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USS Ponce Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) Will Provide Combat Capability for Fifth Fleet

In order to fulfill a long standing U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations (AOR) request for an Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), the Navy has delayed the decommissioning of the USS Ponce (LPD 15), which has been redesignated as an Interim AFSB until a permanent solution can be identified.

The Navy needed a platform to stage vital combat capability in the region, which included the Arabian Gulf. The concept isn’t new. There has been a long-standing requirement for an Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), but no ships were available for the job. So as the Navy was moving ahead with the scheduled retirement of a large ship with a flight deck, an opportunity was created that was too good to pass up.

USS Ponce well-deck and flight-deck

The amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15) is lit by the early morning sun as the stern gate is raised after an amphibious craft launching evolution off the coast of Djibouti in 2010. While Ponce is an aging platform, her ample flight and well decks make her an ideal “mother ship” for various operations. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller

The ship isn’t new, either. Ponce, an Austin-class amphibious transport dock, or LPD, was commissioned in 1971, and scheduled to be decommissioned this year. The 548-foot ship was built to carry Marines, landing craft and aircraft for amphibious landings as part of an expeditionary strike group. When fully loaded, she displaces more than 16,000 tons. Her new designation will be AFSB(I) 15.

When the conversion is complete, Ponce will deploy to be a part of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is the naval force for CENTCOM. There the ship will provide a platform to support mine warfare ships, coastal patrol ships, and aircraft operations – such as mine-sweeping MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopters – with the capability to support multiple mission packages as detachments when requested by USCENTCOM and /or U.S. Fifth Fleet, says Lt. Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

“The concept of an Afloat Forward Staging Base has been seen as a requirement with varying stages of urgency since the 1987 Tanker Wars,” Kafka says. “We have the perfect confluence of an available platform, the right amount of time before the permanent solution is available, and a pressing need in the CENTCOM AOR.”

The permanent solution Kafka refers to is the mobile landing platform (MLP). The Navy will acquire three MLPs to support expeditionary warfare requirements.

Ponce entered Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in Portsmouth, Va., in February of this year, and successfully completed all maintenance and modifications on April 15. The ship is currently in port at Naval Station Norfolk.

Work on Ponce included replacing bridge equipment with modern automated systems to support the reduced crewing by civil service mariners; overhauling Ponce’s main propulsion boilers; cleaning the ship’s main and auxiliary condensers; overhauling other existing ship’s equipment; and refurbishing the galley.

Ponce flight operations

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Airman Michael Babers directs a UH-1Y Venom helicopter, assigned to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 167, as it lifts off from flight deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15) during late evening flight operations. The night’s flight operations were at the time thought to have been the final flight operations Ponce would conduct after 40 years of service and more than 39,000 safe landings and launches. Ponce was given a reprieve from decommissioning to serve as an interim Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller

Although Ponce carried a crew of 20 officers and 487 enlisted personnel (not counting embarked Marines and aviation detachments), Ponce will now be manned by a combined crew of Navy officers and sailors as well as Military Sealift Command (MSC) government civilian mariners. This approach, similar to that used with the 6th Fleet Command Ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) in the Mediterranean, enables the required military functions to be handled (minimal self-defense, communications, common operational picture) while still reaping the benefits of MSC engineering and support services, Kafka says. The Navy complement will include 55 personnel (49 enlisted and 6 officers). MSC personnel will include 165 government civilian mariners when the ship is under way conducting operations.

The ship will have civilian mariners aboard, but Ponce will remain a warship with a USN commissioned officer in command, not a civilian master. “Under the commanding officer falls all responsibilities of being in command, to include manning all weapons and weapons systems. Navy personnel will stand command and tactical watches; direct and control combat operations; operate command and control and targeting systems; and direct, supervise, manage, or otherwise serve in the chain of command over military personnel,” says Kafka. “Civilian mariners will handle deck functions and bridge watches – to include senior bridge watches; handle engineering duties about the ship and in the engine room (to include senior engineering watches); and handle supply and steward functions on the ship.”

There had been reports in the media that the ship was being converted in to a platform to launch SEAL teams on special missions. But the commander of the U.S. Fleet, Adm. John Harvey, put that rumor to rest.

The Ponce is “not going over there as an alternate command ship; it’s not going over there as a special operating force ‘Death-star Galactica’ coming through the Gulf,” Harvey says. “It’s going over there as an interim staging base until a newer vessel can be purchased.”

By

Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-38099">

    What do they mean “no ships were available for the job. So as the Navy was moving ahead with the scheduled retirement of a large ship with a flight deck, an opportunity was created that was too good to pass up.?”
    What about the 11 other LPD’s that have already been decommisioned almost every year for the past 20 years, or the Iwo Jima class LPH’s?
    Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the fact that the Ponce gets a new lease on life (as I served on her 1973-77), but this is just nonsense that they did not have a platform available.
    What really happened is they realized that this may be the last chance to get a ship like this because the Obama administration wasn’t going to buy them a new boat./
    Long Live the Ponce !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-38401">

    I think it means that in this case, they could catch Ponce before she was decommissioned and do a cheap refit rather than pay the costs of bringing a hull out of mothballs (which would never happen because of the expense in a tight budget environment), and they weren’t going to ever devote something like an LPH to the mission, which some people would scream their heads off about, saying it would be overkill and wasted dollars, etc., etc. Getting a ship to devote to this single mission would be a lot easier if you could say, “Hey, look, Ponce is on the way to becoming a bunch of razor blades, why not let us keep her going for a little while? You’re going to decommission her anyway.” Or something like that. Just my opinion.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-38413">
    Ned Lundquist

    I think Chuck is right. And let’s look at the geopolitical position in the C5F AOR. Iran says it can choke of the Straits or Hormuz whenever it wants. So we need the MH-53Es for mine countermeasures. And they need a deck. The conversion was less expensive than a new build or a ship taken out of cold storage. And it is an “interim” solution.