What PONCE is Asking Us

January 2012


Over the weekend, it was interesting to watch the various outlets report the plans for USS PONCE (LPD-15). The old girl has served her nation well for 41 years and is about to give some more.

I think the best quote to use as a starting point is here;

The Pentagon’s new budget proposals, unveiled Thursday, included money to turn a freighter hull into a full-time floating base that could be moved around the world for military operations or humanitarian missions.

But the fiscal year does not begin until October and, to meet a standing request from American military commanders in the Middle East, Pentagon and Navy officials decided to convert the Ponce to serve as a floating base in the meantime.

“This is a longstanding request that, with the opportunity now before us, we are fulfilling,” said Capt. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.

… Navy officials acknowledged that they were moving with unusual haste to complete the conversion and send the mothership to the region by early summer.

Longstanding. Yes. The request is:

… the staging base would allow commandos, helicopters, speedboats and even aircraft with a short-takeoff capability to operate in regions where the United States does not have access to installations on land.

While its value as a staging base for combat operations would be a priority, it also could be moved near an area suffering from natural disaster, to provide full logistics for the military to carry out relief missions for a region left without power, food or potable water.

Let that soak in. Read it again. Ponder – hasn’t this been a requirement for at least my lifespan? Haven’t we had such things before? Yes. Don’t we have a lot of platforms easily converted to do such things? Yes. Does it require a big deck to do it? No. Do we have ships already configured as such – yes. Why has it taken so long ……

To simplify things – let’s not even look at piracy for now and what the PONCE could bring to that game. In the broader sense, we have been at war with a non-state terrorist group, its affiliates and supporters for over a decade. This is a war that relies to an exceptional extent on Special Operations Forces. This we know.

As a navy at war, what have we “restructured” to support this outside deployment schedules, itty-bits in NECC, NSW, and certain “special” programs? Look back at the infrastructure that supported special operations in Vietnam and the very short turn around time they had from requirement to shadows pierside. This is not new. This is not radical. This does not require a technological breakthrough. Hey – maybe, ahem, that is/was the problem.

An “Afloat Forward Staging Base” or “mothership” is not a new concept. It is not sexy (to the non-professional), it doesn’t go real fast, but it does do something – it supports the warfighter and his ability to project power ashore and at sea. It multiplies the effect of smaller, more nimble forces to do their job with endurance and a greater sense of autonomy. MIW – sure. NSW – no problem … etc … but why PONCE now – why late – and why USS now?

Ships matter – ships that have enough “white space” to put in to them what you need, take them where they need to go, and have the endurance to stay long enough to make a difference. Not the too-clever-by-half mission module concept – but the inherent utility of “being there” with room to enable others – and to do so with nuance. The multi-purpose amphib, which the PONCE is – is more than simply an amphib – it has always been so – and will be again.

All the above leads to a simple question: through all the “fat” years in a decade of war with plenty of discussions of the need and utility of a “mothership” to meet the needs of this type of war, we did little. Now that we find ourselves in a shrinking budget, why do we panic like, grab the duct tape, bailing wire, and vice grips and rush out to the pier to coax the old girl to give just some more?

Are we that broken that with all our technology, communications, and armadas of Admirals – we find ourselves with this decision point? Are our priorities so out of whack – our processes so blinkered – our leadership so hidebound – that we find ourselves with this lash-up?

Don’t get me wrong – I fully support, encourage, and praise the modification and deployment of PONCE and present/planned follow on AFSB. Many happy returns – but really. This is how we do it?

“This is a longstanding request that, with the opportunity now before us, we are fulfilling … Navy officials acknowledged that they were moving with unusual haste to complete the conversion and send the mothership to the region by early summer.

It’s not like there weren’t other opportunities to do this to other ships over the last decade.

The interesting story would be – inside the “longstanding” timeline – who held back this decision, why, and what are they doing now? What was holding it back – and what finally broke the seal to let it go forward?

I know, call it an accountability review.

Once we do that – then we can have fun discussion about long range plans for the concept WRT active duty/reserve/CIVMAR/USS/USNS etc. There will be a long range plan right? We wouldn’t want to have someone else re-invent this later on will we? We do understand that this is a capability that will be needed for a long time – right? We are planning for the ability to have this “effect” in place longer than one ship’s deployment … right?

Posted by CDRSalamander in Hard Power, Maritime Security, Navy
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  • Concur on the call for accountability, but don’t hold your breath. In another thread a commenter suggested (correctly, if cynically) rather than making sound warfighter decisions is too concerned with keeping the contractors pockets lined—-and building ships of dubious true capability.

  • Cap.n Bill

    Is it possible that the circumstance of having a former Congressional Budget/CIA and longtime Wshington operator running the DOD has anything to do with this ? He could always count on the vote of aa former area commander and war fighter who relieved him at the CIA.

  • the question that should be asked is why now?

    why is SOCOM so publicly broadcasting that it is going to have a floating base of operations called the USS Ponce.

    will it be effective as a base of operations? i doubt it. everywhere it sails it will be monitored closely by friends and enemies alike. certain organizations have the where with all to even keep it under 24 hour watch when it comes into there area of concern.

    so it doesn’t work as a SOCOM floating base so what is this really?

    i believe its a power play. SOCOM now has its own big amphib. when they come asking for a LHA who is to say no now?

    SOCOM has grown and if you count support personnel and civilians then its almost the size of the Marine Corps. its time to look at missions and roles and determine if we aren’t having a bunch of missions duplicated under this big top. its time to determine if SOCOM is worth the money thats being pumped into since Rummy took the reigns of the DoD so many years ago.

  • Al L.

    The time interval this type of platform was needed by Central Command very well coincides with the life of the LPD-17 program. And now the platform is suddenly going to be fielded just when the final LPD-17 class buy is apparently locked in. Coincidence? Operation prime chance occurred in 87-89. The LPD-17 program was started up in 88.

  • Byron

    “keeping the contractors pockets lined”

    Sir, I humbly request that you change the wording of the phrase to “Certain” contractors” 🙂


    Just a thought. If you look at the RFP for the ship conversion, you immediately see several things.

    1. This is not for SOF! Everything in the RFP points to supporting MIW. Helos, EOD, MCMs, MCM staffs.

    2. Then ask, why would MCM in the Arabian Gulf suddenly get such a huge push? OK, that was too easy.

    3. Following the logic, then you would want the ability to conduct MCM outside of land support since your potential opponent has a significant missile capability. So, you need a ship.

    4. So why the PONCE? Need it now, needs MH-53 support capability, a well deck to support minesweeping sleds and EOD boats, and good Command and Control capability. So PONCE works where other options don’t, unless you want to give up a LHA or LHD?

    4. Why now? Nothing sinister, I image a confluance of a variety of things are making it important now.
    a. Changing world situation is focusing attention on MCM capability in the area of the SOH. With perhaps just a bit more emphasis than before.
    b. Organic MCM and LCS hasn’t worked out quite like many people have hoped. So in order to support the dedicated MCM forces, you need support facilities.
    c. The vulnerability of land bases to interdiction by missiles has increased and ballistic missile defense has not kept pace. Simply put, too many missiles not enough defensive missiles to cover everything yet.

    So my thought is that financial priorities are changing due to the very real threat that we may need to conduct MCM operations in the Arabian Gulf and SOH in the very near future. The other cool features are nice, but the MCM support issue is the driver.

    Why didn’t we do it before? Simply put, other priorities were seen to be more important. Nothing sinister, just different priorities were viewed as more important. So we end up with a stopgap with a future plan to procure a better ship down the road.

    You play the percentages and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

  • every news outlet is saying that this is for SOCOM’s use. you can point toward a minesweeping role but that just doesn’t hold water with the initial reporting. they can walk it back now to something more benign but it just doesn’t ring true.

    besides, if it was for use by the Navy for minesweeping then you would want a bigger deck than this. what can it hold? maybe 4 MH-53’s? and if its for minesweeping then the systems being designed for the MH-60’s should be accelerated no? additionally Admiral Harvey is quoted in National Defense Magazine as saying that its more for command and control.

    long story short.

    someone obviously said too much.

  • Byron, “Certain” contractors:))

  • SME

    Concur with USNVO.

    Two thoughts.

    This was attempted with that old LPH down in Ingleside. It was a disaster that didn’t last long.

    Two. The PONCE has been rode hard and put up wet. I would bet some systems have already started to be cannibalized.

    If your REALLY scared, why not dedicate a more modern ALREADY up to date platform, with real live 21st century whiz bang C4I and an armload of bandwidth.

    The PONCE has been in the decom window for a long time.

    You KNOW what that means…

    Seems half assed at best.



  • Salty Gator

    I can think of 2 LSD’s that are prime candidates for this same AFSB process right now……and it would help keep the lift capability from shrinking too much more.

  • William Horn

    The decommissioning of USS Ponce came as DOD recognized the urgency to prepare for hostilities with Iran. Signs point to the urgent need for USS Ponce in the Gulf even before July, should Iran carry through on its threats.
    Recalling the tanker war of the 1980s, we required not only mine countermeasures operations, but conducted an intense, less publicized, battle with high speed boats and special ops attack helos. The SEAL-operated high speed boats were based on an offshore oil platform/barge.
    With other cuts in the Navy anticipated, this should remind us again how valuable some of the ships being cut can be in the case of an unanticipated crisis, battle losses, or the sudden need for more amphibious lift. For me, this underlines the need to retain many of thse decommissioned ships in reserve rather than the practice of recent years to promptly sink, scrap, or sell them.
    –Bill Horn



    Your points are good, but read the RFP and what the Navy said. Its also worth reading the Aflaot Forward Staging Base Market Survey as well. Then look at the what all the news reports say.

    1. MCM Operations require lots of Command and Control. The minimum acceptable size, as determined from numerous exercises, is an LPD. Oh look, an LPD! Do you need 370 personnel to support an SOF detachment? No, but it is just about right for a 4 aircraft AMCM detachment, EOD detachments, an MCMRON, and various support units.

    2. Deck size is specifically related to support of AMCM MH-53Es. And since there just happens to be 4 forward deployed in Bahrain, well that fits pretty good. Laydown size in the AFSB MS and Crane requirements are perfectly sized to support AMCM sleds. Of course if you can carry a MH-53E you can carry a -60 but…

    3. It is required to support small boats but specifically long ranged RHIBs and MK5s. Both the RHIB and MK5 are used by EOD for MCM. They are used by SEALS as well but, the most likely SOCOM boat, the MK5 is not mentioned at all.

    4. Ship is largely unarmed. Bad for a SOCOM platform but not a real liability for a dedicated MCM support platform. The employment of MH-53Es and MCM-1 class ships pre-suppose a permissive environment.

    5. It doesn’t really make sense for SEALS, at least not as a dedicated capability. A SSGN is far more stealthy if you are going to use boats to infiltrate. A CVN or LHA/LHD offoers far more capability if you are going to use Helos, as well as providing significant cover for your operation. A AFSB would just attract unwanted attention. SOF has a much smaller footprint and doesn’t require all the heavy lift cranse. So it’s overkill for SEALs and it’s especially overkill for the vessel described in AFSB Market Survey.

    So bottom line, why I don’t buy the logic reporters use in the “it’s for SOCOM” argument (which largely boils down to “the ship is to support helos and boats, and SOCOM uses helos and boats, it must be for SOCOM”. See how silly it is when you say it that way?).
    1. The Navy didn’t say it is for SOCOM. In fact, they have specific AMCM support criteria.
    2. It’s not sized for the SOCOM mission (way to big) while it is perfectly sized for the MCM mission
    3. The need for a SOCOM platform is not great, but a AFSB is a strong requirement for the MCM mission ever since the INCHON was axed.
    4. The ability to clear mines in the SOH has just moved way up on the CENTCOM wish list.

    Why not push the MH-60S pieces? Actually this arguments supports the AMCM focus of the AFSB, why it wasn’t procured sooner, and why it is being rushed now. When the LCS/MCM MP (MH-60S, OMCM, WLD-1, etc) comes online, the point is largely moot. The LCS will have the range and mobility to do the mission without an AFSB (unlike the MCM-1 class). Since it was always just around the corner (be it Organic MCM from the CVN or later the LCS MCM MP) you don’t need an AFSB. So people tended to say, “This isn’t such a priority, we can wait on this and maybe we won’t need it. But now, its fish or cut bait time and they need a stopgap solution. One that covers the short term until 2017 or so when you have IOC on LCS MCM (maybe, past track record not inspiring confidence).

    This is not to say I am right. I am just reading the tea leaves (and the documents), but a primary MCM focus makes a lot more sense than a SOCOM focus. Not to say that SOCOM couldn’t use an AFSB (or disaster relief, surface patrol, VTUAV launch platform, or whatever), but I don’t think it is the primary reason it is being pushed today.


    Oops, I meant to say EOD uses the MK5 Inflatable boat, listed in the RFP, but SOCOM uses the MK5 Patrol Boat, noticably absent in the RFP.

  • leesea

    News Flash from Inside Defense:Harvey: Afloat Staging Base For Mine Countermeasures, Not Special Ops.
    You got to buy the article to see the details.

  • leesea

    Let me say upfront that the Phibian is RIGHT ON here!
    NSW and MSC have been there and done that for mothershhip before. USNS GySgt Fred W. Stockham was modified to be an AFSB. NSW chartered barges as forward outposts.
    It seems part of the blue water navy ALWAYS defaul to using old warships for missions that could be done from other ship types?
    BTW the stated Market Survery was cancelled and the mods are now based on a Ponce MTA work package totalling over $50 millon

  • Old Farter

    The MCM mothership is nothing new. The USS Inchon was converted from LPH to MCS after Desert Storm (1995). She decommissioned in 2002 after she was severely damaged during a mainspace fire in Oct 2001 . (1 sailor died) It would be interesting to compare the conversion of the Inchon in the 90s to the Ponce project of 2012.

  • James

    I Saw on another sight how Maersk put up the idea of using one of their cargo ships repurposed for a AFSB. Enough to support something like 18 MV-22’s at once on a flight deck.


    In this case, I am not sure there is any bias against merchant ships.

    A former amphib is probably the best short term answer, although a purpose built (or modified) merchant ship is certainly possible and may be the best long term solution.
    Finding a merchant ship immediately available or rapidly configurable to include
    1. An all-weather NAVAIR certified flight deck.
    2. Air suupport facilities like hanger, tower, night lighting, JP5, TACAN, etc.
    3. Communications suite sufficient for the mission
    4. Berthing and support for 400 sailors or more.
    5. A well deck. Although not required it has been found to be a real plus in conducting AMCM sled operations and also has utility for several other MCM operations.
    is simply not going to happen. An LPD offers a quick although far from optimal solution.

    The proposals for a long term solution should be interesting.

  • Bucherm

    “The interesting story would be – inside the “longstanding” timeline – who held back this decision, why, and what are they doing now? What was holding it back – and what finally broke the seal to let it go forward?”

    I’d guess that there have been limitations on the ability to carry out hostage rescue operations like the one that was recently conducted in Somalia, and someone finally wised up and realized that with the fecal matter hitting the rotary blade in many of the potential host nations in the AO(Yemen, Pakistan, possibly Bahrain) we absolutely positively needed an afloat staging base.

  • leesea

    Maersk conversion of one of its S-Class containers ships was proposed about three years ago. Congressional critters killed it because ship is foreign built. May well be a great sealift asset but not to Hill dwellers who take their marching orders from big US shipyards (more money in warships then simple conversions). All above except in parens is documented on paper.

  • About six months ago I was at the Inactive Ships Facility in Bremerton and noticed that the ex-USS Dubuque (LPD-8)was tied up there. She was only decommissioned in June of 2011. Seems like she would be a good candidate for a second conversion behind Ponce. After all, you can’t keep a single ship on station forever; as much as some would like.

  • leesea

    WHY continue the expensive practice of converting amphib warships for other missions? There are newer and less expensive ships to use for AFSB missions.

    Ponce is just an interim expedient solution because the Navy was caught with its pants down. She will probably work in/our of Bahrain?

    Or I could tout the party line: LCS will be available in the future for mothership missions – yeah right~

  • leesea

    other ship candidates: Abaslon class, Endurance class, JSS type in many of its versions.

    Bad example of a AFSB is MLP, which could be killed to buy new and more properly designed AFSB or other ships.

  • Dan

    Anyone been on PONCE lately or looked at a picture? 4 53’s on deck? maintenance hangar? Not sure where that would be. How about an old LHA instead. Comes with well deck and lots of flight deck acreage. Oh wait, we keep sinking our older ships that might have some use right away so we can keep up the demand for newer ships from the shipyards.

  • James

    Absolon could fullfill every thing we need in a low end surface combatant as well as offer alot of space for marines and is able to lay about 300 mines as well as hunt them down.

    AND its far more survivable than a LCS or even a old perry class.

    Oh yea its only around 300mil where the LCS is what 450-550mil without moduals?

  • ABSOLON is the answer to what we need. LCS is the answer to what someone thought we would need in the late 20th century, and now is only an industrial base project outside other people saving face.

    Team LCS was wrong – Team ABSOLON was right. We now have too many egos and careers wrapped up in LCS to kill it unless we have someone in a civilian uniform drive the knife A-12 like in to the program.

    The time for that though, has roughly passed …. but I digress and am close to hijacking my own post. Bad Sal … bad Sal.

  • CDR S.,

    It is a shame that ego/careers would stop the navy from doing what is right. One thing proven by this decision is the USN is capable of adapting, but only when the knife of evaporating funding is wielded aggressively.


    James, CDR S.,

    While I agree the ABSOLON offers some wonderful insights into what we might want in a surface combatant to handle the low end mission, it doesn’t come close to being what you want from an AFSB.

    The number one thing is lots of space for fuel, stores, command staff, and support infrastructure. The PONCE works as a stopgap but clearly is not what you want long term. Something on the size of the MERCY or the Maersk S-Class ships that can support helos, patrol boats, MCMs, and even larger ships is what we want.

    Shoot, we might even call them Tenders and name them after national parks!

    As a side note, when comparing ship unit costs, they way the US calculates cost and the way other navies calculate costs are often different. For construction and fully outfitting, the ABSALON cost 2.7 Billion Kroner in 2004. That equates to roughly $475 million in US Dollars. But, that doesn’t include design costs, training development, crew training, GFM, and other costs that are paid by the LCS program that show up as unit cost. A fairer comparison might be $700 million a piece when you compare apples to apples. Still relatively cheap for the capability it provides and a good example of the trade-offs the US Navy should be making.