The US Navy has called for bids to convert an elderly amphibious ship, USS Ponce LPD-15, to a more specialized configuration — a special operations mothership, according to the Washington Post. And they want it done in haste.
Ponce (pronounced PON-say, it’s named for the city on the south coast of Puerto Rico) will then be deployed to the Middle East, which might mean the Somali pirate coast, or might mean the Arabian Gulf (we know that’s not the correct name, but we use it to irritate the Iranians. If they ever overthrow their terror state we’ll change the name back).
Ponce was built in 1971, last of a class of Amphibious Transport Dock ships designed to rapidly transport Marines to beachheads, land them, and provide support as necessary. She can launch her Marines in amphibious armored vehicles, landing craft, small inflatable boars, helicopters or tiltrotors. All those capabilities (plus underwater and parachute oprions) would exist in a special operations configuration as well.
The pirates, who have been forced to develop a set of asymmetric capabilities or die, use motherships to extend the reach of their small boats beyond safe coastal waters into sea lanes rich with ransomable ships and hostages. The Navy’s intentions are more benign towards innocents, but a floating ship gives
Expect a mothership to contain a de facto FOB or JSOTF headquarters with communications and logistics for planning, launching and recovering special operations missions. While these would normally be maritime special ops missions using SEALS and Naval Special Warfare craft, the ship is perfectly capable of embarking and deploying other services’ special operations forces from its well deck or large helipad.
Ships at sea have long been used to free US forces from the political and operational shackles, and the security risks, of land-basing in friendly frontline states. It also relieves those states of domestic and foreign policy burdens those bases, even temporary ones for SOF, can impose.
Finally, the presence of Ponce in an area provides a plausible alternative, allowing clandestine bases, if any, to be credibly denied. That can be good for US and for foreign nations also. There are several foreign countries where all parties denounce the United States in public but while in power work closely with us, and keep that secret when they pass into opposition.
The Post suggests the Pentagon wants the reconfihgured Ponce in “the mideast” by June, and hints broadly that that schedule might be tied to some unspecified future mission.
U.S. military officials declined to say what prompted them to give the Ponce a sudden new lease on life. But contract and bidding documents underscore the urgency of the project.
One no-bid contract for engineering work states that the military was waiving normal procurement rules because any delay presented a “national security risk.” Other contract bids are due Feb. 3. The Navy wants the conversion work to begin 10 days later on the Ponce, which is docked in Virginia Beach.
Amphibious ships of this class (the Austin class), along with Aegis cruisers, were a main focus of Secretary Panetta’s naval budget cut proposals. In fact, just days before this contract was let out, Panetta announced plans to scrap Ponce and her remaining sisters, leaving the Navy with fewer, but younger, amphibious ships — “gators” in Navy slang. The Navy is being cut less than the Army or Marines, but the trend seems to point to a 260-ship Navy, down from nearly 600 at the end of the Reagan Administration, and over 300 today. But unique among her Austin sisters, Ponce seems to have a reprieve.
No word on whether Ponce’s new ship’s motto will be, “Arrrr!”
This post has been edited. The pronunciation of Ponce has been corrected. And jeez, we’ve been to (and like) the city!