NAMJet’s tractor jets seal the deal on a significant military boat building contract. The Army’s one-of-a-kind bridge erection boats fill an obscure, shallow draft workboat niche, while showcasing capabilities that someday could be commercially viable.
When the U.S. Army turned to industry in its quest to design the next generation, prototype bridge erection boat, the ensuing competition attracted no less than three industry competition teams, all of whom eventually submitted prototypes in 2010. Birdon America, Inc., teaming with a (now) wholly owned NAMJet propulsion group, was one of the players. These models were then handed over to the U.S. Army for extensive testing. Eventually, in March of this year, Birdon won the US Army Bridge Erection Boat (BEB) platform contract. At about the same time, and to better support its international and domestic clientele, the company also announced it has moved its manufacturing and operational headquarters to Denver, Colorado. As it turns out, there were good reasons for both events.
History & Experience
Birdon’s history with the so-called BEB design stemmed from its parent company, Birdon Australia. Previously, Birdon had already built 24 bridge erection boats for the Australian Army and they had their own proprietary design that ended up being very successful for that application. But, at that time, the Australian version was powered by another brand of propulsion systems, one which was teaming with another competitor for the U.S. Army contract. Hence, Birdon went in search for a new propulsion system that they could use to put into the BEB for the bid phase. They landed on NAMJet propulsion systems and its TRAKTOR Jet line of high-thrust marine jets. In the BEB concept, NAMJet performed so well that Birdon went ahead and purchased the company back in 2011.
What is a Bridge Erection Boat?
When the Army goes into theatre in a conflict, bridges might be out that need to be crossed. These temporary bridges – floating bridges – are created by dropping bridge sections in the water – and then the bridge erection boat is tied up to the section. These types of boats were highly prominent in the first Iraqi conflict. There could actually be as many as 50 of these that would form a bridge. Or, the floating section can be used as a ferry type configuration, moving single tanks across the body or water. In a nutshell, Bridge Erection Boats are primarily used to provide propulsion and maneuverable thrust to support temporary floating bridges often made necessary when existing bridge crossings have been destroyed in military conflict. The vessels are transportable by road, rail and air.
Rigorous Testing – and results – Wins the Contract
The competition for this contract was not easy, nor was it quick. All models were put through extensive testing periods at Aberdeen; as much as 600 hours of testing which included a rail car test because the boats are transportable and meant to go into theatre. One of the tests involved tying the boat to a rail car and then slamming two cars into each other to prove that the tie downs would resist that sort of collision. This was just one of dozens of tests. Following that, and in late 2012, the RFP came out to replace the entire bridge fleet for the U.S. Army, calling for as many as 374 bridge erection boats. RFP’s were submitted in March 2013 and an extensive questions and answer period for all of the competitors ensued. In November of 2013, it was announced that Birdon America – the American subsidiary of Birdon Australia – had in fact won the competition and was being awarded the contract.
Jim Ducker, General Manager at NAMJet, told MarineNews in June, “The boats include two Traktor Jet 381’s – our smallest jet, commercial off-the-shelf units. As you can imagine, the contract comes in phases, but they immediately awarded 11 and within another a week, they added another 14 (LUT) Limited User Training Boats. So we were awarded for 25 to start. Once this phase is complete, we presume that they will start the full production phase at yet to be determined quantities. The prospect to replace the entire U.S. Army fleet of these vessels in the next 5 to 6 years is very good.
Selection Criteria: Birdon, NAMJet or both?
The bridge erection boat design that Birdon owns is not a typical boat design. Almost a flat bottomed boat – the vessel’s exhibit only a 2 degree deadrise angle. Ducker says that’s a radically different design than the legacy boat that is a much more traditional, deep-V type hull. He added, “Our design is a much more stable platform, because when you look at the mission that’s involved here, it certainly makes a lot of sense. In addition to that, when you are trying to propel what is essentially a brick on the water, you need something that is high thrust, heavy duty and durable. The Australian versions, for example, while they were quite stable, they (using other Jets) were not able to deliver the speed and thrust performance that the U.S. Army required. It was decided that NAMJet was the only propulsion system that could satisfy both speed and thrust requirements for this type of project.”
Special Conditions: High Turbidity / Riverine Environments
The very nature of the work required of the new generation BEB involves toiling in riverine, sometimes highly turbid and muddy, debris choked waters. That means that the propulsion systems for these shallow draft craft must not only be durable, they’ve got to be able sustain prolonged service in unfriendly waters. According to Jim Ducker, that’s exactly why NAMJet was chosen. “Because our system is higher thrust, as opposed to a really high speed unit, we don’t require the precision in the impellor that a high speed unit might need. The RPM on our water jets is almost half of a competitor’s high speed unit. So, we’ve got lower RPM’s that produces less damage, and a much higher impellor clearance rate to the wear ring. This gap allows for certain amounts of sand and grit to pass through with minimum or no damage. It’s those sorts of things that make our propulsion units less susceptible to the conditions that you are talking about. This is not a deep water boat – it’s made to traverse muddy riverine environments.”
Swaying the Army Vote: Advantage NAMJet
According to Ducker, when it came time to make its contractor selection, the ‘Technical’ area was the number one factor. Within that area, reliability was a high consideration. And, while the Birdon boat design certainly came into play, ultimately, NAMJet sealed the deal. Ducker explains, “You can imagine that after 600 hours, there was a lot of wear on all systems, and the NAMJet product really excelled under those conditions. So, the water jet was, we believe, the difference.”
Three technical factors were taken into consideration. These included sub factors of (a.) reliability, (b.) conventional rafting speed and (c.) forward top speed. Birdon was rated outstanding in technical aspects and only in terms of top speed was the NAMJet beaten. In theatre, however, these boats don’t need to go terrifically fast, but they do need to provide thrust and reliability under load. Jim Ducker added, “It’s not a slow Jet by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also not going to be installed in a Patrol Boat to try and achieve 40-50 KT.”
All competitors were tested with Cummins engines adapted to run on JP8 fuel to drive the jets, identical water conditions and other similar variables. Nevertheless, the award was protested by one unsuccessful bidding builder, but the Government Accounting Office (GAO) rejected the protest on the grounds that the Birdon boat was technically superior.
Commercial Propulsion Equipment, Commercial Applications?
In June, we asked if the NAMJet equipped BEB performed this well under adverse conditions in a hostile environment, could it not also perform similar service in niche, commercial workboat applications, as well? Ducker wasn’t ready to commit to such a concept, saying only that his firm would concentrate first on fulfilling the Army contract before considering other applications. But, while water jets aren’t necessarily considered common in inland commercial towing and pushboat work, the NAMJet driven Birdon BEB certainly showed its capabilities under difficult testing circumstances during the Army contract bid phase. Beyond this, and with the newly heightened emphasis on domestic inland infrastructure maintenance, durable shallow draft workboats will certainly be part of that new equation. The recent passage of the long awaited WRRDA bill may well be the catalyst for more such work in the future. Boats employing concepts borrowed from the Army’s BEB might just be the ticket for shallow draft operations.
In the meantime, and as NAMJet relocates its manufacturing facilities to Denver, CO, they will also co-locate with Birdon America in the same 50,000 square foot facility. There, they will jointly build the first 25 BEB’s in a total contract deal worth $19 million. NAMJet will also continue to provide propulsion for all of its other business within the same building. To that end, Jim Ducker insists, “Birdon America was established solely for the bridge erection boat. But, Birdon intends to build on NAMJet’s name – here and internationally. That’s the long term future.” By any yardstick, that’s a pretty good start.
(As published in the July 2014 edition of Marine News - http://magazines.marinelink.com/Magazines/MaritimeNews)