US Navy Awards Austal Autonomy Contract for USNS Apalachicola

Austal USA, a fully owned subsidiary of Australian shipbuilder Austal, was on Monday awarded a $44 million fixed price contract modification by the United States Navy (USN), Navy Sea Systems Command. As a result of the modification, Austal will incorporate autonomy features onboard USNS Apalachicola (EPF-13) the thirteenth Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport. Austal USA was originally awarded a $656 million fixed price contract to build ships 13, 14 and 15 of the class in 2018 and Apalachicola was laid down in the company’s Mobile, Alabama facility on 21 January, 2021. The contract modification awarded to Austal USA covers the “design, procurement, production implementation and demonstration of autonomous capability on EPF-13”.

USNS Spearhead (T-EPF-1) completes sea trials in 2021. (Image courtesy of Austal USA)

This contract modification is just the latest in a series of modifications to the Spearhead-class platform. In February this year, Austal USA was awarded a $235 million contract modification for EPF-15 to incorporate enhanced medical facilities onboard, as part of the “Flight II” configuration which includes EPF-14, USNS Cody. A derivative of the design also served as the basis for the Royal Navy of Oman’s High Speed Support Vessel (HSSV) the second of which Austal handed over to Oman in late 2016 from its Henderson shipyard. 

This announcement comes as the USN increasingly debates the future of autonomous systems within the Navy. With Congress and Navy leaders at loggerheads over the Navy’s plans for a large unmanned surface vessel (LUSV), which Congress views as too risky due to the technology not being sufficiently demonstrated. 

Austal’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Paddy Greg, heralded the contract as a strategic win, given that the USN has identified autonomous systems as a priority, saying:

“Autonomous vessel capability has been identified as an area of strategic importance by the US Navy, so it is promising for Austal that the US Navy has awarded Austal USA a contract for the design, procurement, production implementation and demonstration of autonomous capability of one of our vessels, the Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) 13, the future USNS Apalachicola,”

The extent of the potential automation of the USNS Apalachicola is not yet known, but the initiative is set to be a significant step in the US Navy’s autonomy ambitions.