The Navy and Marines' sea basing dreams are quickly becoming a tangible reality, with two of their giant Mobile Landing Platforms already in the water. Now, the next variation of the sea basing concept has been floated, the Afloat Forward Staging Base USNS Lewis B. Puller, which has more in common with the world's first aircraft carriers than anything else.
The USNS Lewis B. Puller is a monster, measuring in at 764-feet long, 164-feet wide and displacing a whopping 78,000 tons. She is so big that I had to look for her twice on Google Earth as I first passed right over her. I was looking at the Destroyers, Landing Ship Docks and other large ships around her for scale. Literally, my mind was filtering her out due to her massive size!
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In many ways, the Lewis B. Puller is actually an aircraft carrier on the cheap, costing less than a Littoral Combat Ship. So you can see how the Afloat Forward Staging Base concept is very enticing for an increasingly cash-strapped US Navy.
Like the very first aircraft carriers, that were transport ships with flight decks built atop their hulls, the Lewis B. Puller is basically an Alaska Class oil tanker with a giant flight deck built up on pylons where the majority of her cargo hold would be. This leaves a large space open below the flight deck for storage, vehicles, modular compartments and additional infrastructure.
This giant flight deck can accommodate four the DoD's biggest choppers, the MH-53E Sea Dragon, at any given time. There is a massive hangar space built into her forward structure, just off her flight deck, as well. This hangar bay is so big that two MH-53Es can be worked on inside of it, along with storage for four Mk 105 minesweeping hydrofoil sleds, with plenty of room to spare.
The whole AFSB concept was built with both mine-sweeping and special operations primarily in mind, although the ship is capable of supporting a slew of other missions, including disaster relief and anti-piracy operations. For mine sweeping duties, she can launch, recover and refuel the big sled-towing Sea Dragons almost indefinitely while also acting as a tender for smaller mine hunting vessels. Currently, this exact mission is being carried out in the Persian Gulf by the tired Austin Class amphibious transport dock USS Ponce, along with some special operations and anti-surface duties.
When not being used for the critical mine sweeping role, the Lewis B. Puller can be used as the most capable special operations aviation platform imaginable, carrying a mixed load of MH-60, MH-6, and MH-47 helicopters, as well as drones, such as the MH-8 Fire Scout, or even light fixed wing varieties.
Floating special operations bases are nothing new, being commonplace during the Vietnam War and reborn in the 1980s during the 'tanker wars.' In addition to helicopters, special operations small and medium boats could tied up alongside, or even be craned aboard the Lewis B. Puller, so that both air and sea special operations activities could be executed simultaneously.
Being that this ship was based on a massive oil super-tanker, she can hold a lot of gas for helicopters and boats to use, with underway replenishment needed at a much lower frequency than past 'make-do' adapted forward operating platforms. The ship also features a large hardened ammunition magazine for stockpiling everything from Hellfire missiles to small arms ammunition. Additionally, the vessel will be capable of command and control functions for both minesweeping and special operations duties, with a state of the art communications system being installed.
Finally, the Lewis B. Puller will also have an accompanying 'accommodation barge' that can hold almost 300 special forces operators, aviation related crews or other specialized personnel. These barges can be tailored extensively depending on the mission demands. This is in addition to the ship's already generous berthing and living areas.
The Lewis B. Puller under construction this July, before her forward hangar was fitted. Picture via W. MICHAEL YOUNG/Flickr
The design was built for constant improvements to be easily adapted, and although it is not planned, the F-35B may one day operate from the AFSBs, although deck heating is an issue, as it is with all US Navy ships in inventory that are planned to accept the F-35B. Still, under certain circumstances, ships like this one could be huge force multipliers for the F-35B, especially when it comes to increasing the jet's range and area of influence.
The Afloat Forward Staging Bases, two of which are currently on order, are built by in San Diego by General Dynamics' NASSCO shipyard. Once the Lewis B. Puller becomes fully operational, which could come as early as 2015, she will forward deploy to the Persian Gulf and takeover for the USS Ponce as America's floating multi-mission sea base in the region.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com