Defense Media Network

Interview With Capt. Joe Femino, USN, Commander, USS Lewis B. Puller

Unique ESB with a mixed crew provides viable, deployable capability


Courtesy of Surface Navy Association (


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, USN-Ret: What can you tell me about your ship, your crew, and your mission, and what’s unique and unusual about it?

Capt. Joe Femino, USN, Commander, USS Lewis B. Puller: USS Lewis B. Puller is a commercial Alaska-class tanker converted to a U.S. Navy warship. It has the established hull, mechanical and electrical systems that NASSCO designed and built for some years until the Navy decided that it could use this level of capability to provide an afloat forward-staging base (AFSB) as required around the world. In our case, USS Lewis B. Puller is providing the AFSB requirement for 5th Fleet, a role previously performed by the interim AFSB, USS Ponce. Puller has a hybrid of civilian mariners and Navy sailors. The civilian mariners execute the navigation and engineering functions to get the ship anywhere the Navy needs it to go to execute its mission.


Of those sailors, what rates and specialties do you have?

My navy MILCREW is comprised of sailors able to support embarked forces. As our generic role is to support mission aircraft or boats, we have a large aviation department. We have aviation boatswain’s mates, including handlers and refueling specialists (ABHs and ABFs) and aviation support equipment technicians (ASs). Deck Division is manned with boatswain’s mates (BMs) and undesignated seamen and work hand in hand with the deck CIVMARs. Combat Systems Department includes a weapons component of gunner’s mates (GMs) and aviation ordnancemen (AOs) as well as the Sailors in a standard comms shack, including information technology specialists (ITs) and electronics technicians (ETs). The Supply Department is very similar in size and ratings of a destroyer, with culinary specialists (CSs), Logistics Specialists (LSs) and Ships Servicemen (SHs).   There is also a small engineering component of damage controlmen (DCs) and machinist’s mates (MMs), to maintain the engineering systems in our part of the ship where our warfighting capability resides.

Capt. Joe Femino, USN

Capt. Joe Femino, USN, commander USS Lewis B Puller (ESB 3) U.S. Navy photo

Essentially, the Navy MILCREW occupies the forward part of the ship, and the CIVMARS are in the after part of the ship. Up forward we have the ability to berth 250 people; we have the hanger itself; and then planning and operations spaces that embarked forces would use. And so in those spaces, my team will do-, will work together, really, with the civ-mars for engineering work. For example, I have a single electrician (EM), who maintains the lighting systems on the flight deck. As much as we think that lights are a small deal, the flight deck lights are a big deal. We have two separate repair lockers: one which is manned by civ-mars, one which is manned by my sailors and together they balance together to respond to any casualty. The Damage Control Officer of the ship is the chief mate, is a civ-mar.

We’ve really been trying to flex everything, and looking at the problem sets from the bridge ring and the flight deck of the ship, to really grasp what’s in the “art of possible.”

You mentioned weapons. What do you have?

We have .50 caliber and M240 machine guns, and MK 19 40 mm grenade launchers. I have M240, and I also have, I was able to procure and push to get 40mm grenade, Mark 19 grenade launchers. I have an embarked security team on board which is provided for me by CTG 56.11, with 10 watch standers who basically will man my 24/7 steady state, weapons. If we have heightened requirement for security, then MILCREW sailors augment by manning additional mounts.


In your concept of operations, would you have additional assets providing security for you if you were going to be operating in a more contested area, like a DDG or a PC?

Yes. We’re designed to operate in a benign environment. If the threat was increased, we would be provided layered defense by other assets.


Do you work with the PCs and WPBs?

I have worked with both the WPBs and the PCs quite extensively – a little bit more on last deployment than on this deployment – especially when we are in the Arabian Gulf. The PCs are unbelievable. Both the PCs and the WPBs, they’re commanded by hardened, spectacular officers who want to do defense and who really and truly understand the daily interactions that we have here in 5th Fleet.

ESB Puller graphic

A U.S. Navy graphic showing Lewis B. Puller‘s layout and capabilities. U.S. Navy image


So, they can support you, and I assume you can support them.

My ability to assist them might be holding RHIBs on board, or a Coast Guard MSRT or LEDETs, or any other boarding capability onboard my ship, to support a PC or WPB to actually execute boarding operations with these forces which I could provide them. I have plenty of berthing, and can carry extra ammunition for them.


Do you carry unmanned aircraft?

I have a Scan Eagle package. The Boeing Insitu ScanEagle is an extended-range UAV with about 6-foot wingspan, which has the ability to stay up airborne above 12 hours and more. We have contractors who operate and maintain the system. We have multiple aircraft so we can provide a persistent presence when required.

Whatever exactly an adaptive force package is supposed to mean, we can just take anything that people want to send on. I have 30 spots where I can put CONEX boxes (referred to as 20-foot equivalent units or TEUs), and I can bring anything on that works, or that people want to experiment with.

This is a new class of ship, and you are the very first to deploy, or at least one of the first. Are you “writing the book” right now on the CONOPS, what’s the “art of the possible” of what this ship can do and how it can help the combatant commander?

That’s what I like to think we’ve been doing. We’ve really been trying to flex everything, and looking at the problem sets from the bridge ring and the flight deck of the ship, to really grasp what’s in the “art of possible.” And so I think we’ve made some very good inputs to both the TYCOMs and the operational commanders as far as what we could do. It’s important to understand how big it is. The flight deck is not connected to the back part of the ship. There are two bridges which are on moveable pads so that they can flex as the ship flexes. Even across the flight deck, there are gaps which have flaps covering them that allows the ship to flex. That’s how big it is. When you go forward to the forecastle of the ship, there are only two bridges connecting the mission house where my sailors live, to the forecastle. We have some areas where we’d like to see some access ramps to get from the focsle to the deckhouse. But we are a commercially-built with an ABS certificate of inspection, so any alterations needs to be approved by ABS.


Let’s talk a little bit about adaptive force packages. Are you capable of taking on flexible capability that could be delivered in a modular way?

I would go significantly further beyond that. Whatever exactly an adaptive force package is supposed to mean, we can just take anything that people want to send on. I have 30 spots where I can put CONEX boxes (referred to as 20-foot equivalent units or TEUs), and I can bring anything on that works, or that people want to experiment with. I can be flexible, and eventually agile as far as what things we would put on board the ship.

We support the MCM mission with anything they need. We can bring their sonar system, MK105 sleds for magnetic and acoustic mine hunting, and their mechanical mine hunting gear. There’s plenty of room to put everything where it needs to go.


MCM is a primary mission. What about AFPs for those non-standard missions?

You’re right. We moved forward because the combatant commander needed a platform to be able to host Airborne MCM capabilities. We can also support special operations forces (SOF), and that can mean many things. So we can support all kinds of SPOF aircraft and watercraft. I can support whatever a commander needs, within all those things which I have on the ship.

Puller in Strait of Hormuz

The expeditionary mobile base platform ship USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB 3) transits the Strait of Hormuz, Oct. 22, 2018. Puller is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of naval operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and the Pacific through the western Indian Ocean and three strategic choke points. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialists 3rd Class Jonathan Clay


So, with all this room and capability, what have you, your crew, or your customers have thought about where you say, “Hey, why not?”

I can bring SOF on board with their boats and with their operators, and I can execute from anywhere. I could bring a Marine Corps FAS platoon on with helicopters that could insert forces somewhere, like an embassy at risk. We can support boarding with boarding teams of all different flavors, even foreign boarding teams. The Coast Guard is unbelievable and they have their international training teams and they do international engagement.

So within the next eight years, we’ll have 6 of these ships all over the world, operating for different combatant commanders, and providing assistance and engagement wherever we need to be.

You could have a series of theater security cooperation events, like Obangame Express or Pacific partnership where you go from country to country supporting communities and doing mil-to-mil cooperation. You could enable countries to conduct fisheries patrols while you’re passing through their waters, enabling them to embark aircraft or insertion teams and go and conduct operations at some distance from where they would normally be able to operate from. It seems to me it would be a perfect platform for something like that. There are a lot of things you could do that are not traditional surface combatant war fighting.

My answers have been CENTCOM specific, but definitely have the ability to provide support just about anywhere. We have a range of 9500 miles. We have the ability to sustain ourselves. We could embark humanitarian supplies and have them on board so we could deliver them to the site of a disaster on very short notice.


Will the Navy build additional ESBs?

The first two ships were completed as expeditionary transfer docks – ESDs. The next three were built as ESBs – that’s 3, 4 and 5. We expect to see funding for 6 and 7, and we expect that 8 will be authorized. These will all be ESBs. So within the next eight years, we’ll have 6 of these ships all over the world, operating for different combatant commanders, and providing assistance and engagement wherever we need to be.


What kind of medical capability do you have?

I carry an independent duty corpsman (IDC), but we have the ability to be augmented by a casualty response medical team. When we embarked the capability of an ERSS last deployment, they had capability to set up two triage spots and two operating spots onboard.  We were designed with a plan to carry three medical TEUs that would provide us the capability to do Role 2 receiving and treatment.


You have a blue and gold crew. Where does the off crew reside?

We live in Norfolk, at the Norfolk Naval Base. While we are home, it’s reset time. The Sailors get some time off, and work on maintaining their qualifications and updating their training. We can train at a variety of locations, such as NAS Oceana where they can do fueling operations, or Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake, Virginia, where they can train with yellow gear and other things like that. The Air Team attends an Aviation Team Trainer for firefighting in Pensacola. I recognize that really this is their time for them to be at home, so I work to not keep them away any more than necessary, They know that, come four and a half months later we’re going to jump back on airplanes and go back for another five months. My sailors generally find that when they’re in Norfolk, their lives are very good, they’re with their families, they’re able to do the things that they need to do, but yet we also then have the fulfilling side of when we’re out operating, we’re working with the best forces in the world on a regular basis, and so it’s great.


An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the “Easyriders” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 37 delivers cargo to the expeditionary mobile base USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB 3) during a vertical replenishment. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Morgan K. Nall


What would you to say to someone interested in serving on an ESB?

My answer would be, “Every day and twice on Sundays.” The answer would be “yes.” So let’s talk about the sailors. They provide an incredible capability for our ability to execute. They are ready to respond – they know that their job is to receive whatever comes over the horizon, be able to set them down, set them up, and get them ready to execute, whatever missions they need to do. And so, my sailors are ready with that all the time. We’ve got berthing ready to go. We’ve got room on the mess decks and the galley is ready to go. The guys in the aviation world, the air deck as well as the deck guys, ready to receive whatever comes to us. It’s extremely fulfilling.


Are there other ESBs with blue and gold crews?

The next one is Hershel Woody Williams, its number 4. They’ve stood up the crew and will establish both blue and gold crews. When they deploy they’ll deploy to Europe and be EUCOM/AFRICOM assets.


How does it handle?

We think 79,000 tons is a giant ship. But as a tanker, it was designed to draw 18 meters and weigh 185 thousand metric tons. So the ship’s propulsion system – the propellers and the rudders – are actually designed to push a ship that’s twice as heavy. It’s not fast, but it’s far more nimble than you would think when you realize how large it is.  We just did a RAS (replenishment at sea) with USNS Alan Shepard and we were able smartly drive ourselves into station alongside.


Can you UNREP?

I have only the ability to receive fuel via one station on the starboard side. I do not have the ability to give fuel. Because our propulsion system is slow to respond, we will be the guide during alongside refueling. We are also not capable to receive stores by CONREP (connected replenishment). So the way that we receive stores is via VERTREP, and the team is very effective at it, and we have all the yellow gear so we move things rapidly. If the delivering ship doesn’t have a helicopter, then I have to find a helicopter to do a VERTREP. The MH-53Es we can carry are not designed to do low-end vert-reps.


Tell me about the hybrid crew of military and CIVMARs.

This is a fabulous opportunity to work with civilian mariners. And what is incredible about them is that they are at sea all their lives. They are licensed mariners, so we have a very professional bridge watch team, and a very capable way to execute missions. I don’t need to train them or question them. Unlike a Navy ship with a lot of people on watch, Lewis B. Puller has three mates on watch for their 24 hour rotation in 4-hour blocks. Three. That’s it. There are two people on the bridge for daytime watches – the mate and an able-bodied seaman (AB). At night there’s the mate and two ABs. They are extremely good at using their systems, such as their ARPA (automatic radar plotting aid), and ECDIS (electronic chart display and information system) – and doing things themselves. If I’m not on the bridge, because we’re launching aircraft or recovering boats, I have tremendous faith in the master’s capability to execute safe navigation and moving us from Point A to B. The other is really that we are an extraordinarily small crew for what we do. I have five officers in my ward room, and that includes me. We are able to execute our mission, but we’re just a smaller organization.

The ship is great. The takeaway really is that this is a viable, deployable capability that the Navy and the SWO community can provide, to geographic combatant commanders.


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