The amphibious transport dock ship Ponce is tied up at Pier 2 at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on Dec. 2, after what was thought to be its final week at sea. Ponce, which was scheduled to be decommissioned March 30, instead will become the Navy's first Afloat Forward Staging Base. (MC1 Nathanael Miller / Navy)
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Decades after the idea was broached for a floating, mobile base to support operating forces in the Persian Gulf, the concept has suddenly shifted into high gear, and a sense of urgency is driving both new U.S. ship construction and conversion of an existing vessel.
A new Afloat Forward Staging Base is mentioned almost in passing within http://www.navytimes.com/news/2012/01/defense-leon-panetta-says-smaller-military-cutting-edge-012612w/">the Pentagon budget briefing document made public Thursday. Development funding will be provided, the document said, for a new AFSB "that can be dedicated to support missions in areas where ground-based access is not available, such as countermine operations."
Elsewhere, under "industrial base skills," the documents noted that, "for example, adding the afloat forward staging base addresses urgent operational shortfalls and will help sustain the shipbuilding industry in the near-term and mitigate the impact of reducing ship procurement in the" budget.
What is all this verbiage code for?
"This fulfills a long-standing requirement from U.S. Central Command, going back to the Tanker Wars of the late 1980s," said Capt. Chris Sims, a spokesman for U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
Sims was referring specifically to a recent decision to modify the amphibious transport dock ship Ponce — http://www.navytimes.com/news/2011/07/navy-decommissioned-ships-frigate-lpd-071811w/">which had been scheduled to be decommissioned March 30 — into an interim AFSB able to support minesweeping MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters.
The ship will be operated jointly by active-duty Navy officers and sailors, and by government civilian mariners employed by Military Sealift Command — a hybrid crew similar to those used on the Navy's two submarine tenders and the command ship Mount Whitney.
Beyond the conversion, though, the Navy now plans to build at least one, and possibly two, AFSBs.
U.S. Navy officials would not publicly confirm the new construction, but sources confirmed the service plans to modify the Mobile Landing Platform design to take on the AFSB role.
Three MLPs have been funded for construction at the General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding shipyard in San Diego. The ships are large, 765-foot-long vessels able to float off small landing craft, tugs or barges.
For the AFSB role, a fourth MLP hull would be modified with several decks, including a hangar, topped by a large flight deck able to operate the heavy H-53s in the airborne mine countermeasures role.
But the AFSB will also be able to carry Marines, support patrol and special operations craft, and fuel and arm other helicopters.
The ship is expected to be requested in 2014.
Sources also said the Navy might be considering modifying the third MLP to the AFSB mission. Construction of that ship, funded in the 2012 defense bill, is being negotiated between NASSCO and the Navy.
Conversion of Ponce, meanwhile, is proceeding with alacrity. MSC issued requests for proposal on Tuesday to upgrade and refit the ship. Bids are to be submitted by Feb. 3, with work to begin in mid-month. The RFPs state that sea trials are to be carried out in mid-April.
The work includes upgrading the ship's navigation systems, bringing habitability up to MSC standards and general refurbishment. No flight modifications are planned at this time, said MSC spokesman Tim Boulay.
Fleet Forces Command also has begun solicitations for 50 Navy personnel to help man the ship in its special mission role.
Ponce had returned to Norfolk from its final cruise Dec. 2, and crewmembers had already begun the inactivation process when the order came down to keep the ship running.
Use of the ship, Sims said, was "seen as an opportunity to fulfill that longstanding CENTCOM request."