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Trickle-down logistics, revisited: Roll-on/roll-off re-imagined

By Steve Geary | 10/30/2015 | 4:24 AM

In the October issue of DCV ("Trickle Down Logistics"), we explored how government innovations in logistics have trickled into the commercial world. One of the stellar examples was the 1946 conversion of World War II’s LST landing ships to commercial service. From that humble beginning—a conversion instead of a trip to the bone yard—three military cargo ships evolved the contemporary fleet of roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) cargo ships.

Today in most major ports you will see the descendants of those Word War II landing ships delivering new cars to American markets. The connection between today’s huge cargo ships and World War II landing craft is not obvious, but that heritage is there.

Well, what goes around comes around. For the past decade or so, the U.S. military has been experimenting with high-speed roll-on/roll-off catamarans.

Instead of developing a new class of high-speed cargo ship design from scratch, the military went to the commercial marketplace. In 2001, they leased a high-speed catamaran, the Devil Cat, which had seen commercial service in Australia and New Zealand. Rechristened the USS Joint Venture, the ship underwent a number of modifications, adapting her for military use, including the addition of a helicopter flight deck.

The U.S. military ran trials, including service in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After five years, the lease ended. The Joint Venture returned to the owners, who returned her to commercial service.

But that is not the end of the story. On September 17, 2011, the U.S. Navy christened the USS Spearhead,the first ship in the new high-speed roll-on/roll-off catamaran class, with a flight deck. The Navy plans to build a total of 23 of these ships over the next decades, which will be known as the Spearhead Class.

The military created the modern RO/RO concept, and the commercial world ran with it. Similarly, commercial markets drove the development of the high-speed catamaran, and the military is running with it. The smart people in uniform have created an entirely new class of warships based on commercial innovations.

What goes around, comes around.

To read about how the military led the development of containerized freight, go here

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