America’s Huge Afloat Forward Staging Base In Action

The Navy’s sea basing capabilities are being massively upgraded with these oil tankers turned one-third aircraft carrier, one-third marina and one-third command and control center.

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We have followed the progression of both the Expeditionary Mobile Base and the Expeditionary Transfer Dock, both variants of the Navy’s modified Alaska class oil tanker designs. A small fleet of these two types of ships will allow the Pentagon to have a persistent and capable maritime presence nearly anywhere on the high seas, and rapidly access land masses by conveying masses of military equipment with efficiency never realized before.

The USNS Lewis B. Puller, named after the famous Marine "Chesty" Puller, is the first of three planned Expeditionary Mobile Bases. The ship measures 764-feet long, 164-feet wide, and displaces a whopping 78,000 tons. Its identical sister ship, the USNS Hershel "Woody" Williams, is now under construction in San Diego, and a third ship has been funded. These ships are meant to tackle a slew of tasks, including counter-mine, special operations, humanitarian, counter-piracy and maritime security missions. They can even support large-scale amphibious operations.  

Make sure to read all about these ships, their specs, and the sea basing concept in this past article of mine

The USNS Lewis B. Puller will soon be sent to take over the role as America’s forward afloat staging base in the Persian Gulf. This mission had been executed by the aging Austin class amphibious transport dock, USS Ponce. Late last summer the Puller completed Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E) exercises that saw it field MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters and their massive mine countermeasure sleds as well as deploying small boats from the ship’s cavernous lower level, known as the Mission Deck. It also demonstrated its capability to execute replenishment underway, as well as further proving its seakeeping qualities. 

Although the ship’s baseline requirement was limited to deploying MH-53Es and their mine-hunting gear, as well as small boats, the Navy has chosen to outfit the ship with upgrades that will allow it to simultaneously support special operations forces. Lieutenant Commander Matthew Muehlbauer, the officer in charge of the Puller’s military crew (the ship is ran by a split crew of civilian mariners and sailors) stated the following in a Military Sealift Command press release:

“The Puller is going to receive an upgrade which will enable special operations forces (SOF) to utilize the ship for operations. The Puller will be able to support maritime interdictions, operations potentially in-country, and different adaptive military packages to perform different types of SOF contingencies throughout the world.”

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An MH-53E Sea Dragon sling-loads cargo aboard the Puller

Exactly what this upgrade includes is not clear. Specialized communications, computers, mission planning areas as well as lockers, gyms and berthing areas have probably been added. The ability to deploy special operations helicopters and large boats, are likely part of this enhanced mission fit as well. Outfitted in early 2017, the ship will undergo a similar series of drills proving these capabilities. After that, it will deploy to the Persian Gulf.  

What’s interesting is that that Special Operations Command is quietly constructing its own elaborate sea base ship, tailored to their unique mission set. It seems as if the Puller will be a more multi-role oriented vessel, while the other ship will be used exclusively for special operations missions. 

According to USNI News, the ship currently has four operating spots, two parking spots and two hangar spaces for MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters. As new aircraft are integrated onto the ship, this will likely change — with multiple aircraft handling layouts being certified for operations. By most accounts, adding new aircraft, such as the H-60 and V-22, or unmanned systems such as the MQ-8 will only require basic enhancements, like specific maintenance support systems to the ship’s cavernous hangar deck. The 160th Special Operations Air Regiment, better known as the Night Stalkers, will likely work with the ship as part of its special operations upgrade. The unit flies everything from small MH-6 Little Birds to MH-47 Chinooks. 

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The ship's expansive flight deck is currently setup for MH-53E operations.

The lower “Mission Deck” also has a ton of potential, with unmanned surface and underwater vehicles easily deployed and stored there, as well as towed arrays. Stout cranes mounted on the Mission Deck are capable of lifting much larger boats into the water than small rigid hull inflatable boats, mine countermeasure sleds and unmanned systems they have launched and recovered so far. The cranes are capable of moving 11 metric tons in heavy sea states, which means much larger vessels such as special operations support craft may be deployed from there in the future. Larger vessels can just dock alongside the ship, where they can refuel and rearm. 

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One of the cranes on the ship's Mission Deck.

Although we have seen quite a bit of material showing USNS Montford Point, the Expeditionary Transport Dock version of these ships, in action, pictures and video of the Expeditionary Mobile Base going about its business are more scarce. 

As to how important these ships could become in the inventory, Director of Expeditionary Warfare, Major General Chris Owens, told USNI News that combatant commanders want the ships in their area of operations even before they are constructed, stating: “The demand for that right now is so high, CENTCOM has got their hooks in this one (Puller) but both the [U.S. European Command] and [U.S. Africa Command] commander are asking for that ship, and if not that, they’re getting their bids in early to get the next one committed to them… They know they can employ it nearly full time.”

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A Mk105 mine countermeasures sled that is towed by the MH-53E Sea Dragon.

That's what these ships are all about. By building them off of a reliable and proven commercial platform, and designing them to stay on station for years instead of months, they offer persistence that other naval assets cannot. They do all this at a bargain price as well, costing about the same as a Littoral Combat Ship. 

The only controversial issue with the design at this point is that they are totally defenseless when it comes to anti-ship cruise missile or aircraft attacks. They lack even the basic Mk15 Phalanx close-in weapon system that some of their fellow Sealift Command ships are equipped with. Considering they are built to commercial specifications, not the Navy's, and that they operate with a relatively tiny crew (not idea for damage control), this is troublesome — especially so in light of recent events. Also, given the fact that these ships are supposed to free-up major surface combatants to do higher-end missions, that won’t happen if they need an Aegis-equipped destroyer or cruiser nearby to protect them even in low to medium threat environments. 

Hopefully this deficiency will change, and the ships will get outfitted with SeaRAM before they are sent into dangerous and unpredictable areas of operations. 

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com

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An MH-53E tows a mine countermeasures sled.