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.
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.
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.”