In breaking news it would appear that the US Navy, working with Special Operations Command (SOCOM), is rushing to deploy a floating sea base, tailored to support special forces and mine-sweeping operations. This floating outpost will come in the form of a highly modified, and very old, Austin class Amphibious Transport Dock. The exact ship that will be used for this unique mission will be the USS Ponce. Built in the mid 1960′s and put into service in 1970, the Ponce was about to be sent into the Navy’s mothball fleet as a contingency reserve vessel when she was selected for this most imperative of missions.
The Ponce has a well-known history in the region. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq it was the flagship for the mine clearing operation that was executed at a feverish pitch in order to clear a channel into the strategic Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. For it’s new mission, Ponce will get some serious modifications in order to be transformed into a makeshift mobile sea base. Her flight deck will be altered and enlarged to handle up to four massive MH-53 Sea Dragon mine clearing helicopters at one time, or a ton of MH-6 “Little Birds” and other highly modified special operations helicopters. Further, the Ponce’s aviation and marine fueling systems will be upgraded, cranes will be added, command and control systems will be retrofitted, and berthing will be provided for an array of fast attack and stealthy small boats. What is not clear is what will happen to her well deck. Either it will be sealed and possibly turned into a hangar bay or it will be used for launching and recovering special operations craft. A menu of other modifications will be made as well, making the half century old marine transport ship tailored to it’s new special operations and mine-clearing mission. Apparently the Ponce’s new nickname to the special operators that will inhabit her is appropriately “The Mothership.” The exact retrofit requirements can be seen in the document linked here:
Although the Sponce’s conversion into a missionized sea base seems like a novel idea, and may by default become a miniature proving ground for the Navy’s larger, farther reaching sea basing concept that will allow large scale forward operations in denied areas, it is actually an idea ripped from the American special operations playbook of decades past. In the 1980′s “Operation Prime Chance” was put into effect in an attempt to protect US flagged oil tankers and merchant ships from direct Iranian attack and sea mines during a conflict period known today as “The Tanker Wars.” This operation would see the initial use of a variety of USN frigates and the marine transport dock “LaSalle” as a staging area for special forces flying MH-6 and AH-6 Little Birds, at night. Their mission was to hunt for Iranian mine laying craft, to protect allied mine clearing vessels, and to escort vulnerable merchant ships traveling through Gulf. These operations, although relatively limited in scope, were so successful that the Navy leased two barges, the “Hercules” and the “Wimbrown,” and converted them into makeshift special operations mission platforms. These barges would be called Mobile Sea Bases or MSB’s for short by the USN and would work as forward deployed Navy SEAL operations nests, complete with supporting fast boat units, EOD teams, marine security forces to protect the platform itself, and bristling with AH-6 attack and MH-6 support Little Bird helicopters flown by the Army’s elite 160th SOAR.
From these jury-rigged platforms, surveillance of the Gulf was provided via Little Bird crews sporting night vision goggles, and at times under the direction of search radar equipped aircraft and ships. In effect, these units would leverage all intelligence available and strike out at night looking for Iranian mining activities or other nefarious acts. If they found any they would spring on the ship in question, firing their AH-6′s miniguns and rockets and/or send in SEAL boarding teams. Towards the end of the operation, Army OH-58D Kiowa Warriors were sent in to augment the 160th SOAR’s helicopter surveillance and attack operations. Overall, the use of mobile sea bases tied with special operations commandos and support capabilities was extremely effective in curtailing Iranian mining operations and aggression in the Persian Gulf, and their use continued till around the middle of 1989.
The rapid re-invention of the USS Ponce is clearly an indication of things to come when it comes to US operations around the Arabian Peninsula. Persistent surveillance at the lowest cost and troop “footprint,” while delivering the maximum effects seems to be goal of military commanders going forward, especially in these tough economic times. Further, after a decade of bloody large-scale occupations of foreign lands and with the Obama’s Administration’s love of Navy SEALs, and special operations in general, it would appear that the SOCOM’s leash will get even looser in the near future. Additionally, historically when the DoD “recycles” aging or redundant assets such as ships and airplanes, and modifies them to conduct new, almost experimental missions, such programs seem to always be a huge success and represent a massive return to the tax payer. The DoD simply throws way to much perfectly good gear away in the hunt for 100%, all “whizzbang” technology solutions. Especially considering that now days, when its more about what is inside a weapons platform electronically than the design of the platform itself. The truth is that their is fantastic military potential sitting out baking in the Arizona Desert, or floating silently in mothball harbors around the US that will increase America’s combat edge, and its all already paid for by the tax payer! Case in point, the Navy’s successful conversion of the four oldest, and almost retired, Ohio Class ballistic missile nuclear submarines into Tomahawk cruise missile and special forces carrying arsenal ships. With a little creativity and ingenuity, America could do so much more with less by working with what they have already got before trying to purchase their way into similar capabilities at great cost. It appears that the DoD is finally catching on to this, as the recent scuttling of the Block 30 Global Hawk program in favor of the 50 year old U-2 program shows.
In the case of the USS Ponce’s new mission, it appears that the powers that be know their history well when it comes to Iranian threats in the vicinity of Straits of Hormuz. If sea basing paired with special operations worked before, why won’t it work again right? One question still remains though, although a ship turned sea base like the Ponce will be mobile, it will also be a very big and high profile target. Further, Iran possesses many more capabilities than it did some 20+ years ago when it comes to anti-surface warfare. With this in mind, how exactly does the US Navy intend to protect such an important, yet dated vessel? Will she come out or refit bristling with Close In Weapon Systems (CIWS), automatic cannons, torpedo screens and maybe some new, longer range ship defenses? Or will she require AEGIS class Destroyers, Cruisers and a fast attack submarine to protect her? It will be interesting to see just how independent the USN and SOCOM want the Ponce to be from the rest of the fleet. In conclusion, with this news one thing has become incredibly clear, it looks like sea basing is finally here to stay…