The USS Ponce (AFSB-1) (formally designated as LPD-15) was built as an amphibious transport dock vessel which combines assets of a troop ship, aircraft carrier, hospital ship and landing craft all in one complete multi-faceted package. This multi-mission ship is not the first of its type - earlier versions like the Thomaston (LSD-28) landing ship dock class vessels were commissioned in 1954 and were handed the same mission as the Ponce but the LSD's were smaller in dimensions and thusly carried fewer troops, helicopters and amphibious tractors. The USS Ponce (LPD-15) was commissioned as an amphibious warfare ship for expeditionary warfare and humanitarian missions, becoming the last of the Austin-class of surface ships. Constructed by the Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company of Seattle, Washington, the USS Ponce was launched in May of 1970 and officially commissioned by ceremony on July 10th, 1971.
The USS Ponce's missions have been largely routine and she has already reached the end of her service life in early 2012 after some 31 years of active service. Once in port at the Naval Station in Norfolk, Virginia, she was formally relieved of all duties and the decommissioning process was scheduled to begin sometime in November of 2012 - ultimately to set up the ship for scrapping.
In her prime, the vessel could launch combat ready troops with an air envelopment simultaneously.
USS Ponce was assigned to her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia and patrolled the Caribbean and Atlantic waters as her major mission for a decade. In 1982 she "showed the flag" at Portsmouth, England and, in 1984 while on station near Morehead City, North Carolina, Ponce lost her well deck stern gate requiring her to steam for repairs at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
In early August of 1990, the Navy sent a squadron of ships on Operation Sharp Edge that included the USS Ponce, a mission intended to remove US citizens caught in Liberia's civil war. Helicopters aboard Ponce air-lifted a Marine Corps reinforced rifle company into the US embassy compound in Monrovia to aid in the security of the embassy. Ponce was then relieved of her mission commitment and returned to Norfolk for repairs. She then headed out to continue her Atlantic patrols.
In early 1992, USS Ponce entered the shipyard in Norfolk for a four-month maintenance cycle. In June she was assigned to make a training cruise with navy midshipmen from the Naval Academy off the Virginia Capes and the schooling cruse earned her the "Surface Warrior of the Week" award. In September, Hurricane Andrew barreled onto the shores of the United States prompting the USN to send the Ponce off the coast of Miami to aid in relief efforts. She cared for injured citizens as well as relief workers with her full hospital facilities while her helicopters flew hundreds of missions to help bring food and water to cut-off areas inland. Rescued citizens were also brought onboard for relief. In October, the Ponce joined the US Coast Guard in operations in the Caribbean to find and halt drug operations that utilized fast boats and submarines.
In March of 1993, Ponce sailed on a six-month deployment with the USS Saipan, a Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship, and the USS Pensacola (LSD-38), an Anchorage-class dock landing ship, to the Mediterranean Sea. The three ships were needed to carry the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit - one of seven expeditionary units in the United States Marine Corps (the Marine Expeditionary Unit is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force with troop strength of about 2,200 personnel). The force was sent to support operations with Greek naval units undergoing amphibious landing exercises in the region.
Ordered back to Norfolk, the Ponce remained in local waters except for a trip to the Mediterranean Sea where she stood for the following decade. In January of 2003, USS Ponce was part of a fleet that had received orders to depart and embark Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for the ultimate invasion of Iraq. Ponce remained in Iraqi waters during operations and was assigned to be the flagship of the Commander of Mine Countermeasure Squadron Three, Task Group 55.4. The now "Mother Ship" Ponce of the Task Group included a US Navy special SEAL clearance team, two naval ordnance disposal (EOD) units, a detachment of Sikorsky MH-53E "Sea Dragon" navy helicopters as well as United Kingdom and Australian military teams. Ponce and her Task Group were ordered to eliminate naval mines in the Khawr Abd Allah River and the port of Umm Qasr. Large supply ships could not deliver humanitarian aid to the recently liberated Iraqis so minesweeping operations directed from Ponce took many weeks to open up safe passage. The MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters towed magnetic minesweeping sleds and specially trained porpoise's were flown in to find naval mines and attach munitions to them for destruction. By March, a 200-yard wide channel was declared safe for ships. Soon the British RFA Sir Galahad (L3005) logistics cargo ship docked at Umm Qasr Port and offloaded hundreds of tons of food and water. Ponce and the Task Force continued for weeks to widen the channel for international shipping.
In March of 2005, Ponce was ordered to depart Norfolk for a joint deployment with the USS Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) for six months. Ponce then spent three months in the Persian Gulf supporting naval forces in the Global War on Terrorism. Ponce departed the Gulf in August for the Gulf of Aqaba in response to the rocket attacks on the 41,000-ton USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) and USS Ashland (LSD-48), a Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship. Ponce added more troop capacity to backload Marines from Jordan that participated in Operation Infinite Moonlight. Ponce then returned to Norfolk in September of 2011.
On October 26th, 2011, Ponce began a three-week tour which would take her to Port Canaveral, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico - which was incidentally her namesake - where she hosted thousands of visitors touring the ship. Leaving Puerto Rico, Ponce was ordered to return to Norfolk in December of 2011 to begin the process of decommissioning. The crew was reassigned and orders were received to tow Ponce to the mothball fleet at the port of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
US Central Command requested a bid to retrofit the USS Ponce as a permanent "mother ship" staging base for commandos. On January 24th, 2012, Military Sealift Command posted the bid request for refitting the vessel which was given the new designation of USS Ponce AFSB (I)15. The new designation covered her as an "Afloat Forward Staging Base", "I" for "interim". The bid request was for overseas military operations in the Middle East. The Navy is currently taking bids to convert the 41-year old Ponce into such a floating forward base to be used for special operations and counter-mining missions in dangerous waters.
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.