U.S. Navy Sea Base To Reposition Off Sudan For Evacuation Contingency
The Navy began buying sea bases like the USS Lewis B. Puller in the first place in part to help respond to crises like the one rocking Sudan.
The U.S. Navy's Expeditionary Sea Base ship USS Lewis B. Puller is on its way to take up a position off the coast of Sudan where it could support evacuation efforts if required. The ship's unique abilities to support these kinds of operations are among the exact reasons why the Navy began working to acquire vessels of this type more than a decade ago.
Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder announced that Puller was headed for Sudan earlier today at a routine press conference. The Navy had already deployed the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Truxtun to the area, where it is also on call, if necessary. The deployment of Puller follows a U.S. military operation this weekend to help American diplomats and their dependents evacuate Sudan's capital Khartoum, which you can read more about in The War Zone's past reporting on the crisis here.
There has been fighting in that city and other parts of the country since April 15 when Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) launched major attacks on elements of the country's military. This putsch came after a falling out between RSF head Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, and Sudanese Army Gen. Abdul Fattah Al Burhan. The two have been running a fragile junta together since 2021 when they led a coup against a fledging civilian government that come to power following the ouster of long-time dictator Omar Al Bashir.
The capabilities that both Puller and Truxtun offer "will be there should we need to use them in support of [the] State Department’s efforts," Pentagon spokesperson Ryder explained. "The idea here is to have these capabilities offshore available should we need, for example, to transport citizens to another location, should we need to provide medical care, those kinds of things."
Puller, a ship derived from the Alaska class supertanker that is around 785 feet long and displaces some 90,000 tons with a full load, is particularly well suited for such missions. The Navy currently has three Expeditionary Sea Bases (ESB) in service, including Puller, which was commissioned in 2017, and is in the process of acquiring three more.
Each ESB has a big open flight deck on top that can accommodate Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and various types of helicopters, including larger transport types like CH-47 and MH-47 Chinooks and CH-53 and MH-53 Super Stallions. The ship can also launch and recover various types of drones, including ones that take off and land vertically and types that are shot into the air via catapult and are then caught out of the air at the end of their sorties.
Below the ESB's flight deck is a similarly open mission deck that can be configured in various ways, including with additional medical facilities and other containerized mission spaces. Smaller watercraft and uncrewed surface and undersea vehicles can be deployed and recovered from these areas of the ship, too, as well. Overall, the ships, which have relatively small core crews of around 44 people, can be set up to accommodate up to 250 people, at least, depending on the mission, according to the Navy.
Prior to the current crisis in Sudan, Puller specifically was already forward deployed in the region ready to support a variety of operational requirements, including serving as a floating base for special operations forces or mine-sweeping units, if required. In February, the ship moved into the Mediterranean Sea to help with the response to a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked parts of southern Turkey and northern Syria. This had already underscored the vessel's utility for conducting disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, and other non-combat missions.
Truxtun is not particularly optimized for supporting evacuation efforts or other non-combat operations. However, it does have Seahawk helicopters embarked on board that could be used to move smaller numbers of personnel and amounts of cargo around, including bringing people to the ship for emergency medical care. The destroyer, with its radars and other sensors, could provide valuable additional situational awareness for U.S. officials going forward.
The destroyer, of course, also retains its ability to employ various tiers of weapons in response to threats that might arise in the region. Beyond the immediate crisis in Sudan, the Red Sea is not without potential dangers, including the possibility of attacks from Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Puller's own self-defense capabilities are limited to machine guns mounted at various points around the ship, so having a more robust escort makes good sense, in general.
Puller and Truxtun are not the only U.S. military assets available to support evacuation efforts in Sudan if called upon, either. Pentagon spokesman Ryder today noted that intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft are providing 24/7 coverage of certain areas of the country.
"Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities" are being used "to observe potential land routes out of Sudan and detect threats," Ryder explained at the press conference today.
John Kirby, the main spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said separately today that unspecified drones were among the platforms being employed. Flight tracking data available online indicated that an RC-135W Rivet Joint spy plane, capable of collecting a variety of communications and other electronic intelligence, had directly supported the U.S. military operation to help American diplomats and others evacuate from the Embassy in Khartoum over the weekend. It's unclear if that aircraft, or others like it, might still be monitoring the situation in Sudan, but there are some signs this could be the case.
In addition, the U.S. embassy evacuation effort was staged out of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a major U.S. hub in the Horn of Africa. Satellite imagery The War Zone reviewed from Planet Labs shows a significant uptick in U.S. military aircraft there that would be available for follow-on missions.
Other U.S. air, ground, and naval forces could of course be brought in from other bases in East Africa, the Middle East, or Europe, as well as from the United States proper. In the wake, of the infamous attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2011, the Pentagon and the State Department took additional steps to be better prepared to respond to these kinds of crises. The aftermath of the chaotic and controversial effort to help Americans, other foreign nationals, and at-risk Afghans evacuate from Afghanistan following the Taliban's return to power in that country in August 2021 has provided additional new lessons.
However, at the time of writing, the U.S. government says that is providing assistance to private U.S. nationals who want to evacuate the country, but that there are no plans for any major military-led evacuation effort.
"We have started to see a more regular pattern of convoys begin to arrive, including convoys that have Americans in them," U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also said today. "Once at the port then we are using diplomatic facilities in neighboring countries to help those Americans with their onward travel so that they can get safely out of the country."
How many American nationals may be trying to flee the country, with or without assistance from the U.S. government, is unclear. As of last week, the U.S. State Department said that around 500 citizens had been in touch with the Embassy in Khartoum – which has now suspended its operations entirely – and that 55 of those individuals had requested help in leaving the country, according to NBC News. That outlet said that there could be as many as 16,000 U.S. nationals, at least, many of who are dual nationals, in Sudan.
Though naval vessels like Puller, as well as U.S. military aircraft, could help transport those individuals onward, it is also possible that American officials will be able to arrange commercial transport. This could include chartering ferries to bring people from Port Sudan to Saudi Arabia on the opposite side of the Red Sea.
U.S. military forces could potentially be required to go ashore to help manage things, especially in Port Sudan, where other countries are trying to coordinate evacuation efforts, too. A number of other foreign military forces have been conducting their own airlifts to bring their government employees and other nationals out of Sudan in recent days, as well.
"[U.S.] Africa Command has established a deconfliction cell at its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, which helps to enable good communication among our allies and partners," Pentagon spokesperson Ryder noted at his briefing today.
What role the U.S. military has left to play in this crisis in Sudan remains to be seen and will be largely dictated by the actions of the parties to the current fighting in the country.
"Following intense negotiation over the past 48 hours, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have agreed to implement a nationwide ceasefire starting at midnight on April 24, to last for 72 hours. During this period, the United States urges the SAF and RSF to immediately and fully uphold the ceasefire," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement this afternoon. "To support a durable end to the fighting, the United States will coordinate with regional and international partners, and Sudanese civilian stakeholders, to assist in the creation of a committee to oversee the negotiation, conclusion, and implementation of a permanent cessation of hostilities and humanitarian arrangements in Sudan. We will continue to work with the Sudanese parties and our partners toward the shared goal of a return to civilian government in Sudan."
A number of ceasefires have already been announced in the past week or so only to collapse almost immediately. There are reports that foreign factions may be supporting the opposing sides and getting in the way of efforts to bring the fighting to a halt. The United Nations has warned the conflict has the potential to grow into a regional conflagration.
The very fluid situation in Sudan is clearly one of the reasons why the U.S. military continues to position itself, including with the deployment of the very capable USS Puller, to be able to best respond to any new developments.
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