Monday, September 24, 2012

USS Ponce - Afloat Forward Staging Base

Navy Times has posted a short article (1) describing the initial deployment of the USS Ponce which is the amphibious ship that was converted into an afloat forward staging base.  Among other possible uses, the ship will provide mine countermeasures support, SOF support and command facilities, area surveillance via UAVs, mothership maintenance support to smaller vessels, and so forth.  This is still a somewhat experimental concept in terms of opertional concepts and usefulness but it is good to see the Navy get more use out of an older amphibious ship rather than retire it.

USS Ponce Recovering UAV

 The most interesting aspect of this is that the ship is largely crewed by civilians with roughly ¾ from the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the remaining ¼ from the Navy.  Given that the ship is intended to operate close to the action, that raises the likely possibility of combat operations by a civilian crewed ship.  MSC has operated supply ships for the Navy for a long time and I’m sure the legal aspects of potential combat have long since been dealt with, however, this is the most extreme example of a civilian crewed ship intended to be very near the action that I’m aware of.

I wonder how combat, damage control, command, and discipline are handled?  I know little about this aspect of the Navy but it’s a fascinating area.


  1. "Experimental concept" perhaps--but Ponce in 1974-78 (1) supported minesweeping helos (2) supported SOF (3) operated what was then called a reconnaissance drone and (4) fixed just about anything anyone brought over to us. While the UAV control is now built in rather than being in a CONEX box, the experiment has been going on for some time.
    Bill the Shoe

    1. Good comment, Bill. It sounds like the current experiment is more of a simple expansion of previous capabilities than anything brand new.

      How did the previous activities work out? It must have been deemed reasonably successful or the current effort wouldn't have taken place, I would think? Were any weaknesses or gaps identified?

    2. Actually, I think it was so long ago that only we dinosaurs remember. An LPD worked well as a lilypad but was limited for long-term support by having only two spots and no AIMD.
      You'll find more on the minesweeping and drone ops here in the ship's history:

    3. Thanks for the link. Unfortunately, it doesn't have any more than what you already mentioned. Still, interesting reading. Thanks!

    4. During Vietnam river ops. it were mostly small riverine attack elements to be supported and inshore minesweeping. Also, the main battle helo was the Huey and OH 6 Cayuse. These are smaller and simpler to support than the presentday Seahawks and other high tech drones.
      The ideal ship today would have been a Guadalcanal class LHA and these were actually used to support and command minesweeping ops and were CH 53 capable.But, seemingly, everything that is small and simple seems impossible for the US...-))The mineclearing ops. were mostly passed on smaller NATO nations like Belgium but, if for some reason they are unwilling to follow US lead, the US are "pants down".

    5. Outstanding, William! I had to laugh over your small and simple comment. You're exactly right!

      You're also correct about the US relying on other nations for mine operations. That is a potential weakness and the Navy seems to be in no great hurry to correct it. They bet everything on the LCS being the solution to mine clearing and now that that's failed there's no solution for the foreseeable future.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I recently read "Tanker War: America's First Conflict with Iran, 1987-88" by Lee Allen Zatarain.

    It gives a pretty good overview of how US converted two oil service barges to serve as staging bases for MIW, SOF support, ISR, etc. It strikes me as very similar concept to what they are doing with Ponce.

  3. Do the civilian ship's crew belong to a Union?
    If so could they be encouraged to strike during a time of need rendering the ship Hors De Combat at the worst possible moment?

  4. During Vietnam the Navy used LSTs and converted LSTs (ARLs - mobile repair shops) to support the “brown water navy”.

    Operation End Sweep, the USN mission 1973 to clear naval mines in Vietnamese waters towards the end of the conflict, used two LPHs and three LPDs to support the minesweepers and CH-53s.

    The USS Tripoli hit a mine in 1991 while supporting minesweeping operations.

    The USS Inchon, an LPH, was used in the mine countermeasures role (MCS) from 1996 to 2001. But she was retired without a replacement. One of the recently retired LHAs, like the Nassau, would be perfect for the role of an AFSB, easily able to support multiple MH-53s and UAVs. Ideally, When the USS Peleliu is replaced by the new USS America; they turn her into a MCS or AFSB.

    I believe with all the problems the San Antonios are having that the Navy had to postpone the decommissioning of a worn out 42 year old LPD for the kind of mission the newer generation of LPDs should be able to do easily. Couple that with the high OpTempo of the whole amphibious force and there is not a single ship to spare.

    The Navy had to use the subterfuge of an immediate CENTCOM or SOCCOM request to have the costs of converting and operating a large ship in the Indian Ocean transferred outside the Navy’s funding channels. There is nothing Ponce is doing right now that could not be handled by an LSD/LPD.



    1. I'm not sure I completely understand what you're driving at? If a new LPD was used for the Ponce's functions wouldn't that remove the LPD from amphibious use, at least for the duration of the assignment? I assume that was the reason behind selecting an about to be retired gator to perform the AFSB role - to avoid removing an active amphib from its given role. I may be misunderstanding your point.

      As far as the cost of conversion, playing games with funding is nothing new for the Navy. They've been quite blatant about near-fraudulent accounting practices of late. Still, I was not aware that the Ponce conversion was paid outside the Navy budget. Do you have any info on who/how it was paid?


    2. If the Navy wasn't stretched thin already, then a ship could be detailed to act as a mothership, AFSB, or whatever name is convenient. The fact that the new LPDs are still not fully functional, and the rest of the gator navy is over-tasked, means that a ship that was about to be scrapped is sent to a war-zone. Most of her sister ships have been retired from USN service, one serves with the Indian Navy.

      I have nothing definite about funding, but the way the Navy, Pentagon, and your link have described the role of the Ponce suggests it. The Ponce is doing a mission close to a hostile power with a crew of 155 civilians and 55 sailors. The conversion seems to be only on the C2 center; everything else is unchanged. That's non-sense, unless CENTCOM or someone else is footing the bill and wants a LPD on the cheap for a year or two.



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