The newest vessel in the Corps' amphibious arsenal carries the name of its most iconic Marine — and it is ready for action.
The first Afloat Forward Staging Base — the Lewis B. Puller — was delivered to the Navy in San Diego on June 12. The staging base is a variant of the Mobile Landing Platform, a state-of-the-art amphibious platform designed to act as a floating helicopter pad and special forces base.
The AFSB lacks the survivability of its namesake, or an amphibious assault ship, for that matter. But berthing for 250 troops, flight deck, fuel and equipment storage, and repair spaces make the AFSB a key asset for special purpose Marine air-ground task forces and special operations units. The AFSB's hangar has two aviation operating spots capable of handling MH-53E or equivalent helicopters. Its reconfigurable mission deck area can store embarked force equipment to include mine sleds and rigid-hull inflatable boats.
Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford in March spoke of "a gap in our ability to do crisis response from the sea," specifically in Europe and Africa. Dunford said he expects combatant commanders to request the AFSB to fill that gap. The Marine Corps unit that responds to crises in Africa is currently based in Spain.
Where the new AFSB an afloat forward staging base might eventually be positioned is unclear. Dunford mentioned the Mediterranean, which abuts Africa's northern coast, the assistant Navy secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition told Congress in late Februarythat the Gulf of Guinea, off Africa's western coast to the south, might be the chosen staging place.
The importance of finding a midpoint between Europe and Africa for positioning troops ahead of a crisis was illustrated during the Marines' evacuation of U.S. Embassy personnel from Juba, South Sudan, early last year amid worsening security conditions on the ground. It took nearly 16 hours to fly 250 Marines to from Morón, Spain, the headquarters base for Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa, to a forward position in Entebbe, Uganda, ahead of the evacuation.
Touted as an alternative to the additional amphibious ships Marine and Navy brass want but can't afford to build, the mobile landing platform is designed like a civilian oil tanker with a center deck that submerges to receive landing craft and connectors, equipped to serve as a sort of forward operating base at sea. The afloat forward staging base is a variant of the MLP, with an added flight deck and other features.
"This ship represents a leap forward in flexible capability for the U.S. Navy," said Capt. Henry Stevens, Strategic and Theater Sealift program manager for Program Executive Office (PEO), Ships, in a Navy release.
The MLP program comprises five ships across two variants. The Montford Point and John Glenn were delivered and are serving in the fleet. A yet-to-be-named fourth MLP, also an AFSB variant, is under construction and expected to be completed in 2018. A fifth AFSB is planned for procurement in fiscal 2017. In addition, the Ponce, a converted dock landing ship, is serving as an interim AFSB and is deployed to 5th Fleet.
Lt. Gen. Puller, known as "Chesty," led had one of the most storied distinguished careers in the Corps. The former enlisted leatherneck rose through the officer ranks as he fought in some of the Corps' fiercest fights most noteworthy battles to include Guadalcanal and Peleliu in World War II, as well as the Inchon landing and Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Puller spent all but 10 years of his 37 years in the service overseas, according to his official biography. He earned 14 personal combat decorations and is the only Marine to earn the Navy Cross five times.