during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Brunei (Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christopher A. Veloicaza/Released)

The EPF is performing a number of the island-hopping, fast-transport amphibious missions designed for the now-emerging Light Amphibious Warship (LAW), Locker said in his paper.

With an ability to transport a group of Abrams tanks brings a huge advantage to Navy and Marine Corps forces, because deploying and preparing heavily armored vehicles for land assault is extremely difficult.

An ability to fast-track five or more main battle tanks to combat delivers unprecedented deployment capability. With this kind of high-speed transport, it is not too much of a stretch to consider that Abrams tanks and other large combat vehicles could much more easily support amphibious attacks from ship-to-shore.

While Marine Corps amphibious assault ships are built to swim as well as fight ashore, an ability to supplement, fortify or strengthen land attack from the ocean dramatically changes the tactical equations for commanders who might otherwise need weeks to prepare for a heavily-armored land invasion.

Ship-to-Shore

Ship-to-Shore

The Navy’s now emerging Ship-to-Shore Connectors can transport Abrams tanks, yet one at a time. Having Abrams-transporting EPFs makes things faster. A heavy armored attack from the sea, enabled by EPFs, would also help secure the beachhead for large amounts of follow-on attack forces, and Abrams tanks and other heavy armor would have new opportunity to land and support any ground incursion from a beachhead.

Locker 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. Locker suggested that building additional ships may actually lower costs as well as improve Marine Corps operations.

When it comes to warfare, the ships can on-load and off-load fully combat-loaded Abrams main battle 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 quite capable of supporting combat operations in a variety of key respects.

Perhaps a future massive amphibious assault would use EPFs carrying tanks, 155 towed artillery, thousands of soldiers, new Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle infantry carriers and ground-attack robots. Such an attack would happen in coordination with overhead F-35 and F-22 air support, suppressive fire from land-attack Navy surface ships and scores of Amphibious Assault Vehicles traveling from ship to shore.

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.