You may have read about the big international mine exercise we had last month in and around the Arabian Gulf. There’s a reason we are focused on mines. Although anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles constitute a significant and growing threat, mines have damaged more ships since World War II than missiles, torpedoes, or small boat attacks combined. Furthermore, mines don’t distinguish between friend and foe, creating a substantial hazard for every ship that passes by.
Getting rid of mines is hard, time-consuming work. Current and traditional concepts of operation have minesweeping ships and helicopters travel from their base to the mined area, mechanically “sweep” an area for contact and magnetic mines, hunt for other mines with sonar, and then neutralize them with small explosive charges. When the helicopters or ships run low on fuel, or equipment breaks, they have to travel (sometimes days) back to base to be refueled and re-equipped.
To help address this problem, we recently used an idea – and a ship – that has been under discussion for several years. To keep our minesweepers close to the operation, while speeding up mine clearing, we deployed USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) to be an Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) in the Arabian Gulf. Originally a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) built in 1966, Ponce was converted earlier this year to enable MH-53 (Sea Dragons) minesweeping helicopters, Avenger-class (MCM-1) mine sweeping ships, and anti-mine divers to refuel, repair, and rest between minesweeping runs.
AFSBs have been used for other missions and are a proven way to keep ships and aircraft in the fight. Destroyer and submarine tenders were forward deployed during World War II. Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) were used in Vietnam during Operation Game Warden, supporting up to ten river patrol boats and two light attack helicopters. The shallow draft of an LST allowed it to operate in the main rivers of the Mekong Delta, increasing the range of river patrol boats. More recently, we used the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) as an AFSB for special operations helicopters and personnel during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
The need to clear mines and support special operations forces will not end anytime soon. And, because she is over 40 years old, Ponce will be an interim solution that will need to be replaced in the near term. To provide an AFSB for the long term, we plan to convert one Mobile Landing Platform (MLP), currently under construction, and build another from the keel up that adds a flight deck, berthing, fuel storage, equipment storage, and repair spaces. Like Ponce, the MLPs (and future AFSBs) will have a rotating crew of civilian mariners and military personnel so they can operate forward almost continuously.
AFSBs provide the nation with options. They can support patrol craft, auxiliary boats, helicopters, and special operations forces, providing a base of operations for everything from counter-piracy/smuggling, maritime security, and mine clearing to humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Although a port provides the potential for greater logistical capacity, they may not be readily available when or where they are needed most. AFSBs can operate globally in international waters, providing what may be the only way to support an important mission.
AFSBs are not a new idea, but with rotating crews and increased capacity, the MLP will dramatically improve our capability where it matters most – forward. They are a key element of my tenet to “Operate Forward,” and are essential to effectively support our partners and allies in the Arabian Gulf and elsewhere.
JONATHAN W. GREENERT
Admiral, U.S. Navy