The USS Ponce (LPD 15, the final ship of the Trenton- or modified Austin-class) received a second lease on life at the last minute last week. After more than forty years of service, she completed her last deployment in December, had just completed her final week at sea and was slated for decommissioning March 30. Instead, she will now be rapidly converted to a special operations and mine countermeasures ‘mothership’ and could be on station in the Persian Gulf as early as this summer, able to support MH-53E Sea Dragons, the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Gulf Cooperation Council and other operations under 5th Fleet. It is reportedly a capability for which U.S. Central Command has been clamoring since the 1980s Tanker Wars and will now — rather remarkably quickly — be fulfilled.
But for the one ship that was saved from the scrap yard, seven Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers with some 25 years of service are slated to go the way of the first five ships of the class (and from what at least one panelist claimed at West 2012, complex Aegis components don’t mothball very well). One of the seven reportedly requires expensive repairs and may also have significant problems with the Mk 45 gun mounts (it turns out the Navy has not always been a good custodian of taxpayer investments).
But for a Marine Corps that has only the prospect of six total 155mm Advanced Gun Systems on three Zumwalt hulls, the Mk45 5″ naval gun looks to remain the old stand-by for naval surface fire support for the foreseeable future. When the Navy retired the five Mark-26 Ticos, it also retired ten 5″ guns. It is now set to retire 14 more 5″ guns and 854 Mk 41 VLS tubes along with them.
Part of the reason we need a 155mm gun for NSFS is because US$1 billion Aegis-equipped warships are staying further and further offshore. I’m not the expert on the Navy’s rationale or the cost considerations of these Ticos, but as a Marine having already experienced a huge reduction in the Zumwalt buy, it’s hard to watch seven hulls with two naval guns apiece get tossed in the rubbish bin. Each ship and ship class is its own question. But if the Ponce can see new life, why can’t, say, the three hulls in the best condition of the seven Ticos facing decommissioning too? Strip off as much of the superstructure as possible and it seems like it might look not unlike a small version of an arsenal ship…
*Many thanks to URR for some righteous-indignation regarding the Navy’s stewardship of massive taxpayer investment in these hulls. I owe much of this post to his insight.