Pentagon wants commando “mothership”


The United States amphibious assault ship USS Ponce sails through the Suez Canal in March 2011. If retrofitted as “the mothership,” the vessel could accommodate smaller high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEALs (AP)

The Pentagon is rushing to send a large floating base for commando teams to the Middle East as tensions rise with Iran, al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somali pirates, among other threats.

In response to requests from U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, the Navy is converting an aging warship it had planned to decommission into a makeshift staging base for the commandos. Unofficially dubbed a “mothership,” the floating base could accommodate smaller high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEALs, procurement documents show.

Special Operations forces are a key part of the Obama administration’s strategy to make the military leaner and more agile as the Pentagon confronts at least $487 billion in spending cuts over the next decade.

Lt. Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, declined to elaborate on the floating base’s purpose or to say where, exactly, it will be deployed in the Middle East. Other Navy officials acknowledged that they were moving with unusual haste to complete the conversion and send the mothership to the region by early summer.

Navy documents indicate that it could be headed to the Persian Gulf, where Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial shipping route for much of the world’s oil supply. A market survey proposal from the Military Sealift Command, dated Dec. 22 and posted online, states that the floating base needed to be delivered to the Persian Gulf.

Other contract documents do not specify a location but say the mothership would be used to “support mine countermeasure” missions. Defense officials have said that if Iran did attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, it would rely on mines to obstruct the waterway.

With a large naval base in Bahrain, and one or two aircraft carrier groups usually assigned to the region, the Navy has a substantial presence in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters. Adding the mothership would do relatively little to bolster U.S. maritime power overall, but it could play an instrumental role in secretive commando missions offshore.

The deployment of the floating base could also mark a return to maritime missions for SEAL teams, which for the past decade have spent most of their time on land in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other details of the project became public Tuesday when the Military Sealift Command posted a bid request to retrofit the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport docking ship, on a rush-order basis.

Until December, the Navy had planned to retire the Ponce and decommission it in March after 41 years of service. Among other missions, it was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea last year in support of NATO’s air war over Libya.

Instead, the ship will be modified into what the military terms an Afloat Forward Staging Base. Kafka said it would be used to support mine-clearance ships, smaller patrol ships and aircraft.

The documents posted by the Military Sealift Command in December, however, specify that the mothership will be rebuilt so that it can also serve as a docking station for several small high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEAL teams.

Among the vessels listed are Mark 5 Zodiacs, inflatable boats that can carry up to 15 passengers and can roll up into bags, and seven-meter-long Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats, which can carry an entire SEAL squad.

SEAL teams also deploy from regular warships, but most vessels in the Navy’s fleet must patrol or move around on a regular basis. A mothership can stay in one spot for weeks or months, effectively serving as a floating base for commandos as they monitor coastal areas or prepare for amphibious operations.

The U.S. Special Operations Command has sought a transportable floating base for several years, saying that a mothership would expand the range of commando squads operating from small speedboats, particularly in remote coastal areas.

Defense officials said the Ponce will serve as a stopgap measure until the Navy can build a new Afloat Forward Staging Base from scratch. In budget documents released Thursday, the Pentagon said it would fund that project starting next year.

The floating base also could be suited to the coast of Somalia, a failed state that is home to an al-Qaeda affiliate and gangs of pirates. A mothership there would give SEALs or other commandos more flexibility in missions such as Wednesday’s rescue of a pair of American and Danish hostages who had been held for months by Somali pirates.

The term “mothership” is also commonly used to describe a vessel used by Somali pirates. After hijacking a large container or cargo vessel, pirate crews often turn it into a floating base to extend the range of their skiffs or speedboats far into the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf.

U.S. military officials declined to say what prompted them to give the Ponce a sudden new lease on life. But contract and bidding documents underscore the urgency of the project.

One no-bid contract for engineering work states that the military was waiving normal procurement rules because any delay presented a “national security risk.” Other contract bids are due Feb. 3. The Navy wants the conversion work to begin 10 days later on the Ponce, which is docked in Virginia Beach.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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