The admiral in charge of the Navy's fleet Tuesday denied Pentagon officials are sending a special operations "mothership" to the Middle East to give America's elite commandos a floating base in the volatile region.
Navy officials decided to overhaul the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport ship first launched in 1970, for countering enemy mines in the Middle East region, U.S. Fleet Forces Command chief Adm. John Harvey told reporters at a breakfast meeting in Washington. The Ponce modification was spawned by a request from U.S. Central Command officials for help combating efforts by foes to plant mines there, according to Navy documents.
One reason for the need to quickly get a counter-mine support ship into that area is growing tension with Tehran. The Iranian navy has in the past deployed mines in the Persian Gulf to hinder tanker traffic.
Several major media outlets reported over the weekend that the Navy was moving on an aggressive time line to modify the Ponce into a "mothership" from which American commandos would launch operations in the Middle East. Asked about those reports, Harvey said: "I think they put two and two together and got 22."
"It is not a special operations 'deathstar,' " Harvey said. The purpose is to "support mine [warfare] ships-not project SEALS," the Fleet Forces Command chief said, referring to America's elite Navy commandos. Harvey speculated that confusion about the Ponce's true mission came from a solicitation to industry requesting bids to do the conversation, saying Navy officials do intend to build in some "spaces ... to be usable by SOF."
That industry solicitation calls the envisioned ship an "afloat forward staging base" that will provide "mobility, support" to other ships. It also, as envisioned, will be capable of launching small naval craft and up to four MH-53 helicopters. Both Navy mine-hunting units and U.S. special operations units operate those Sikorsky-made helos; both kinds of units also employ small boats.
Navy officials want the modified Ponce ready for work in early June.
Harvey told reporters "there is no end date for Ponce," adding, in his mind, the ship's coming deployment to the Persian Gulf region is "indefinite." The industry solicitation mentions a one-year contract to modify and support the overhauled Ponce, with nearly four additional years of work also possible. The Navy is working on a new class of ships that officials eventually expect to replace the 1970s era vessel. Harvey said altering the Ponce is merely a "bridge" to those new ships.