The public documentation for this contract suggests that this floating base will become a kind of SOF “mother ship” used for the forward basing of fast boats and helicopters that could rapidly deploy SEALS, Rangers, and other commandos throughout the Middle Eastern littoral.
Last week, the Military Sealift Command posted a bid for a contract to convert the Ponce, a well-services amphibious transport docking ship, into a floating sea base to be delivered to the Persian Gulf. The requirements specify a capacity to support small aircraft and inflatable boats that can carry a dozen or more commandos ashore and then deflate into portable bags.
The use of so-called “mother ships” has been perfected by sea pirates as a particularly effective means of conducting long-distance attacks. These vessels, typically seized commercial trawlers, can operate at a much longer distance and for a much longer duration than the traditional Somali pirate skiff. In fact, the pirates use their skiffs for rapid attacks and then return to the more secure “mother ships.” SOF units could do the same from their new base.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Ponte is just a stop gap for the dedicated AFSBs the Pentagon recently announced it would start building in 2013. These AFSBs could deploy throughout the world, including in the contested waters found in several key Pacific Ocean regions near the Asian mainland.
One obvious use for the first CENTCOM floating base would be for rescuing hostages held at sea, in Somalia, Iran, or other Middle Eastern countries. SOF units could also rapidly counter any sea mines laid by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz or intercept suspicious cargo – like a possible weapon of mass destruction – sailing there. One would suppose the commandoes supported by the base could also launch covert operations to recover a lost drone or destroy a nuclear facility in Iran, kill terrorists in the remote locations of Yemen and Somalia, or rescue a friendly head-of-state of a Gulf Cooperation Council country, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The United States already has the most powerful naval forces in the CENTCOM region. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain. The fleet normally has a Carrier Strike Group, an Amphibious Ready Group or an Expeditionary Strike Group, and other ships and aircraft with approximately 25,000 military personnel serving afloat and 3,000 support personnel ashore in Bahrain.
The fleet also supports security missions in regions outside the Persian Gulf. These areas include the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and parts of the Indian Ocean such as the coast off East Africa as far south as Kenya. Twenty countries fall within the Fifth Fleet’s area of responsibility.
Still, a floating forward base could be more useful in some situations than regular U.S. Navy ships that are constantly on the move to, from, and within the CENTCOM area. In addition, being at sea rather than at land, the Pentagon doesn’t need to ask a host government to use the base to support a controversial mission.
The most likely function of the floating CENTCOM base would be to provide essential support for U.S. military operations designed to protect freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, especially for the vital oil deliveries that proceed through the 29-mile Strait of Hormuz near the Gulf’s entrance. In any major military conflict involving Iran, an obvious Iranian move would be to threaten to, or actually attack, the ships sailing in the Gulf or the vital offshore energy platforms of GCC members.
Of course, the Special Operations Forces can only partially compensate for the reduction in U.S. conventional forces. Although the Obama administration has soured on counterinsurgency operations, the Special Forces learned many useful skills and developed numerous important capabilities fighting Afghan and Iraqi guerrillas.
Furthermore, the SOF base could have only a marginal impact on regional piracy. Originally concentrated in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates have extended their operations in recent year to other bodies of waters. Their raids now extend deep into the Indian Ocean, both eastward and southward, and threaten a maritime expanse estimated at some 2.5 million square miles.
And even in their forte mission of hostage rescue, the Special Operations Forces aren’t perfect. In 2010, they reportedly killed British hostage Linda Norgrove during a botched rescue attempt in Afghanistan.
Solving the wars in Afghanistan or Somalia requires sustained joint force missions and whole-of-government operations. Fortunately, the Pentagon’s new Defense Strategic Guidance makes clear that the Obama team understands that many of the security challenges the United States will confront in Asia will demand sustained efforts rather than a few lightening in-and-out special missions.