San Diego Business Journal

M Ship Co. never had the distinction of building a massive supercarrier or cranking out Liberty Ships by the hundreds. The San Diego company did not even build watercraft; it designed them. But boy, did it design a mean-looking vessel.

The U.S. Navy’s M80 Stiletto, put together in the South Bay at what was then the Knight & Carver boatyard, is only 88 feet, but it makes an impression nevertheless. Wired Magazine dubbed it the “High-Tech Batman Ship” in a 2008 article about the ship chasing after drug-runners in Florida. The Stiletto is able to exceed 50 knots, which is very fast on the water. Time magazine named it one of the best inventions of 2006.

Charles W. Robinson, who owned and funded M Ship Co., died in May at age 94. His estate has put M Ship’s naval architecture and marine engineering assets up for sale, with Global Capital Markets handling the transaction.

Assets to be sold include 10 U.S. patents and three patents from New Zealand; they cover hull forms and related designs — including a “rooster tail depressor” for power boats. The patent portfolio also includes the company’s proprietary method for testing model hull forms, dubbed REI for Rapid Empirical Innovation.

The secret to M Ship’s work was the way its hulls touched the water. The company’s M-shaped hull offered a smooth ride in rough conditions. M Ship said it would be suitable for delivering SEAL forces to their missions, no matter what the weather was like.

I visited M Ship’s office in a downtown high-rise in 2010. I never got to meet Robinson but I did talk to Bill Burns, the company’s executive director, who told me then that the company was looking for opportunities overseas. At the time, the recession was still fresh news, and Burns said the company was waiting for the recreational boating market to return.

The M-hull design was originally meant to operate in the canals of Venice, Italy, without kicking up too much of a wake. Burns and his cohorts told me the super-stable hulls might be useful for work boats. In 2010, M Ship was seeing whether they could build the boats in India, cutting project costs in half. They were also trying to attract the interest of Pentagon buyers, partially through magazine advertising, arguing that a fleet of small boats could effectively counter an enemy sending swarms of small boats against U.S. Navy ships.

The Navy still operates the M80 Stiletto, which cost $6 million to build and can operate in as little as 3 feet of water.

Robinson, who died at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., lived a notable life, serving as a deputy secretary of state under Henry Kissinger during the Gerald Ford administration. His extensive business career included a stint as a director at Nike Inc. Robinson is also credited with designing and building the first Panamax ship, which was barely able to slip through the unimproved Panama Canal. The design pushed the limits for ship size in the 1970s and 1980s. With the passage of time, Panamax doesn’t seem so big now.

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New Game, New Players: In my last defense column, I wondered whether the prospect of declining military budgets meant layoffs, mergers and acquisitions among defense contractors. I heard from Eric DeMarco, CEO of Kratos Defense & Security Solutions Inc. after my deadline.

DeMarco called the industry “ripe for consolidation.” He noted that Orbital has merged with ATK, that Harris Corp. acquired Exelis and that Cobham PLC acquired Aeroflex. San Diegans may recognize Cobham as the British company that bought Remec a few years ago.

Kratos, DeMarco said, “may be the only midtier public company at approximately $1 billion” in revenue.

He also noted that Kratos (Nasdaq: KTOS) has been cutting staff — from 4,400 people in 2011—2012 to 3,400 now — through natural attrition and some layoffs, typically involving 10 to 20 people.

On another note, DeMarco said that three Kratos target drones took part in a missile defense test Feb. 24 involving Navy destroyers in the Atlantic Ocean.

Send San Diego defense industry news to bradg@sdbj.com.