The Lewis B. Puller, seen here in an artist's rendering, will serve as an afloat forward staging base. The Navy's top admiral hopes Marines will use it as a 'lily pad' for crisis response missions in and around Africa. (Marine Corps)
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A new class of amphibious ships could be used to support Marine Corps embassy-security and crisis-response missions in regions such as North Africa and the Arabian Gulf, the Navy’s top admiral said Feb. 25 during a roundtable interview with Marine Corps Times reporters and editors.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert says he’d like to see Mobile Landing Platforms — a new class of ship built to support seabasing — used as an auxiliary to the amphibious ships that are in high demand for Marine Corps missions. With their long center deck that can submerge for ease of loading and docking smaller vessels, he said, MLPs could even be used as a launching platform for the service’s new jump jet, the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, and other Marine aircraft.
The second of four MLPs, the John Glenn, was christened at the beginning of February. The first, the Montford Point, was christened last March and is slated to deploy for the first time next year.
A third MLP, the Lewis B. Puller, named for the Marine legend, is halfway through construction, Greenert said, and will be outfitted with a flight deck to become a variant known as an afloat forward staging base. A fourth ship, also outfitted as a floating base, may be part of the fiscal 2017 budget. In that form, Greenert said, there is potential for the ship to augment a broad range of Marine Corps missions.
“Imagine something with persistence, with a flight deck, with the ability to move a large amount of capacity on and off for [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief], for counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, for what some call the new normal in protection,” Greenert said. “Being able to respond to our embassies in North Africa, off the coast of Yemen, or actually up and around the Arabian Gulf.”
These afloat forward staging bases are capable of holding MV-22s and the range of Marine Corps helicopters, and with some extensions to the flight deck could accommodate the F-35, he said. Greenert said the MLPs were designed to deploy alongside other ships in an auxiliary capacity, and could ideally assist in missions for which the Navy’s fleet of amphibious ships, which support the Corps’ seven Marine expeditionary units, are in high demand.
“They’re not amphib ships. They’re not replacing amphibs,” he said. “But these kind of ships can take the pressure off and help supplement the missions that are out there today that we’re having to use our amphibs for. And these ships can do those kinds of missions.”
The MLPs were built to facilitate seabasing, designed to serve as a floating supply ship, dock for landing craft, and even a hangar if so equipped, and to assist with the transfer of vehicles and gear from ship to shore. But Greenert’s comments shed new light on how the Marines might incorporate the ships into their current mission sets.
Greenert said he sees the ship as a tool for Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response, a relatively new element created to shore up embassy security missions and deploy to flash points throughout Africa at a moment’s notice.
“If [that task force] had to mobilize, so they fly out of I think it’s Morón, [Spain], or areas like that, they come out and locate to the [MLP] and that becomes, if you will, a lily pad — a staging base,” Greenert said. “And they offload their packages, their helos and MV-22s, and we position where they need to be, and then they go from there.”
Greenert said he could also see the ship tapped for use in humanitarian assistance, thanks to their size and capacity — MLPs are 837 feet long to the amphibious transport dock’s 684 feet, and can hold three LCACs, the Navy’s air cushioned landing craft.
“Imagine if that’s in the Western Pacific, say Guam, and you can head to a port where you can transload the gear, you get my point,” Greenert said. The capacity of an MLP, equipped for forward staging, “would far exceed what an amphib could deliver.”
These ships do have their limitations, however. Retired Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, former head of Marine Corps Plans, Policies and Operations, and a past commander of the 22nd MEU, said the MLP was a topic of discussion at a retired executive off-site meeting in Washington, D.C.
While the ships, modified from civilian oil tankers, are less costly to build at $500 million compared to the amphibious transport dock’s $1.6 billion, they also lack the armor and protection of Navy warships.
“You wouldn’t bring a ship like this into harm’s way,” Huly said. “That could narrow their uses.”
However, deploying the ship with its unique capabilities alongside amphibious ships would provide the Marine Corps with added capability, he said.
A spokesman for Marine Corps Combat Development Command, which houses the Corps’ Seabasing Division as well as the Ellis Group, a Marine Corps think tank exploring naval war-fighting effectiveness, said the MLP’s ability to augment amphibious ships is still being researched.
“The extent to which these ships can mitigate shortfalls is being explored, but we anticipate these types of vessels will be able to provide additional capabilities,” said Col. Sean Gibson. “Use of these platforms will provide [combatant commanders] greater operational flexibility.”
Marine officials will likely be discussing possibilities for the MLP in greater depth soon. Greenert said the subject would come up in early March at the Navy and Marine Corps Warfighter talks, which he will attend along with the Marine Corps commandant.■