Fleet Forces Command commander Admiral John Harvey and Marine General James Mattis, the U.S. Central Command Commander, spoke of the speedy need for an "afloat forward-staging base" and, once the Ponce became available for decommissioning, "it offered an opportunity" Harvey said. "Ponce is going over there as an interim staging base until a newer vessel can be built". The 570-foot long ship's flight deck and well deck are well suited to carry the helicopters and small boats that SOF troops would use to execute missions from this floating assault base. The Navy market bid requires the development of a floating base that can be used in the Persian Gulf, able to carry 370 personnel and have a 20-person operations center. The flight deck must accommodate four Sikorsky MH-53 medium-sized navy helicopters and a have stowage for up to twelve riverine patrol and Zodiac type vessels in her well deck.
While normal USN procedure is to not discuss SEAL operations or their missions, the public refitting of the USS Ponce for Special Ops use in the Middle East is more of a political statement as much as a news story with current Iranian threats to mine the Strait of Hormuz - the most strategic strait of water in the world.
Update July 13th, 2012:
The 42-year old ship Ponce began her reconversion from a Landing Pad Deck when she was transferred from the US Navy to the Military Sealift Command on February 1st, 2012. Soon after, Ponce entered a commercial shipyard at the MHI Ship Repair & Services dock in Norfolk, Va. for her refit. The shipyard workers and the Ponce crew worked around the clock to complete the work in a record time of three months. This overhaul was urgent due to the threat made by Iran to mine the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel choke point where a fifth of the world's oil is ferried by commercial maritime tankers.
The US Navy sees the refitted Ponce as an "Afloat Forward Staging Base" (AFSB) interim step indicated in her new classification while a new class ship is designed and comes on line. Her upgrades are mostly internal; she was repainted stem-to-stern and upgraded sensors were added. Her displacement going in for the refit was 8883 tons light though now she is listed as 8894 tons with an increase of 11 tons - or 22,000lbs. Her quick refit included an updated bridge to replace aging internal and navigation equipment with state-of-the-art commercial systems. A happy crew is a well-fed crew so the galley was switched out will all new stoves, ovens, coolers and a self-service area. Her old boilers were refurbished and her condensers were cleaned. All of the ship's equipment on deck and below was inspected and either repaired or replaced.
On June 1st, 2012 USS Ponce sailed from Norfolk on her 32nd deployment of her 42-year career. Her destination was Manama, Bahrain for a two-year deployment. She will add to the 5th Fleet's area of operation for mine countermeasure missions, to patrol the coastline by sea and with her air wing. Before her refit late in 2011, much media speculation was made that her new mission was to be a Navy SEAL mother ship. As the Navy never discusses SEAL operations, and if she is in fact a SEAL base, it will be a clandestine one. Ponce arrived at the Naval Station Rota, Spain on June 13th and, after resupply, made for the Mina Salman Pier, Manama, Bahrain (NNS) arriving on July 6th, 2012.
USS Ponce will remain a US Navy ship and is currently commanded by Captain Jon Rodgers. The new AFSB ship's crew will have 148 Military Sealift Command (MSC) civilian mariners who will handle the navigation and operate the ships engineering, deck and damage control departments, plus the stevedore loading and unloading of supplies. The MSC crew will also provide services to other deployed units in the 5th Fleet area of operation as needed. Civil service mechanics working for the MSC can provide other ships needing machinery, electrical, or diesel engine repairs.
Ponce's primary mission will be to support mine countermeasures (MCM) operations. The new crew has 55 US Navy Sailors onboard and responsible for the ship's offense and defense, plus flight operations. The Navy has information systems technicians, electronics technicians, operations specialists, gunner's mates and seamen. The Navy crew on Ponce will launch and recover small riverine craft, LCAC or LCU vessels and Sikorsky MH-53 "Sea Dragon" helicopters equipped with the "SeaFox" - an expendable mine disposal vehicle (EMDV). The mine hunter has several sensor systems including closed-circuit TV to identify and destroy ground and attached mines. As of June 6th, 2012 Ponce is on duty.