Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) in Action
On 28 January 2012 The Washington Post, The New York Times and other outlets reported that the USS Ponce (an elderly amphibious ship that was slated for docommissioning in March 2012) would be sent to the Middle East in response to a request of US Central Command (CENTCOM) to serve as a floating base for special operations forces. The requirement for an Afloat Forward Staging Base in the CENTCOM area of operations was later said to have been a long-standing requirement. Published reports notwithstanding, the move was clearly unrelated to the 22 December 2011 market survey by the Military Sealift Command for an "Afloat Forward Staging Base" to be located in the Persian Gulf. This called for a ship with a beam of 150 feet, much larger than the Ponce, which had a beam of only 105 feet. It was later announced that Ponce would be redesignated from a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) to a Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) (AFSB[I]), further reinforcing this distinction.
A Navy spokesman declined to provide details on the plans or to say where in the Middle East the mothership would be deployed. The reports said documents indicated the vessel could be positioned in the Persian Gulf, where Iran had threatened to block the critical oil-shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. Other Navy officials told the Post that the Pentagon hoped to complete the conversion and send the ship to the region later during 2012. The newspaper report said the base was expected to accommodate smaller high-speed boats and helicopters often used by Navy SEALS for special operations.
Amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) had begun what was planned to be her final operational assignments on 11 October 2011 as the crew prepared to close out the ship's nearly 41-year career. During the 2 months of training and port calls, the "Proud Lion" provided some final training services to the Marine Corps, as well as visit Port Canaveral, Florida; the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the ship's namesake city of Ponce, Puerto Rico; before returning to Naval Station Norfolk to begin the long decommissioning process. Ponce was homeported at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, and was scheduled to be decommissioned 20 March 2012. USS Ponce was laid down in 1966, christened in 1970, and commissioned in 1971. Over her nearly 41-year history, the ship had made numerous visits to Puerto Rico, but only 3 to Ponce.
Ponce had previously demonstrated its capability to function as a staging platform in 2011. The joint operational capabilities of the United States armed forces were on display in the middle of "the Med" as amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15) acted as a staging platform for a detachment of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters from the US Air Force's 56th Rescue Squadron on 27 March 2011. Based out of RAF Lakenheath, England, the 2 helicopters and support personnel were forward deployed aboard the Ponce in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, a joint coalition effort to enforce the UN Resolution 1973 that established a no-fly zone over the country of Libya.
The saltwater environment required the 56th Rescue Squadron's maintainers to step up the frequency of aircraft wash downs. While aboard Ponce they had to clean the aircraft almost daily to keep the salt corrosion under control. On a land base they would not have had to wash the aircraft so often to keep them in a high state of readiness. Life at sea also presented the unique experience of a living on a deck that moved on its own due to high seas. The Airmen of the 56th Rescue Squadron experienced generally good weather while aboard Ponce.
In September 2001, USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) was called upon to act as the afloat forward staging base for Special Forces in Afghanistan, a mission that later expanded to include strike missions. During the early weeks of Operation Enduring Freedom, USS Kitty Hawk served as an Afloat Forward Staging Base for joint special operations forces, including those from the US Army and Air Force. These forces were utilized to conduct long range strike missions into Afghanistan. Then the Navy's oldest ship, the USS Kitty Hawk excelled at her new mission as an afloat forward staging base for special operations forces.
The trimaran High Speed Vessel (HSV) was used by the United States Navy and Marines during the Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as an afloat forward-staging base for Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams and Navy SEAL commandos.
In February 2004, USS Shreveport deployed to support Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. As an Afloat Forward Staging Base, Shreveport participated in intelligence gathering missions off the Horn of Africa, and led the defense of the Al Basra and Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminals off the coast of Iraq.
USS Comstock (LSD 45) assumed duties as Afloat Forward Staging Base in the Northern Arabian Gulf on 20 July 2004. In its first week on station, Comstock successfully demonstrated the ability to conduct multiple missions simultaneously in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Comstock's role as AFSB was to support the sailors providing security for Al Basrah Oil Terminal and Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal in the North Arabia Gulf. This support included 3 hot meals a day, to include fresh fruit and water delivered by small boats to the Navy Mobile Security Force Detachment 21.
In addition, Comstock also delivered news clippings, incoming emails, and collected and distributed outgoing emails written by service members on the oil terminals. Comstock's crew also conducted various maintenance repairs to the oil terminals in order to improve the safety and quality of life for sailors and employees alike.
Living on the oil platforms was an arduous assignment, with temperatures well over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. To provide rest and relaxation from the intense climate and demanding security mission, Comstock hosted several Mobile Security Force sailors daily to provide accommodations such as haircuts, shopping in the ship's store, opportunities to call home, and, most of all, an air-conditioned space to watch television and get a good night's sleep.
Comstock's role as AFSB also included the unconventional mission of delivering fuel to coalition ships operating in the North Arabian Gulf. Upon arrival on station, Comstock delivered fuel to 3 separate ships, marking the first time Comstock had acted as a delivery ship in an underway replenishment. The tools the ship had for amphibious operations fit well into other roles suited for these operations. Although Comstock was the only ship serving as the AFSB in her area of operations at the time, she was part of Task Force 58, a larger group of coalition ships conducting maritime security operations in the North Arabian Gulf, including the USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3) Expeditionary Strike Group.
Comstock assisted in the maritime security mission by querying and boarding vessels that wished to gain access either to the oil terminals or to Iraqi ports. Comstock's Visit, Board, Search and Seizure teams board these vessels and conduct security sweeps of their cargo and crew. In addition to these missions, Comstock conducted Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) operations with the embarked Assault Craft Unit 5 Detachment. Comstock also hosted Iraqi Coastal Defense Force officers each week, to teach them about U.S. Navy operations.
USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) deployed from the western Pacific in August 2004 and assumed duties as the Afloat Forward Staging Base in the Northern Arabian Gulf 15 September 2004, where she was contributing to Maritime Security Operations. Upon arrival, Harpers Ferry assumed security support operations by providing defense to Al Basrah Oil Terminal and Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal, at the time embarked with the sailors from Naval Mobile Security Force Detachment 21. Harpers Ferry was part of the USS Essex (LHD 2) Expeditionary Strike Group, which was activated on 10 September 2004.
One of the most important contributions to security and stability operations on and around the oil terminals was Harpers Ferry's Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team. The VBSS team conducted Maritime Interception Operations in the region and boards vessels requesting access to the oil terminals and Iraqi ports.
In addition to security and stability operations, Harpers Ferry was the combat logistics hub for the local forces both afloat and embarked. Harpers Ferry provided daily meals to those protecting the terminals; refueling and replenishing patrol craft; support to helicopter and amphibious craft operations; boarding teams; hotel services, such as laundry, barbershop, Internet access, overnight accommodations for transient personnel, etc.; and a full range of medical and dental services.
In February 2009, the USNS Lewis and Clark (T-AKE 1), crewed by civil service mariners, joined Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), greatly enhancing the group's capabilities to maintain forward presence while underway in support of counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The USNS Lewis and Clark was a flexible and adaptable platform and was perfectly suited for this mission as the ship possessed the necessary capabilities to launch and recover aircraft and temporarily house suspected pirates. It also provided an afloat staging base to support CTF-151's overall mission. CTF-151 was a multinational task force conducting counterpiracy operations to detect and deter piracy in and around the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Red Sea. CTF-151 was established to create a lawful maritime order and develop security in the maritime environment. In addition to providing a staging platform for the aircraft and related personnel assigned to CTF-151, the cargo and ammunition resupply ship also provides the task force a temporary holding facility for suspected pirates.
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