Transport Vessel Isn’t Being Made SEAL Mothership, Admiral Says

The Navy isn’t deploying a “mothership” in the Persian Gulf for SEALs and other special operations forces, contrary to reports by a number of news organizations, the service’s top fleet-readiness commander said.

The Navy is contracting instead for upgrades to improve capabilities of the 42-year-old USS Ponce, an amphibious transport ship that was to be decommissioned, the official said.

The Ponce is “not going over there as an alternate command ship; it’s not going over there as a special operating force ‘Death-star Galactica’ coming through the Gulf,” Fleet Forces Command commander Admiral John Harvey said at a meeting with reporters yesterday. “It’s going over there as” an interim staging base until a newer vessel can be purchased.

Fox News, CBS News and the Washington Post were among news organizations that said the vessel was being converted for commando use. Those assessments were inaccurate, Harvey said.

Some reporters read Military Sealift Command procurement documents last week and drew the wrong conclusions from certain specifications and the timing of the successful U.S. special operations rescue of two hostages, an American and a Dane, on Jan. 25 in Somalia, Harvey said.

“The topic was a hot one, and people read these” documents “we generate very closely. I think they put two and two together and got 22,” Harvey said.

The U.S. already has numerous air and naval facilities in the Persian Gulf that can handle special operations forces and their boats, aircraft, surveillance platforms and other equipment, said another defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because special operations are classified.

Concentrating Warriors

It would make little sense to concentrate a number of the nation’s most elite warriors on a boat in the Persian Gulf where they would be vulnerable to a variety of Iranian attacks and would require other vessels, missiles and aircraft to protect an aging ship, the official said.

Instead, the revamped Ponce is envisioned as a “lilypad” for counter-mine Sikorsky MH-53 helicopters and patrol craft, Harvey said, a requirement that’s been in place since at least 2009.

“There were things we could do that could made it amenable” for some spaces “to be used by special operating forces, but it is not an SOF support platform,” he said.

Marine General James Mattis, the U.S. Central Command Commander, reiterated this year the need for such an “afloat forward-staging base,” and once the Ponce became available “it offered an opportunity,” Harvey said.

Mooring Small Vessels

Navy procurement documents list as one specification the capability to moor some small vessels often used by SEALS, such as MK-5 Zodiacs and small riverine craft.

Bid documents call for converting the Ponce by June 1 into a support base for U.S. Navy 5th Fleet mine-sweeping vessels and helicopters or small patrol craft in the Persian Gulf, Harvey said.

Contractors interested in bidding on the Ponce upgrade must respond by Feb. 3, said Military Sealift Command spokesman Timothy Boulay. “There is no firm date of award,” he said in an e-mail. The work’s value is still to be determined, he said.

“My goal is to have it ready to sail on the 1st of June,” Harvey said.

The stories about the Ponce appeared on the same day that the Wall Street Journal said the U.S. is upgrading its most powerful bomb to better penetrate deeply buried Iranian nuclear sites, quoting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as acknowledging the new weapon’s shortcomings.

Bomb Improvements

Four congressional defense committee are reviewing a Jan. 20 Pentagon request to shift $81.6 million to improve the 30,000-pound Boeing Co. Massive Ordnance Penetrator from less important programs.

The one-paragraph explanation requests funds to “fix issues identified in testing, including tail fin modifications and integrating a second fuse, enhance weapon capabilities, build test targets and conduct live weapon testing.”

The bomb “can be used in a variety of scenarios, and they haven’t been developed with any one country or mission in mind,” said Pentagon spokesman George Little.